Thursday, May 21, 2020

Cleaning as meditation

I'm not talking about doing the dishes, or vacuuming, or making the bed -- those cleaning chores we do again and again.  That kind of cleaning is important, but it's not the kind that I need to think hard about.  When I do those chores, I know the goal (get the food off the plates, get the dog hair off the floor), and I know the path from here to there, and I can make satisfying progress without having to make decisions about every spoon I touch or every chair leg I maneuver around.

No, when I talk about cleaning as meditation, I'm thinking about my desk, my dresser, the floor of a closet.  I'm thinking about the places that accumulate many odds and ends, to the point of making the space unusable, or of making it too easy to lose important stuff amid the clutter, or of merely turning dusting the surface into a time-consuming process that involves moving things around like they're pieces in the 15-puzzle.   

My desk, with a variety of stuff on and around it.
My desk, with a variety of stuff on and around it

I'm not sure why, but about two years ago I started thinking about cleaning up these spaces as a form of meditation.  It was too easy to just push things around, to move things from a heap lying over here to a slightly different heap lying over there.  I think a big part of the problem I had with cleaning cluttered surfaces is that I was thinking of the project as, "I have to clean off my dresser" instead of as "I want to deal with each of these things on my dresser".  The change in focus is subtle, but it's significant. 

One of the changes that cleaning-as-mediation brings is that it's just a more relaxed and gratifying experience.  There's a real difference between the kind of cleaning where I'm trying to get from "this looks horrible" to "this job is finished" (the pre-mindfulness mode) and the kind of cleaning where I'm in the "let me deal with each object directly" mode.  This next sentence is a bit of an exaggeration, but I can't figure out a subtler way of saying it:  the former method feels like I'm making haste to correct mistakes that I've allowed to overwhelm the space, and the world won't be right until I've corrected all those wrongs.  But the meditation mode allows me to see each of the objects in the space as having a value, a purpose (even if the value is zero); my job is to recognize each object for what it is and restore it to the place it can best serve that purpose. 

In the former mode, I might (say) look at a shelf full of stuff -- a rag stuck full of pins, a candle and some matches, a bunch of pencils, some coins, a bottle of pills, etc, -- and try to think about which of these things I can put away.  I might put away things that have obvious nearby homes (the pencils go in the pencil drawer, obvi), and then create a basket of things to go to another room (the coins), and push around the stuff that I can't easily deal with (the pins are in the rag because my pin cushion is downstairs for a mask-sewing project, but I needed some pins up here for something else and I might need them again because you never know when you're going to need pins!).  And I'd keep dealing with things until the space is clean enough for me to feel like it's sufficiently organized/useable/dustable.  It's not a terrible system; that system carried me through a half a century of cleaning spaces, and I've certainly lived a generally happy life.

In the mediation/mindfulness mode of cleaning, I deliberately slow down, and content myself to focus on one piece at a time.  This pile of coins.  Then, this scrap of paper.  Then, this rag full of pins.  For each thing, I ask myself something along the lines of when would I use this?  where would I look for it?  What would trigger me wanting to use this?  And then I try to put the object where it will serve me best.  Maybe the scrap of paper has a phone number of someone I should call during regular business hours; I get my planner, write the task and phone number there, and then recycle the paper.  done.  Maybe those pins in the rag, they really need to go back in the pin cushion, which needs to come upstairs because I'm not going to be sewing again for a few days.   done.  Maybe I left these allergy pills out because the pollen might come back; but if it does, I can pull the allergy pills back out of the closet, which is where I'll know to look for them anyway, so I can put them back now.  done.  Maybe, after thinking hard about this decorative trinket and why the heck I keep  it around, I realize that it has really served out its purpose, and I don't really want to deal with it anymore, so I'll put it in the donate box.  done.  This might take a bit longer than the former way of cleaning . . .  but it might not.  It definitely feels more satisfying.

I'm not sure what got me started thinking this way about cleaning up my spaces.  Maybe it was that I started reading up on meditation and mindfulness, and then practicing a daily (ish) 10-minute meditation.  This approach does seem like a natural outgrowth of practicing mindful listening, or mindful breathing, or mindful gratitude.   Maybe I was influenced by Kon Mari's practice of holding each object and thanking it (I'm not into animism, but I do appreciate the focus that such a method brings to bear).  

I do like that this approach tends to leave me feeling grateful for the things I have (and even more likely to get rid of things that I realize I don't actually want anymore).   Is this a thing that other people do?  I haven't seen anything like this in the blogs and books I read, but it seems like there is probably some guru of meditative cleaning somewhere out there.  If that guru wants to count me as a disciple, I guess I'm in.

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