I think Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid had it right. “Wax on, wax off.” (Not a euphemism)
I’m always up for the challenge of learning life lessons while doing something ordinary say, mopping the building hallway. Now don’t think that this is a task that I have managed to like. On the contrary. It is my least favorite chore and I always go over these imagined scenarios in my mind where, not in so many words, I tell my landlord to go to hell. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any cause to complain other than the fact that my landlord can speak to me rather condescendingly when accepting my monthly rent check. If I knew him well enough I’d probably say that he was even a nice guy. Maybe. But I don’t know him from a hole in the wall and some locals say that I’m probably better off. It’s just that I’ve always had a say when it comes to things. Even if my mouth does have a tendency to run without too much thought…which inevitably gets me in all sorts of trouble. But I digress…
I often begin at the top. A woman who used to work for a cleaning company had once given me this helpful tip. When it comes to cleaning, it is the best thing to do because wayward dust (or in this case, dog hair) has a tendency to float down when settling. Sounds simple enough, right? So I start at the top and sweep and mop thinking all sorts of random things. My primary goal is to get my mind focused on something else. There’s a hidden craft to sweeping as well. A lock that I have yet to fully unfasten. It seems that the simple motion of moving that broom back and forth can get you in a kind of zen-like state. It is the awareness behind it, the timeliness of it, the care and focus on the motion that can get you to exist in a relaxed state. I’m not kidding, it’s almost hypnotic. Then, there’s mopping and vacuuming which (if not too distracted with the humming noise of the vacuum cleaner) can also have the same effect. I think Oprah once said about meditation that the experience is to “be in the moment”, to exist in the action with all of your senses piqued at the same time. I like that idea. I once wrote about walking the dogs as having a similar vibe to it. Well, it does. If you don’t believe me, do this quick little exercise:
- Sit down someplace quiet
- Listen to your breathing and your heartbeat
- Focus on the act of breathing
- Listen to the world around you and your thoughts racing
- Take deep, slow breaths until the thoughts start to settle
- Repeat over and over until you cannot distinguish between the breathing and the thought
I think the last step is the hardest because we don’t know what it is like to exist devoid of our own thoughts. We are taught to trust our thoughts and our feelings. Zen asks you to become one with both until neither one are distinguishable from the other. It is one motion; sweep left. One idea; sweep right. I am sweeping; sweep left. I am thinking; sweep right. It’s definitely not as easy as it sounds and I have yet to learn to quiet my thoughts because just as I’m beginning to get to that goal, I have another thought. Then another and another. It is very hard for writers to take themselves away from observation, but I’m still trying.
So after sweeping and mopping, I began to vacuum then look at the hallway as a whole. The true gift is taking each task separately so that it isn’t so daunting. I’ll just sweep this little step here. Then, I go to the next step and get it clean. I repeat this concept until the whole hallway is completely done. I know, it sounds obvious, but it was helpful for me to see things from this perspective because I am a product of city life. City life is predicated on the art of getting things done fast. No sooner a task is completed, a new one arises. A life like this can cause instant burnout so it’s important to keep Zen-like principles when living in the big city. It’ll save you ten miles of misery.