Like most people, I tend to dislike cleaning. I do it because it needs to get done, but it’s not really fun. It is literally a chore, something people compare dull, repetitive, and annoying tasks to. However, I have recently discovered a surprising element to chores that made the process become fascinating for me. I will share this below, but first, I want to share a memory that sprung to mind when I made this discovery.
When I was 9 or 10 years old, my family and I were expecting company — a family friend and his son were visiting us, which was a rather rare occurrence. The son (I’ll call him Sam) and I were good friends, and I was thrilled to see him because he lived on the other side of town and we went to different schools, so I got to see him very, very rarely. In preparation for their visit, we all got busy cleaning the house top to bottom. And part of the reason this memory stands out for me as much as it does is that I noticed that I felt quite differently toward these same chores that I normally hated doing. I found myself thrilled to clean my room and wash the kitchen counters. Suddenly, dusting the bookshelves was kind of exciting. This was such a powerful experience, that decades later I remember it more vividly than I remember seeing Sam and spending time together during that particular visit.
What was it that shifted my perspective so powerfully? One could say that the excitement of the goal ahead (the special occasion of seeing my friend) is what motivated me to be more engaged with the tasks at hand. This is how I saw it too, until very recently, when I was reflecting on the topic of ritual. When most people think of rituals, they usually think about daily routines, religious practices, or perhaps the obsessive-compulsive rituals that someone can’t seem to stop repeating. But there’s an entire world to ritual that happens literally every day, something we are not often taught to look for. Once I began noticing this, the idea of ritual has created immense meaning in my life.
What happened for me in preparing for Sam’s visit was that I was so thrilled to see him, that to savor the anticipation, cleaning the house became part of the ritual of preparing to see him. This is why it stands out in my memory this much – not because I did a particularly stellar job or because I overcame laziness to do the tasks I normally avoided at all costs (what 9-year-old wouldn’t?). It stands out because this time, the cleaning had a different feeling to it, almost something sacred. It bonded us as a family, as we all worked to create the space in which to welcome cherished guests. We weren’t merely doing chores – we were creating something special.
The more I reflect on the idea of ritual, the more I see it at play on a daily basis. For example, when I put my makeup on in the morning, it’s not just a routine, although that’s a part of it. There is a ritual quality to it because putting on my makeup means I am going to the office to see clients – and during those 10 minutes or so, I start to enter into a different self-state in order to prepare for the day. Similarly, so many other routines in our daily life can be seen as rituals that create a shift in our self-states, a different kind of energy. Washing dishes, rather than a chore that eats up 20 minutes of the evening, can be experienced as a ritual that creates clean dishes and a clean kitchen – with the many deeper implications for an uncluttered mind. Other household or work tasks can gain a similarly rich meaning as well.
The many teachings on mindfulness talk about something very similar, but I see an added element to it – that what I am talking about is not just about being in the moment without trying to escape “boring” or painful reality, but about the conscious creation of something new within one’s life, a shift in awareness and in internal experience. Finding the ritual in everything – taking a shower, getting dressed, cooking, eating, and so on – is what shifts one’s life from a series of routines and chores to a deeper, possibly even spiritual, experience.