You can learn a lot from Zen monks about focus, mindfulness and meditation. But did you know they can also teach you how to clean?
There's a practice in many Zen temples called soji, which takes place right after morning prayer and meditation. Soji is usually for about 20 minutes, and each monk is assigned to a specific cleaning task each day, and he does so without trying to finish the task. He cleans for the sake of cleaning, not for the sake of finishing, whether it be sweeping, washing the dishes or cleaning the windows. When the 20 minutes are up, a bell is rung, and each monk stops whatever he has been working on, no matter where he is in the process, and goes on to the next part of his day. Cleaning, cooking and tasks such as these are completed with the same reverence as meditation itself, because immersing your whole self in a task is a form of mindfulness.
For me, cleaning is all about completing the task, so much so that it's often hard to start a task if I know I won't have enough time to complete it. (That's probably why the living room couch is usually covered with laundry). But cleaning like a monk, without caring if the task can be finished, can help you get started on a task that may be daunting to complete. In fact, you could apply this tactic to basically anything on your to-do list. Work for 20 minutes without looking at your cellphone or concerning yourself with how far you've gotten and just work to work. Solely focus on the task at hand. Then, when the 20 minutes are up, stop what you're doing and move on.
It's not just monks who clean this way. A practice called o-soji actually takes place in most Japanese schools as well, right after the students eat lunch. Everyone from first-graders all the way up to high schoolers are expected to spend a certain amount of time cleaning their classrooms or another part of the school. In fact, each student is required to bring a cleaning rag as part of his school supplies! Most schools also have janitors and maintenance people, but the cleaning the students do is an integral part of the day.
Many proponents explain that the cleaning is just as much for the students as for the school. Having young students clean on a regular basis helps teach them discipline and respect for public space — after all, kids are less likely to make a big mess if they are the ones that have to clean it up. (At least some kids ... ) In some schools, older students are even paired with younger students during the cleaning to help them learn the proper way to clean things, and also to build a connection between the kids, since many Japanese children are only children.
Seems like a worthwhile part of the school day to me. You'd teach my 10-year-old how to clean a window and my 6-year-old how to sweep the floor? And how to do it all without killing each other? Where do I sign up?
Unfortunately, it's not to be. For now, maybe I'll institute a daily soji in our house. Maybe we'll finally be able to sit on our couch again.