First, I empty the top door shelf: two 10mg bottles of insulin and three GlucaGen pens in bright orange cases, all of them out of date. (They are for emergencies; in case I fall unconscious due to bad hypoglycemia, which, luckily, hasn’t happened so far in my history of living with type 1 diabetes.) I discard the two oldest pens and make a mental note to order a new one. With some gentle tapping, the clear plastic compartment readily unhooks from the door. I clean it in the sink with soapy water and leave it to dry. It looks satisfyingly clear and sparkly. Next, the cheese and egg section; it really needs doing. So does the lowest shelf that holds our three types of plant-based milk, a refillable sparkling water bottle, and a bottle holding an inch of mulled winter cordial. (I realize that these details tell you quite a lot about me, but never mind. . . .)
I have a system going now: clearing a shelf, cleaning it, letting it drip dry while emptying and sponging the next one, working the previous shelf over with a tea towel, then re-slotting and restocking it to make room on the work surface for the next load of forgotten jams and pickles. The efficiency of the process, the repetitive pathways of my movements through the kitchen, and the vision of the gleaming end result combine to keep me going without pausing, not exactly rushing but not exactly mindful either. There is a train of dimly aware thoughts: about how time-consuming this is; that we left it a bit long; dreaming about engaging a cleaner. And why is my husband not joining in with the cleaning, as he promised?
Before tackling the veg drawer, I put my head through the door of Larry’s study, gauging whether he is interruptible. “Can you ring a mindfulness bell for me?” I plead. He turns round from the computer and laughs. Sometimes we have “work periods” together in the flat, like you have on residential group retreats. Every so often, one of us will sound our big singing bowl and we stop in the middle of what we are doing, toilet brush or vacuum attachment in hand, for a mindful breathing space. I suppose it is quite funny that I should need a formal invitation to stop, that simply recognizing the need for a break is not enough to make it happen.
I think we probably all know what it is like to push on with a task, overriding any mental and physical signs of tension, just wanting to cross the finishing line. Tick, done! Certainly, a sense of completion has its own reward, but we goal-oriented, time-governed modern people are missing out on a whole lot of other satisfaction on the way. Above all, the glorious experience of living life as it happens, in this very moment. In fairness, even in the Buddha’s pre-industrial times, human beings needed reminding to be mindful. As modern brain science confirms, the default setting of the mind is to go on autopilot and rehash past and future scenarios, which does of course have its uses. Sometimes we learn from past experience or pre-empt future mishaps. However, allowing anxious or overly critical thinking to run unchecked can be stress-inducing.
Seeds could germinate and take root in the layer of dirt in the bottom drawer of the fridge. We often buy organic vegetables from the farmers market, and they tend to be covered in thick coats of soil. I am just about to shake the dirt into the compost bin, when, finally, the bell finds me. Ahhh . . . with a great sigh of relief I put everything down and just stand. Deep in-and-out breaths as the sound gradually subsides. Eagerly, my spine uncurls from its slightly curved stance into its full height; my chin draws back its forward-jutting determination, and my heart has space to expand again. “I am cleaning the fridge for the benefit of all beings,” I surprise myself by pronouncing into the tiled kitchen.
I think I may have rediscovered the missing key to mindful presence: remembering my essential nature as interconnected, and generosity as the natural expression of this truth. Love and mindfulness are close partners. Doing housework may not be of obvious benefit to anyone other than the members of my household, particularly during COVID lockdown when we can’t have any visitors, but the repeated intention of wanting to be of benefit takes hold and becomes a resource for better living for more people on Earth. It’s a training in eco-sattva-hood, and as such it will be a pleasure to recycle, to give careful attention to what I buy, to support campaigns, to devise mindfulness courses that address the pressing concerns of our times in appealing ways, and to mindfully clean the windows, which are next on the list.