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When I signed up for a week-long mindfulness retreat, I didn’t anticipate how much I would learn from the vacuuming. Most of each day was spent meditating in beautiful surroundings, learning from expert teachers, and eating delicious meals mindfully, all of which was enlightening. To keep the price affordable, each participant is given a daily housekeeping task. I was assigned to vacuum a long carpeted corridor lined with dormitory rooms.
The vacuum cleaner was a big, upright model, heavy and awkward. On my first day, I had trouble steering it and got sweaty and irritated. After a lot of yanking, shoving, and banging it on people’s doors, I wrestled the vacuum cleaner back into its closet and forgot about it. The rest of the day was calm and peaceful. But late that night, I awoke with a sharp pain in my right shoulder. I didn’t understand the source of the pain until after breakfast, when it was time to vacuum again.
Mindfulness means paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of friendly curiosity and nonjudgmental acceptance. On a retreat, the goal is to be mindful of whatever you’re doing throughout the day. Participants are called yogis (a yogi is a student of meditation) and the housekeeping tasks are called yogi jobs. This means that the vacuuming, like everything else in retreat life, is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Somehow this escaped me on the first day, but I resolved to vacuum mindfully for the rest of the week.
And so, starting on the second day, I focused my attention on the experience of vacuuming. I observed the sensations in my body as I worked. I listened to the sounds of the motor, watched the dirt disappear, and smelled the vacuum cleaner smell. As best I could, I let go of judgments and practiced friendly acceptance of the lumbering vacuum cleaner and my difficulties in using it. By attending carefully to how I moved, I found ways to work without struggle that allowed my sore shoulder to heal. By the end of the week I was mindfully dancing with my vacuum cleaner rather than fighting with it.
When faced with an unpleasant task, most of us try to rush through and get it over with. We dwell on how much we hate it, imagine what we’ll do when we’re finished, or think about something else. But a famous study showed that people are happier when they’re paying attention to what they’re doing, no matter what it is. Even while doing household chores, people who focused on the task at hand felt better than those whose minds were elsewhere. (To read this study click here).
So we have choices about how to handle unpleasant tasks. One option is to focus on something else. If this isn’t helpful, another option is to do the task mindfully. If you have to vacuum, mindful awareness will help you stop obsessing over how much you dislike it, which is bad for your mental health. As an experiment, try focusing on the process in a friendly, open-minded way. Treat the vacuum cleaner as a clumsy but well-meaning dance partner. If you’re mindfully aware, you might find a way to make vacuuming graceful.
If you like, write a note in the comment section about how mindfulness has helped you with an unpleasant task.
Some of this material was excerpted and adapted from The Practicing Happiness Workbook with permission of the publisher, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Baer. Published in the United Kingdom as Practising Happiness, Constable and Robinson, 2014. For more information see www.ruthbaer.com.