Have you ever wondered how much mental activity is caught up just in anticipating things? How we can’t wait for that wonderful weekend away, dreamily imagining all its delights, or we’re dreading a crucial job interview we just know we’re going to mess up somehow. We cling onto the idea of what we perceive will be enjoyable or pleasant and we do our best to push away the idea of anything we identify as being unwelcome or disagreeable in some way.
A simple example for me of an unpleasant way to spend time would be cleaning the oven. It’s such a big, messy job involving either slogging away with elbow grease or less arduously with nasty, poisonous chemicals. The whole task grows into this big, black, horrible monster (a bit like my actual oven in fact) and I feel resentful of my husband who wouldn’t see that job as important or one which he should undertake (another blog post perhaps needed on that sub-topic of gender roles…).
On the other hand, I remember reading Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are on the actual joys of cleaning the stove, when you make a mindfulness practice out of it (yes, really!). His description of it is quite lovely. I’ve quoted most of it because I enjoy his telling of it.
“Because I don’t do it (cleaning the stove) regularly, it is quite a challenge by the time I get around to it, and there are lots of levels of clean to aim for. I play with getting the stove to look as if it were brand new by the time I’m finished.
I use a scrubber which is abrasive enough to get the caked food off if I rub hard enough with baking soda, but not so abrasive that I scratch the finish. I take off the burner elements and the pans underneath, even the knobs, and soak them in the sink, to be tackled at the end. Then I scrub every square inch of stove surface, favouring a circular motion at times, at others, a back and forth… I get into the round and round or the back and forth, feeling the motion in my whole body, no longer trying to clean the stove so it will look nice, only moving, moving, watching, watching as things change slowly before my eyes. At the end, I wipe the surfaces carefully with a damp sponge.
Music adds to the experience at times. Other times, I prefer silence for my work. One Saturday morning, a tape by Bobby McFerrin was playing in the cassette player when the occasion arose to clean the stove. So cleaning became dancing, the incantations, sounds, and rhythms and the movements of my body merging, blending together, sounds unfolding with motion, sensations in my arm aplenty, modulations in finger pressure on the scrubber as required, caked remains of former cookings slowly changing form and disappearing, all rising and falling in awareness with the music. One big dance of presence, a celebration of now. And, at the end, a clean stove. “
Now that really is transforming an apparently negative and distasteful chore into a pleasant, fulfilling experience! I haven’t tried it yet myself, perhaps I will this weekend.
However, maybe it’s usually, or even always, a little more subtle and nuanced than this mindfulness trick of turning an unpleasant task into a pleasant one. If we really break any experience down into its moment by moment unfolding, we might see that there’s a whole mix of feelings and reactions succeeding one after another or even going on at the same time. We can categorise such feelings as being either, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. But we tend not to see this, we’re just not aware of the subtle interplay, we’re much more black and white than that. At this point you might be thinking, does this really matter. But it can mean we suffer more than we need to, either from feeling let down by our expectation that something is going to be just wonderful, say a meal at a highly rated, expensive restaurant that turns out to be rather mediocre, or by bracing ourselves against and resisting what we imagine will be an unpleasant experience, like that job interview.
Rob Burbea, in his book Seeing that Frees calls this the “dot to dot” way of relating to reality as in the children’s dot-to-dot drawing books. This is what our minds do, they join the dots of momentary experience and create a very solid picture of how things are, either as we’re experiencing them or as we’re thinking about how they will be in the future. As our mindfulness practice develops the choice is there to break up all that solidity somewhat by taking each moment’s experience as it actually is. This can be quite surprising. With greater openness to experience we can notice that even in very difficult times, there is less solidity than we might imagine. Rob Burbea writes about this in relation to the emotion of sadness.
“If a curious and unpressured, moment-to-moment care of attention is brought to the experience of sadness, for example, we will not find an uninterrupted continuity of that emotion. Instead we typically find what is more like a string of beads of sadness, with gaps in between the beads. We may find, for instance, there is a moment of sadness, perhaps followed by another moment of sadness, but one that is not so intense; this followed by perhaps a moment of another emotion, peace, say; then a moment of sadness again, a moment of what feels like an absence of emotion, another stronger moment of stronger sadness; a moment in which a feeling of love, compassion, or tenderness comes more to the fore; and so on…”
I’m inspired by this approach to mindfulness practice, even while acknowledging it’s not easy as it goes against all my habits and tendencies. Seeing each moment as it arises is more honest and opens life up, allowing room for creativity to break through the crusty old layers of routine and habit. So you could perhaps try it out for yourself, starting with any simple experience, such as drinking a cup of tea, eating a square (or two) of chocolate or sweeping the floor.
And now, on with tackling that oven.
Or maybe I’ll just put it on my To Do list for now…