One summer at the UU church I served in Palo Alto, our RE team decided that over the summer we would offer a pilot session of SpiritPlay- the UU adaptation of the Montessori-based “Godly Play” developed by one of my heroes Jerome Berryman. My co-teachers and I were all a little daunted by the amount of prep and set-up required; the idea is that there is a “prepared room” so that the children are empowered to find what they need to do their work. This means there’s a huge amount of preparation need for the first class, but then little changes from week to week except the story. The teacher also has to be “prepared”. There are certain phrases that are used, places to be, hand gestures and ways of handling conflict that are particular to this method. There’s a way everything is to be done, to help give the children a sense of mastery. Because really the lesson plan, like most CRE classes, is just story, discussion, craft and snack. What makes SpiritPlay different is that we were trying to create a scared space where children could engage directly with religious language. It is based on the radical assumption that all humans are engaging their existential reality no mater what their age. And so after the story each week the students choose the work they will do. It might be painting, or drawing, or shaping clay, or re-telling the story for themselves.
One of the core concepts behind Montessori is that if children have equipment matched to their size and capabilities, they will really develop a sense of their own capacity. I had thought the long descriptions of clean-up supplies present in the Montessori classroom to help children take care of their own spills seemed really tedious and complex, and I was willing to let it go. But at the last minute of that first morning we made a quick run to the kitchen for buckets and sponges and were back in time for the children to enter. And so that first morning the children did more-or-less engage with me in a quiet wondering space. I was touched and delighted each time they were willing to play along. After the story each child went to find their work for the first time, and the two youngest children chose paint. They got out their special paint tray and paints and paper, and in about 2 minutes they were done painting. Oh my, I thought, I hope they will be able to “find their work” today. But before they moved on to their next choice, they needed to clean up after their painting. I showed them where we kept the bins of water and the sponges cut small for individual use. Twenty minutes later when I called everyone back to the circle those two were still cleaning their trays. For those young children, this was clearly the best fun of the whole morning. How fun to have your own sponge in a bucket marked “trays” to clean off your tray. How fun to have a special bucket marked “hands” to wash your hands in.
Think about it pedagogically- Berryman’s idea is that each of us knows somewhere deep inside what our spiritual work is on any given morning. This theory places a radical trust in the spirit’s capacity to be heard, and in our capacity to hear it. And this capacity is not dependant on physical or mental maturity; Berryman is making the radical leap that we are all engaged in our spiritual work our whole lives, not once we get some degree, or go on a meditation retreat with some guru. We don’t always know what our work is, so we set aside time to see what emerges, trusting that this will be our work. And these youngest children figured out that the work of their spirit that day was to wash those paint trays in bins of soapy water with their very own sponge.
I told this story a number of times when folks asked how SpiritPlay was going. I found myself saying “maybe the Buddhists were right- maybe it is all about washing the dishes.” It came out in a kind of glib way, but the idea sank deeper and deeper in me over the following weeks and years. Maybe the spiritual work of washing the dishes is really important and powerful and even compelling. Maybe it really is all about washing the dishes.
Let me back up and say that I had first been exposed to Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing about mindfulness maybe a decade before that fateful morning with the paint trays. I was in seminary at the time and I had the frame of mind that I was really living only when I was doing something interesting or fun or exciting- and that the chores I had to do were the cost I had to pay to have my real life. Dishes and other chores were something you should put off doing as long as possible, then rush through as quickly as possible to get back to really living. But in my Intro to Buddhist meditation class, we were learning that we should always put our attention in to the present moment, no matter what that might involve. Whether we were sitting quietly on a meditation mat, or stuck in traffic, we could practice equanimity, and being fully present in the moment.
Well, I tried- honestly I did. And when you live in the bay area, there are plenty of moments to sit patiently in traffic practicing your equanimity. But somewhere inside I was still doing this because I was preparing or getting ready for some later outcome. I was motivated by the idea that if you really practice being present as often as possible, then when some great moment of spiritual revelation comes, you could be as fully present to that as to the bumper of the car in front of you on the interstate. I would struggle with doing the dishes to do the dishes so that later I could drink tea to drink tea, as it were. And maybe that was my work. I was a student after all, and after many very studious and introverted years at music school, I am so grateful that I had adventures and did interesting things in my twenties- I’m glad I had passionate ideas about changing the world, and a deep hunger for spiritual awakening and growth.
Then, about the time I was settled in my first full time ministry, I had my son. I remember one Sunday afternoon standing in the living room after a full day at church, and my family was all watching a football game and relaxing. “Why don’t you sit down and relax?” someone said. I wondered, “why don’t I?” And then I heard the sound of my infant son waking from an all-too-short nap in his room. Now parenting an infant is a very rigorous time of life. You are never really in control of your own schedule. There is no putting off your work for later. And when you are the parent of a toddler, there is no rushing through things as quickly as possible. Toddlers do everything in their own time and are rushed at your peril. It’s not unusual to spent half an hour getting a child into his or her shoes. So if you are really living only when you are on some grand adventure, or having fun with your friends, or pursuing some scholarly or spiritual insight, this is a time of life when you are not really living.
But the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition challenges us to set aside those assumptions. The time you are stuck in traffic or stuck at the sink with a pile of dishes, this is still your time. This is still living. In fact, for most of us this is the very fabric of our days. What a waste it would be if all our long day of chores and work and helping others were all in preparation for that hour after dinner when all the dishes are done and we relax with family or with a good book, or have a quiet walk alone.
Moreover, there is something really satisfying about work done well. There is something almost restful about washing dishes, or sweeping, or pulling weeds because the mind can let go of all its cares and worries, can put aside planning for the future and just sink down deeply into the task at hand. When I sit in front of the computer answering e-mail I usually feel kind of scattered by the time I finish, and finish is such an arbitrary word for it since there is always more to do. But when I set out to wash a load of dishes it has a definite beginning, middle and end, and when I am done I have something aesthetically pleasing to show for my work- a clean kitchen that I can enjoy and use. I may feel tired after doing the dishes or weeding the garden, but my mind is almost always more clear and calm when I am done if I am doing the dishes to do the dishes, than if I am rushing through to get to the next thing on my list.
As pretty much every healing discipline agrees, doing things with our body is good. Being a little tired from activity is a good thing. I used to lace on my running shoes and go for a run first thing out of bed in the morning, but now that I have to get my son to elementary school, after I make my son’s breakfast and lunch and feed the dogs and let them out and set the coffee to perking, I like to do a load of dishes or a load of laundry. It has a very similar effect to going for a run -- I’m awake, I’ve used my body to start the day and I feel ready to go. I think this is how you know you are in mid-life; when doing a few chores before breakfast seems like a nice way to start the day.
I want to beyond a strictly Buddhist concept of mindfulness for a moment and think about work itself. Especially the kind of every day tasks we do with our hands, with our bodies. The last half century or so has been filled with “labor saving” devices, tools and machines. And yet are folks less busy than they were half a century ago? Do we have more time to go on walks and sit quietly and read a book? I don’t think we do. Our whole society is guided by the idea of doing the dishes to get done as quickly as possible so that we can go watch TV or something. James Bostic, former deputy assistant secretary of agriculture for rural development once said “But just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95 percent of the people can be freed form the drudgery of preparing their own food.” To this Wendell Berry replied in his book The unsettling of America:
“In gardening, … one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, and a source of delight. …
The ‘drudgery’ of growing one’s own food, then, is not drudgery at all… It is – in addition to being the appropriate fulfillment of a practical need – a sacrament, as eating is also, by which we enact and understand our oneness with the creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies…”
“The former deputy assistant secretary cannot see work as a vital connection; he can see it only as a trade of time for money, and so of course he believes in doing as little of it as possible, especially if it involves the use of the body.” [Berry p. 138-9]
I agree with Berry that eating becomes more meaningful when we have prepared the food ourselves. The only time my son has ever eaten certain vegetables is when he harvested them off the vine, or helped cook them up in a stir fry. And so it is with washing the dishes. To really feel the dish under your hands, the temperature of the water, the smell of the soap. How different each kind of food is to clean off a dish. How different it is to clean a fork than to clean a mug. I tell you I am much more careful when I cook certain foods knowing how hard it is to clean the pan if I scorch it. When we feel the full cycle of food, or of a dish from cupboard, to table, to sink, to cupboard again, we know something real about what it means to live in this world. If we only ever experience the cupboard full of clean cups, our knowing is superficial.
A few weeks ago I mentioned one of my most deeply held beliefs -- that if anything is sacred, then everything is sacred. If any work is sacred, then washing the dishes is surely sacred. Whatever your work is this week, whether you are called to it by the spirit, or called by the pragmatic needs of living in the world, I challenge you not to rush through it to get back your real life, but to Cherish your time washing the dishes, to claim it as your life. Any time you find yourself facing the day’s chores: washing dishes, mowing the lawn, getting a cup of juice for a child, walking to the mailbox. I encourage you to sink down into it, to experience it fully. It is the very fabric of our lives.