It’s April; the month for spring- cleaning. Like so many people, cleaning isn’t high on my list of favored tasks to indulge in; it’s especially low on the list in the springtime. Like other sun- loving, Vitamin D deprived folks, I’d rather be in my garden among the cherry blossoms, reading a magazine, feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays.
Even when I do get the chance to read a magazine in the backyard, I’ll admit to being distracted somewhat – by the stray piece of litter in the grass that needs picking up, by the pigeons cooing overhead, by the sound of a phone ringing. By my own admission, I’m not an especially mindful person. Maintaining focus on just one task can be a challenge; there are so many stimuli around me that are more seductive than whatever I should really be doing on a Saturday morning: namely, cleaning.
Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote that he washes the dishes with as much care and focus as he would give if he were bathing the newborn Buddha. “If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, then I will be incapable of drinking the tea joyfully.” This quote hits home to me because I am often guilty of both of these described incapabilities.
I don’t have ADHD, but I do get pulled away from one thing by the allure of another. I know I’m not alone in this; so many are afflicted with this habit. And, in this age of near constant digital stimulation, maintaining focus on less exciting tasks such as cleaning can be even more difficult to achieve.
Yet, because I know the value of presence, I’m working on it. Life is surely all about being there. What good am I, to myself or to anyone, if my body is present but my head is elsewhere? Where is the joy in that cup of tea if I am thinking about my long to-do list instead of really tasting the tea?
To my surprise, recently I discovered that I am, in fact, capable of being mindful and, not only that, but I can actually enjoy cleaning, too. The day I discovered I could be mindful, it started like this:
I turned the ringer on my iPhone to silent and placed it on my bedside table, screen down. Then, closing my laptop lid and putting it on the desk, I made a silent pact with myself that I wouldn’t touch my iPhone or my laptop for the next hour. Instead, I would focus on cleaning.
This decision went against my usual grain; I seem to have my phone permanently in my palm and I’m perpetually connected. I like information, I like connecting with people. Living alone, being a writer, social media can be compelling but I am well aware of its limitations, particularly in inhibiting my focus and attention to what needs tending to.
In my bedroom, where I began, there were so many temptations to lure me away from cleaning. I could grab a cat toy from the bedside table and play with my adorable kitten who was stretched out on the bed making eyes at me. I could pick up the novel that was lying on the bed and start reading it. But I decided to clean mindfully instead. With attention, I turned my energy towards tidying, sweeping, dusting, clearing things away and putting things back in their right places.
Shift Your Mindset
Mindset has had a part to play when it comes to my shifting attitude towards cleaning. I always used to view housework as onerous, but when I shifted my mindset and started to see a clean apartment as a gift to myself and to the friends and family who come to visit (I love hosting dinner parties), I had more motivation. With the idea in my mind that the task of cleaning is worthwhile, there was less to dread.
I have a lot of energy generally, so I decided to capitalize on my high energy levels by playing some upbeat background music while I worked my way through the apartment. And when I felt my mind start to wander, thinking about doing something more interesting, something which wasn’t the task at hand, I gently redirected myself back to the less exciting doing of cleaning with a reminder: “Focus on what you are doing right now: you’re cleaning. Be in this.”
I’m a third grade teacher, so I know how to make everyday tasks seem more fun: I try to look at the cleaning task before me from a childlike lens of interest and excitement, almost as though I’m doing it for the first time. I might sing or bop around the room to the rhythm of a favorite pop song (I have a cleaning playlist…) and watch the bubbles float up from the sink as I scrub a loaf pan clean. I try to imagine that I’m doing the tasks for the first time, and it helps to make them a little more interesting.
Admittedly, I’m still a little surprised when I find myself cleaning the wooden floors with energy and determination or dusting my mantelpiece with a newfound purpose. Mindfulness is really about bringing focus and presence to the moment and I’ve learned that cleaning is a good way for me to practice this skill, a skill I need in life, beyond my apartment.
Some rooms are easier than others. Frankly, there are always so many other things I want to do instead of clean my bathroom or my kitchen. “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” Simone de Beauvoir wrote, and she wasn’t far wrong, in my opinion.
So my Saturday cleaning ritual has become an exercise in acceptance. Instead of procrastinating the inevitable, the notion of just doing something that has to get done, even when it’s not the most enjoyable, because it’s necessary, is one that I can carry with me outside of my apartment. Taxes, appointments, so much minutiae which is not very enticing or entirely palatable but which has to be done, nonetheless. This is the up and down of life.
Pay Attention To The Task At Hand
When I actually give my full attention to what I’m doing, I can immerse myself fully in it, instead of avoiding it entirely by leaving tasks unfinished or by starting other tasks. As I clean, clear, sort, vacuum, sweep, dust, etc…I remind myself to pay attention to everything in that moment. I try consciously to use my senses to notice things- I become hyper aware of every mark or scratch on the furniture, of every crease on the fabric as I iron, of every crumb on the floor as I sweep. This noticing is a kind of game, but it helps me to feel present.
As I work my through my apartment, broom, dust rag or vacuum in my hand, something happens (something in addition to my apartment becoming tidier): Having actually succeeded at bringing my sustained focus to a task which wasn’t so thrilling means that I inevitably feel more content than when I began. It’s satisfying, that feeling of progressing systematically through the task, room my room, achieving my end goal: a clean, neat apartment. I feel more peaceful, like I’ve done something meaningful.
See The Spiritual
Somehow, there is a kind of spirituality even in the most mundane of tasks. “Your own attention is what spiritualizes things. Attention to the meal you cook, the clothes you wash. Attention is love. And that’s transformative,” writes Karen Maezen Miller in her book “Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.”
There is definitely some kind of transformation that happens when I apply my focus and attention to cleaning, to the exclusion of all other things, and I’m not talking about the fact that the plates have all been put back in the cupboard. Cleaning shows that I care, that I love my surroundings enough to tend to them, to right the messes and to fix everything up. From a spiritual lens, something as small as fluffing the pillows can become an act of self- care and kindness.
Be An Alchemist
I like to think of myself as a kind of magician when I clean; I think it’s the elementary school teacher in me. I’m learning to see cleaning as a kind of alchemy, worth doing because I can make something happen. I can make the stains on the counter disappear with just my rag and some cleaning solution.
Life is subject to randomness and loss, and hard work and care doesn’t always glean the result I hope for. But if I take a rag to the dusty table, I get a tangible cause and effect result – I can watch the dust disappear, I can sweep the crumbs away.
In a crazy world, with many things outside of my own control, when I clean, I can change something small; I can do something that gets a visible result. And in the process, I can change, not just my surroundings, but myself too.