Mindfulness for Shoveling Snow

Are there ways to get a new perspective on storms?

Posted Feb 21, 2021

It is snowing, again. Yes, it is winter, and I live in New England, but it seems to be snowing every week. It’s gray, and cold, and I’m feeling trapped by COVID and the constriction of cabin fever. And I am the designated snow shoveler. A neighborhood boy had agreed to help, but he wasn’t feeling well and decided to stay in bed. So, the task had fallen, again, on my not so strong shoulders. I don't have the option of ignoring the snow, as the city will fine me for not clearing the sidewalks.

I’d organized my day to do an online retreat with Alexis Santos, whose teaching has inspired me (as well as a few PT blog posts, see 11/8/2019 and 4/18/2020). I was looking forward to it. I needed a break—between patient care, teaching, family medical problems, and trying to do too much, I was feeling stretched way too thin. And I was irritable.

Santos started the retreat with a powerful quote from Toni Morrison, “All important things are hard.” That felt true. He invited us to be with all that was arising for us. As I stopped to pay attention, I immediately became aware of my unpleasant emotional state, my sore lower back, and my exhaustion. He then asked us to explore what it looked like. “Let it all be known, allowing both body and mind to be just as they are. See what is present,” he said in his incredibly soothing voice, “and invite the body to rest.”

This was the permission I needed. As he continued, I found myself relaxing and my mood gradually shifting. “You don’t need to judge it, just notice the mind thinking. This too is part of nature, all beings are visited by that which is difficult. It is OK to feel this. If you become aware of a place that is knotted, or difficult, just sit back, opening the awareness, opening space for it.”

Following his guidance, bit by bit I started to let go. I stopped being so hard on myself, seeing my irritation as natural, as part of the human experience. I stopped trying to get rid of it, stopped wanting someone else to shovel the sidewalk, stopped wanting the snow and storms to go away. I relaxed into letting things be just as they are and letting myself be as I was. As Santos suggested, I tried a light touch.

One insight that helped was to notice how I was relating to the present moment. Hmm, I was complaining. I was judging, both myself and others. I was struggling, and fighting. Taking the inquiry a step deeper, I was then able to notice my inner litany: “I’m tired of the snow, I’m tired of the cold, I’m tired of the pandemic.” And by really noticing, by bringing awareness to it, it began to shift. As I watched the process, I thought of the words of the psychologist Carl Rogers, who I paraphrase, “Once I accept myself as I am, then I can begin to change.”

“There are different weather patterns in the world, around us and within us," Santos explained. I couldn’t help but smile. I realized I was experiencing an inner snowstorm as well as the outer one. My humor returned.

It was time for a break to practice walking meditation. Santos instructed us to become aware of seeing (something that we often take for granted, thus missing many moments of awareness) and hearing as we walked, all done with a light and kind touch.

I suddenly had an idea. I could try mindfully shoveling snow. Why not? We try to wash dishes mindfully. We try to fold laundry mindfully. Even change diapers mindfully. So, if the frequent storms are getting you down, and you are the designated shoveler, try this with me:

Mindfulness of Shoveling Snow

  • ·         Before you even pick up the shovel, start by seeing. Let your eyes relax and soften. Become aware of the light. Notice the colors in the sky. The clouds. Notice the snow. Are there tracks in the snow? What do you see?
  • Pause, take a few breaths. Feel the cold air on your skin, on your cheeks, as you inhale.
  • Listen. What do you hear? Are the birds accompanying you? Are there geese flying overhead? Are squirrels scampering?
  • As you stop, listen for the sound of the snow underfoot. Be aware of the crunch as you step.
  • When we practice walking meditation, we try to become aware of the lifting, moving, and placing of the feet. As you begin to shovel, see what sequence of movements work for you.
  • I experimented and settled on the sequence of Pushing, Stepping, Stopping, and Lifting. (I inserted the stopping to help protect your back and shoulders). See what movements work for you. Try to keep it light and playful. Remember, be kind to your body as well.
  • As I cleared the sidewalks, the steps, and the driveway, thoughts and feelings came up, my mind wandered, of course. Yours will as well. Keep returning to the activity of seeing, of hearing while you shovel.
  • I realized that I didn't need to approach this as heavy lifting. I could apply a light touch. The snow was light powder. I didn't need to make it harder than it was. I took another breath and gave myself permission to rest, to listen, and to see.
  • Stop, stretch, and straighten as needed. Keep a light touch.

My task of shoveling went more quickly than I had anticipated. Even though I had been complaining, the newly fallen snow was beautiful and it was good, and even meditative, to take in the quiet.

In the midst of this mindful activity, I remembered a poem by Billy Collins, called "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," where he captures the magic of snow and evokes the serenity of the Buddha, with a "smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe." He continues: 

We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

It was time for more meditation, leaving the clouds of sparkling snow behind. But I kept returning to the ending of Collins’ delightful poem. In his fantasy, he imagines that the Buddha suggests they play cards when they are finished shoveling; Collins offers to heat milk and make hot chocolate. Mmmm, hot chocolate and a card game with the Buddha. 

It was just the light and humorous touch I needed as I sat down, now with a wide smile, a generous state of mind, and a nostalgic mug of hot chocolate.