Laundry. I've never much liked doing my laundry. Not that it is something most people revel in, but I've harbored a real aversion to it. Growing up, I paid my mom a portion of my allowance so she would do my laundry. And in college, I would buy new underwear to avoid a trip to the laundry room (I know I'm not alone here!). So last week, when I was assigned to do kitchen laundry while on a Lovingkindness retreat, I wasn't sure that I could embrace the task with much lovingkindness!
Upon arriving at the retreat center, everyone attending is assigned a chore for the week. And throughout the week, in addition to sitting and walking meditation, this becomes a working meditation--a chance to see how we can bring our practice with us to other parts of life after the retreat. On past retreats I’ve been assigned to wash dishes and sweep walkways, and I gained new appreciation for the satisfaction I could find in those tasks. So when I was put on laundry duty I was curious to see if my opinion of the chore would change.
The retreat was spent in silence. No talking. No reading. No writing. No computers! No phones!! But what was allowed and encouraged was quieting the mind by internally repeating the phrases, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. And May I live with ease.” Morning, noon and night I kept these phrases on an internal loop--wishing them for myself, wishing them for people I like, wishing them for people I don’t particularly like, wishing them for animals, wishing them for all beings everywhere. You get the idea.
I wished them while sitting still. I wished them while eating. I wished them while walking. And yep, I wished them while doing the laundry.
All of the dirty rags, aprons, towels, and veggie cloths would get piled high into a grocery cart that I rolled out into the crisp Massachusetts air each morning on my way to the laundry room. The task was simple enough. Shake out the excess gunk, load the laundry machines, three pumps of sanitizer, one scoop of detergent, unload the laundry machines, load the dryer, hot and regular for 45 minutes, fold, fold, fold, put away. Repeat daily.
Despite my aversion, I quickly grew to enjoy my job. There isn’t much stimulation on a silent retreat, and an hour of folding towels fresh from the dryer on a snowy afternoon provided much entertainment. With the well-wishes on repeat in my head, I sent kind wishes to each towel, rag and apron, extending my positive thinking out to all of the people in the kitchen who might use them, and then extending further to wish kind thoughts to all those who would benefit from the work of the kitchen. Each afternoon turned into a little laundry love-fest, wherein I left with two laundry baskets full of folded towels and a great feeling of satisfaction--amazing what a little lovingkindness will do!
---Ok, this next part seems kind of cheesey. And when it was happening it felt kind of cheesey. I debated whether or not to post this because it felt kind of trite. But here it is, because despite the cheesiness, it was one of those 'aha' moments and I think it's worth noting.---
I noticed that even away from the laundry room, the rags and aprons were making their way into my consciousness. One afternoon as I sat in the meditation hall, working through some painful emotions, all I could see in my head were lines of laundry hanging out to dry. They seemed to take up the whole frame of my mind’s eye. Not sure what else to do, I went with it and started wishing the laundry well. And I started well-wishing my painful emotions. After doing this for a while, instead of just seeing laundry hanging out to dry, I saw a huge expansive sky, my laundry just a small speck at the edge. I realized that the line of laundry would soon be dry, and I’d fold it and put it away. Then all I’d be left with was that big beautiful sky. The emotional pain I was struggling with was beginning to dissolve. I guess sometimes those things just want to be washed, dried and put away with care.
More laundry will come. With each new day I will fill up the basket. I’ll have dirty laundry until the day I die. I can choose to push it away, buy new underwear, pay my mom to do it, or let the dirty pile fill up my view and blot out the big sky. Or I can choose to send it well wishes and open-heartedly welcome each dirty rag and painful emotion as a chance to send some love to the world.
I tend to think I’ll choose the latter of the two options. Though, I imagine it will depend on how I’m feeling each day and whether or not The Gap is having a sale on underwear.
Here's my challenge to you for the weekend: Pick a chore you don't particularly like. As you do the chore this weekend, pay very close attention to what's going on in you head as well as physically what it feels like to do the chore. See if you can maintain that focus throughout the activity. Can you give the task at hand your full attention? No phones, no worrying about tomorrow, no TV? If you feel up to it, try sending some kind wishes. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. Or whatever feels right. Notice what you're thinking and feeling once you complete the task. I'm not promising rainbows, butterflies, or a beautiful expansive sky, but the simple act of noticing what is happening just might change your experience. Try it for yourself!