Ordinary Objects of Meditation (written 2002)
A few weeks ago we made the decision to give up the housekeeping service we had begun the first time I was so sick with Crohn’s. That was nearly 5 years ago now. So, it has been sometime since I took on the daily tasks of household cleaning, tasks I have never much liked. And I find there is something interesting that has changed.
Since I began mindfulness practice and formal meditation, I have found that cooking and baking are more enjoyable to me than ever. These have always been pleasant duties for me, but when I use the process as a meditation, this is enhanced. So the smells of the ingredients, the sounds of chopping, the repetitive motions of stirring, the textures of vegetables or flour in my hands…all are entered into as objects of meditation in the way that I focus on my breath when I sit. To the point that when a guest recently asked whether she could help with preparation, I said “no thanks, I enjoy it” and found myself meaning “I need this.” The household is busy with small children and guests, and my head is foggy with not-enough-sleep. I need this refuge. When it is oh-so-difficult to find the time to sit for 20 or 40 minutes, it is always possible to find this refuge in preparing meals.
But here comes a more recent surprise.
While cooking and baking have always been pleasures, I have never liked the routines of cleaning…vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing toilets, washing floors. But having accumulated more experience in my practice, these days I work to undertake such household chores mindfully, and find them transformed. The repetitive motions, the sounds, the scents of cleaners, the glint of light on wood or porcelain, all make for meditative objects. So that, like cooking, these menial tasks are elevated to the sacred. For the sacred is this moment.
During the years that we had housekeepers, I would often notice the uncomfortable itch of irritation about small things: the basket not put back on the floor, the books shuffled into a single pile, items moved about on the kitchen counters. At the time I learned something about myself, and the way my mind reacted with aversion to these trivial things. But now as I take the tasks on again myself, and reflect, I see something more about activity as a human being. When we do something “simple” day after day, and maybe something we don't enjoy or that we view as a somewhat unpleasant necessity we lose immediacy. We “go through the motions”, while our minds are miles away. And so we all lose the beauty and intensity of this moment, every day. Thus it is possible to pass through a traffic light and then wonder if it was green. To go to the basement for an item and forget what was needed. To scrub a floor and forget to complete the task by replacing items moved during the process. This is the stuff of life and this is what we discount, choosing instead to live in anticipation, in planning, in judging.
I’ve learned a small but invaluable lesson as I go back to cleaning my own toilets and scrubbing my own floors. Breathe, smile and be here. Slow down to just this, and this and this. Dwell in this moment. It is not simply about being with the unpleasant, knowing it will pass, but that being here may change the very nature of the experience.