Letters from Home

Zen and the Art of Tedium

Peeling Clementines for FourA conversation about boredom at Scoutie Girl yesterday got me thinking again about the daily tasks that constitute part of the  “work” of my life.

Not the least of these is feeding a family of six. Not the worst of them is laundry. Some I despise for no particular reason, like emptying the dishwasher. Whenever my mom comes to visit, she gets up early and empties it for me. She says it is easy to put things away in my kitchen: I organize mine just the same way she organized hers.

The work of daily life is the work I often do on “autopilot”, as Tara notes. It can be quite mindless and tedious and runs in a never-ending cycle.

Taking Tedium to Heart

One of my favorite and most-thumbed books in my house (and that is saying something) is Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Daily Life. It’s filled with quotes and photos of joyful life.

But most of all it is a gentle redirection: away from autopilot and toward a more mindful experience of life, regardless of the task.

The chapter on “Work” defines then deconstructs the Protestant work ethic. This chapter alone will give so many of you the language to define your own angst and guilt related to your work experience. It reminds us that the Calvinstic theology that our founding fathers subscribed to “held that only a certain number of people in the world are destined to be saved or chosen by God.”

“Although there was no way to tell for sure whether you were part of the elect, you COULD tell if you were not. Any signs of sloth, lack of prudence and above all lack of worldly success were sure signs that you were not of the chosen.”

— from “Chop Wood, Carry Water”

It is easy to see how we fall into the trap of dissatisfaction with our lives and our work– whatever that may be — if our ultimate motivation is only to be driven by someone else’s definition of success.

Tara’s point about achieving “depth of work” aligns with the authors’ point here about “right livelihood”:  Finding work that ignites passion, allows us to constantly learn, attaches us meaningfully to a community, and is right for us will creates a space of mindfulness. Ironically, it will ultimately achieve what the Calvinists sought as well: a committed work ethic.

Regarding the Dishwasher

Within the scope of all work, of course, there seems there are tasks we all dislike. For me, this is when be able to achieve mindfulness is MOST useful. By seeing the bigger picture of my family — and the reasons for why I chose to be a mother — I can more easily fulfill the small duties related to that role.

Tip: To be more mindful, personally, I use ujjayi breathing, a technique I learned in yoga. It’s hard to spell, but not hard to learn. I also quickly adjust my posture to return to mountain pose alignment. Both are quick physical reminders for a more mindful moment, especially during those less meaningful tasks that fill our days.

4 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Tedium

  1. Oh crap. You got all “Protestant work ethic” on me and I had a frakking breakthrough.

    My husband is Catholic. He does not have the Protestant work ethic. It drives me crazy – and I never associated it with something that deeply entrenched in our psyche. I knew what the problem was but it didn’t have a name.

    Not that it really makes it any better… but I love that I have a name for it and maybe that will help me move through the difficulties that it causes.

    1. I am pretty proud of my “Midwestern work ethic” but it is married to a Catholic upbringing and a zen mentality. So I have NO idea what that means anymore. That might explain why I am so busy, so work-happy, and yet also quite scattered as well.

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