Friday, April 19, 2013

Dream Dream, Filling Up an Idle Hour

David Cain:

A few weeks ago, as I was turning on the dishwasher before we left my place, she said something like, “Dishwashers are what’s wrong with the world.” Something about that sounded right. I asked her to explain.

“Life is composed of primarily mundane moments,” she says. “If we don’t learn to love these moments, we live a life of frustration and avoidance, always seeking ways to escape the mundane. Washing the dishes with patience and attention is a perfect opportunity to develop a love affair with simply existing. You might say it is the perfect mindfulness practice. To me, the dishwasher is the embodiment of our insatiable need, as a culture, to keep on running, running, running, trying to find something that was inside of us all along.”

We used to have to spend a lot more time and attention maintaining our basic possessions. Dishes had to be washed by hand, stoves had to be stoked, clothes had to be mended, and meals had to be prepared from scratch.

Little was automated or outsourced. All of these routine labors demanded our time, and also our presence and attention. It was normal to have to zoom in and slow down for much of our waking day. We had no choice but to respect that certain daily tasks could not be done without a willing, real-time investment of attention.

There's some truth in that. Much of life is insignificant mundanity. I certainly prefer a life of relaxed, calm focus to one of frantic busy-ness. But still, I say — and not just because last month's experience is still fresh in my mind — this strikes me as someone trying too hard. If you were inclined to be uncharitable, you could say it sounds a bit like spiritual one-upsmanship: "I appreciate housework on a deeper level than you do." It sounds like what Alan Watts described, a hyper-conscious attempt to scrutinize every moment so as not to miss...some vague transcendant something-or-other.

In fact, I say that because I used to be the exact same way. I never had a dishwasher until I moved into this house several years ago. Back in my days of renting a house in the country, I stood at the sink thousands of times with my hands soaking in soap suds and my brain soaking in ideas from books about Buddhism and voluntary simplicity, taking quiet pride in how "mindful" I was being. Watching over my own shoulder, essentially, as if something profound would be revealed in how I scrubbed hardened pasta off a plate.

Like any activity performed deliberately and attentively, it could have a grounding, calming effect, sure. But that could apply to eating a bag of potato chips or picking your nose, too; there's nothing sacred about chores, unless you're still harboring the cobwebs of a Protestant work ethic in the corners of your psyche. And it could be argued that the most profound effect washing the dishes had on me was to fulfill my slightly control-freakish need to assert myself as master of my domain and put things in clean, efficient order, thus contributing to further alienation from the natural, messy, chaotic flow of life.

Humans seek out meta-levels of reality. It's what we do. Perhaps it's the definition of what it means to be human, to treat every action, every object, as a symbol of something else, as a link in an endless chain of contingent meaning. Seeking "deeper" meaning is an expression of that. Imagining a ceaseless state of love and acceptance which can be attained by concentrating one's focus and will like a laser to burn through the veil of maya and perceive the pure truth behind is another expression of that. But there's nothing more true or authentic about washing mass-produced utensils and plates in a sink with store-bought detergent and running water, as opposed to loading them up in the dishwasher, or lugging them down to the creek in a hand-built cart to scrub them with pine needles.

It may have particular benefits. It may contribute to you being a kinder, more thoughtful person. It may help you calm down after a stressful day. But if it doesn't, you're not necessarily doing it wrong, either. I don't doubt that there are many people who feel most alive and perform at their optimal level in a frenetic environment and feel irritation and frustration when forced to move ponderously. I don't relate to them, and I certainly wouldn't want to be one of them, but I wouldn't imply that they're lacking some integral part of human nature, either. The contemplative sage is just one of many possible human permutations, by no means the ne plus ultra.

And daydreaming is just as integral a part of what it means to be human as anything else.