I’m a late convert to a pleasure that many people probably discover much earlier in their lives — the joy of a job well done. And by job, I don’t mean my day job, or any kind of pushing-paper (virtually) endeavor. I mean labor of the “chop wood, carry water” variety — useful physical labor.
There’s a Zen Buddhist saying: “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Another bit of wisdom urges “when hungry eat, when tired sleep.”
I suppose there are myriad ways to interpret these sayings, but the benefit I’ve been getting is the pure Zen of being present in the moment — not living in the past, not worrying about the future, just focusing on doing the job at hand as well as possible.
Most of my life, I’ve been a fairly messy person. I am not sure exactly why, but I suppose it’s because I could get away with it as a kid. We had a live-in housekeeper through most of my young life and, if I didn’t clean up my room, eventually, someone else would do it for me. And, after I left home, those bad habits continued — until the job of cleaning up became so huge and seemingly insurmountable that I had to force myself to do it, and it was anything but pleasant.
Lately, though, partly because I’ve become a much busier person and because I’m responsible for the state of the household to a large extent, I’ve been building better habits — and loving it. Today, I’ve cleaned the kitchen (including the refrigerator) and pulled a metric ton of weeds from our backyard flowerbed. Meanwhile, my husband has been mowing the lawn and cleaning off the back porch.
This work has been surprisingly satisfying, and not just in a “cross that off the to-do list” way — it’s pleasurable to do the task itself, to involve my body in something purposeful that contributes to the well being of the household.
As I pulled the weeds, I enjoyed being outside, moving my body (as well as I can with leg injury), and using my muscles to yank the invasive grasses from the flowerbed. I feel the moisture of the soil, even through my gloves, and I revel in having the right tools (those gloves, plus a bucket that holds all my gardening tools) to accomplish the task. I enjoy seeing the “right” plants begin to dominate, to have room to prosper and beautify the view from the porch. I love the smell of the mint growing there, whose fragrance perfumes the air as we sit outside.
One of my daily tasks is preparing meals for the family, and I’ve found that this process — cleaning and chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, watching water closely for signs it’s beginning to boil — also provides me with this immersive physical experience. Even cleaning up after myself — putting away the spices and other ingredients, adding the dishes to the dishwasher, hand washing and putting away pots and pans — brings a certain satisfaction.
It’s crazy that it took me so long to realize that I can enjoy these tasks, and benefit from their being done, as well. I feel better about myself when things are in order, when I’ve spent part of the day getting things done. As I do with many discoveries these days, I wonder how to impart this wisdom to my children, so they don’t wake up in their forties and realize they could have been getting more joy out of life all along. It doesn’t seem like something you can convince someone of, or force them into understanding — like enlightenment itself. But can you guide them? Ideas welcome.