My mom used to talk to herself when she washed dishes. I would watch her from the family room as she stood by the sink looking out over the backyard and having such serious conversations with an imaginary other. They usually felt like she was defending herself or arguing her point. She was probably replaying conversations from earlier when she felt like she hadn’t been heard or able to express herself fully. I would watch her gesture or tilt her head to the side as she spoke her quiet but intense words. She may have done these silent, one-sided conversations when she did other chores but I remember these dishwashing sessions most vividly. It seems to me that when you are doing chores like dishes, or dusting, or vacuuming, weeding or shoveling snow, you spend more time in touch with the thoughts running through your head. The repetitive motions and familiar actions of washing dish after dish or pulling weed after weed, gives you the freedom to think while your hands are busy. There is something meditative and devotional about these repetitive actions. It allows you to fall into your thoughts, get in touch with your soul and your feelings and work through them, like my mother would at the sink each day.
The monastic life embraces this devotional aspect of doing daily chores as well. This is true of many religions from Buddhism to Christianity. The repetitiveness of the monastic day includes regular times for prayer and devotion interspersed with times for taking care of their monastery and each other. Each day monks and nuns spend time tending their monastery, their gardens, and cleaning, cooking and baking for their fellow brethren. It truly is done out of spiritual devotion, not only out of daily necessity. For Buddhists this is partly done during a 20-minute period, called soji, directly after meditation where each monk is given some chore to do until the bell rings to end the 20 minutes. It is not about completing the chore, it is more about bringing the meditative practice “off the cushion” and including it in everyday life. By not expecting a perfect completion of the chore, monks are asked to simply focus on the action itself. It becomes simply about the act of sweeping or washing, It also should be done without preference for any one chore. It frees them then to just do a chore without expectations (completion or non-completion, enjoyment or non-enjoyment). They are in the moment simply and quietly doing.
Part of the Benedictine Rule, dictates that a monk’s daily life revolves around prayer but this is not limited only to time strictly designated as for meditation or prayers. It also extends into their daily chores. Chores are done in quiet and often in solitude allowing them to devote their thoughts to communion with God and their soul. Chores allow them to “seek God in humility and obedience.”
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that I often found my mother working through her problems while she worked in the house taking care of our home and family. All of us have these daily chores in common but often we see them as things to get over with so we can go on to more meaningful or fun activities. I, myself, often find myself frustrated that I need to take time to load the dishwasher or sweep the floors, (my least favorite chore is cleaning things you use to clean, like vacuums or the inside of the dishwasher, but that rant I will save for another blog). I would so much rather sit on the patio in the summer and read a little, or talk with my kids, or spend time with my husband, or write, yet thinking of chores in the monastic way shows me that they are moments throughout the day when I can show love of my home, my family and myself by caring for them and also building in some time to just be with my thoughts and release things that may be weighing heavily on me or just try to connect with something deep inside. So, perhaps the next time we are folding laundry or shoveling the driveway, we can pause and take some time to be in the moment with ourselves and take advantage of what that chore is gifting us that day.