When I was a kid, I loved to make a game out of avoiding chores I didn’t want to do. If I avoided the job I didn’t like, I won. If I couldn’t avoid taking out the garbage, I’d rush the trash down to the end of the driveway as quickly as possible, so I could get to something I liked better. But I wasn’t winning. Not really. My win meant someone else I loved lost. That didn’t feel good.
As I grew up, and could no longer avoid unpleasant jobs, I decided I needed a better approach. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life bitching about the things that I couldn’t fix or change. I wanted to make peace with life as it was.
Awareness and curiosity were my best tools to get started. The next time I found myself grumbling as I pushed the vacuum over the uneven carpets, I stopped to see what was really going on in my energy. What I discovered surprised me. The problem wasn’t about vacumming at all, it was about half of my energy winging off to the book I would rather be reading, while the other half pushed the vacuum. The split in attention did something to me. It disrupted my integrity. Something that was whole was no longer whole, and I lost something in that.
So my job then, was to stay with what I was doing, even if I didn’t want to be there. My book would still be waiting for me when the job was done.
At one of the first meditation retreats I went to, I was given the opportunity to put this into practice in a powerful way. For my daily work meditation I was assigned the task of scrubbing toilets. Now, I’d gone into the retreat thinking that this would be a time of great silence and spiritual growth. I pictured myself sitting joyfully on the meditation cushion washed in bliss, feeling uplifted and at peace. What I got was toilets. If I’d arrived there earlier, I could have chosen a task a bit more pleasant, but I was late to the party and didn’t know the tricks. Yet the tricks were just like the childhood tricks that left me feeling empty.
I was told to treat work meditation like any other meditation – pay attention with all the senses, stay right there, and when thoughts wander to other things, bring them back gently again and again to the present moment. Kindly. Patiently.
So that’s what I did. I did my best to focus on the task itself. I paid attention to the details: the curve of the bowl, the scent of the cleaner, the cool feel of porcelain, the light and shadow in the room. At first my mind really wanted to think, “But people did stuff in here! Strangers!” But I reined it in and remembered that they were just people, and that I was wearing rubber gloves.
On that day, I made the choice to simply be present and see what happened.
As I kept bringing my attention back to the job at hand, it stopped being about liking or disliking, it even stopped being about toilets. Instead, it started being about a quiet joy.
The care and attention I was bringing to the job opened up something lovely in me. Without a split attention, I was whole. My happiness was not to be found in finding ways to outsmart life and avoid the unpleasant. It was to be found in doing what life asked of me right then and right there.
That was 20 years ago. What I learned has served me well. When my husband was in surgery after a tumble, I chose to simply be present in the waiting room – not to divide my attention, but to stay right there with the uncertainty, with the sounds of activity, with the passing of time. That night, when I called to update our daughter, Lynne, she asked me how I could sound so happy. I wasn’t happy that this had happened to Tom and the family, but by the time I’d called her, I’d already spent hours choosing to be contented, bringing my attention gently back, time after time, and delighting in the sights, sounds, feelings of the moment. Of course I sounded happy.
David Foster Wallace put it well in a commencement address. “… if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow … hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
On fire with the same force that made the stars. I love that.
I may not be able to avoid the unpleasant – sometimes I have to put on rubber gloves – but by choosing to take care of each task wholeheartedly, I choose joy.
First published March 2016 in my free monthly email newsletter, Starry Night. Sign up here.
Photo of rubber gloves by alamodestuff