I was dusting the bookshelves in the yoga studio, when a book slipped from its resting place and fell at my feet. When something like that happens, I always take the book down, open to a random page, then read the paragraph in the middle to bottom of the right page. Call it a superstition or idiosyncratic quirk, but I’ve always felt this was the Big G sending me a message.
On this day, it was a book by meditation master Jack Kornfield. What I read was this:
“What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy.”
The book – and the quote – made me smile, remembering a day-long silent retreat I once participated in at a monastery. The monks led us through plenty of seated and walking meditation, but I was also introduced to the idea of samu, a spiritual practice from Zen Buddhism where devoted attention is given to menial tasks. As part of the practice, we were assigned tasks like carrying firewood, weeding the communal garden, or sweeping floors. We were directed to do so with our head and heart as well as our hands. Samu is a practice that benefits the community – what the yogis call seva, or service – by respecting and bettering the scared space.
And while the practice is traditionally about working with a peaceful and generous heart, it is of immense benefit to the individual as well. By immersing ourselves in each moment of our lives, we embody our lives more fully. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to wash dishes with the same care “as we would wash the Baby Jesus.” To wash dishes mindfully means to do so with intention and focus, contemplating the sensory experiences of the act. In this way, we notice the warmth of the water, the texture of dishes, and the smell of the soap.
Researchers at Florida State University asked students to explore the power of intention and attention while washing dishes. They encouraged half of the students to focus mindfully on the sensory part of the experience. The other half read a paragraph about the importance of finishing the job. Afterwards, students that practiced “mindful dishwashing” reported a decrease in anxiety by 27 percent and an increase in creativity by 25 percent. The control group didn’t benefit at all.
So when the monks explained samu, it resonated deeply. Less worry and more inspiration sounded good to me. I could already feel that warm, soapy water, could imagine the deep spiritual connection I would feel to the food and the cooks that had prepared the meal as I washed up. I imagined working alongside some other equally enlightened being. Our eyes would meet and we would share a knowing smile as I handed over a clean dish to be dried. I was going to be the most mindful dishwasher this monastery had ever seen. I suspected I might even be called up to speak directly with the head monk, once he noticed my humble devotion.
And then the work assignments were handed out and I got…folding laundry. Hell. No. I don’t mind vacuuming or cleaning out the fridge or even scrubbing toilets. But if there is a chore I absolutely despise, it’s folding laundry. Fitted sheets are the devil’s work. Laundry is boring and seemingly never done. I swear to you that I can wash, dry, and fold three loads of laundry – requiring no fewer than seven hundred trips up and down the stairs to the laundry room in our basement – and there will still be dirty clothes waiting for me in the hamper. I was totally prepared to be mindfully at peace washing dishes. But laundry? I groaned inwardly.
But that’s the practice, isn’t it? Samu brings what we learn on the meditation cushion, yoga mat, or church pew into our lives. When we do one thing but think about something else, we divide our effort and create suffering. I like to say that now stands for never overwhelmed. But being awake to the now takes effort and commitment.
So I folded laundry and tried to do so with attention, curiosity, and detachment. I hung the wet towels on the line, folded the dry ones neatly. I smelled the clean towels, felt the roughness of muslin blankets, lined the edges of the dishtowels perfectly, enjoyed the simplicity of stacking smaller items on top of larger ones. I remembered that today isn’t always about preparing for tomorrow, but about finding the beauty and peace in the now.
Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of that Jack Kornfield book? It’s called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path.