Cleaning the Garage: An Unexpected Path to Mindfulness
Who would have ever thought that cleaning out a damp mildew-ridden, mice-nested garage could be a path to mindful attention and Contentment? Not me.
But it has been. And the really strange thing is that I am enjoying every minute of it.
Cleaning out and organizing our garage is something we do every few years but for the past four it has been done haphazardly and half-heartedly. Quickly getting the Leaning Tower of Pisa boxes straightened, fill up a trash bag or two, and be done.
Now, ten years after the blending of our families (new marriage, seven kids between us), and mice children who’ve moved in too, it’s time for the big overhaul. Not to mention tending to the dampness ...
Needless to say I'd been absolutely dreading this task. Every time I walked into the garage, I’d walk back out again. Overwhelmed. Feeling heart-pounding anxiety at the thought of spending endless days in this chaotic cavern of boxes, bins, and piles.
Then one day something shifted in me and I began. I opened one box—just one—and found things I hadn’t seen in a decade or more. They brought delight, a few tears, a deluge of memories so tender that my palpitating heart quieted in gratitude.
Photos of my 21-year-old daughter when she was eight, proudly holding her new American Girl doll, Addy. A heart-shaped porcelain box given to me by a dear friend who died this year. Dated birthday cards: “You are the best, Mom!” A tiny copper elephant that belonged to my paternal grandfather, a man I never knew. Letters from my oldest daughter in the early days of the Iraqui conflict when she was serving as a Marine.
Treasures. I uncovered treasures in the dank cave of my garage and now every day, for a short time, like a miner seeking diamonds and gold, I gladly go into the dark and come out smiling. I have found something to captivate me for a time; to remind me of the joys of a well-lived life.
The key to my success at garage cleaning has been mindfulness. I discovered that if I committed to open and sort one box—just one each day—that I could handle this “Mountain of Too Much.” I have stuck to that vow and, amazingly, because I addressed each task with full and present attention, I had energy, extra energy, to do another box, then another.
Garage cleaning is my path right now. I take the time to look at what is in each container. I remember the events surrounding it. I allow whatever feelings wish to come to come. They wash through, often accompanied by a tiny river of human tears. Then I make a mindful decision to stay with the feeling and the item—to linger a while and savor—or to put the thing in a shiny new container. Or to get rid of it all together. The trash man likes us a lot these days.
We’ve made several trips to Goodwill and recycling, happy to pay our junk forward hoping it will become someone else’s treasure. I’ve also invested in large plastic bins. I am color-coding them (my daughter’s are green, I have pink, my husband’s are a hodgepodge of colors and he is fine with that). I also attach an index card to each bin with a short list of what’s inside.
I cannot tell you how relieved I feel. I never thought I would enjoy cleaning a garage but I am. I am feeling “easily pleased and satisfied” as the Buddha taught when each thing is put in its proper new place. Slowly. Methodically. I’m walking an expected path of mindfulness. And as I am doing so, I realize how Zen this process really is.
A Zen teacher will tell you to complete an act fully before moving on to the next. Chop wood. Carry water. Do it thoroughly, slowly, with intention. Then do it again until you are done. I have and it has been en-light-ening experience.
And now, as I near completion, I’m not surprised to hear my inner Zen master call me to the next “big project” because I have finally found a new way of approaching what must be done—even monumental things—with more energy and ease.
Organize the file cabinets, she whispers. Sort and dispense the Christmas decorations. Consolidate the closets full of books.
I’m listening and am on a roll. It promises to be a very productive and mindful winter, one gladness-filled treasure at a time.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness.
If you are attentive, you will see it."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
P.S.: This post is dedicated to Mary M. and to Linda C. who are both doing their share of sifting and sorting, pitching and ditching. Blessings of mindfulness to you as you clear your way to Contentment!
Until I decide I won't, I am penning, these blog posts in support of my ongoing sacred journey course,“Creating a Life of Contentment," which began Sept. 15. For one entire year, we'll be traveling together as intimate companions: to relax, let go and rest into Love; to discover the bliss of our own life. You can learn more about the program here.