6/10/16: The Zen of the Mundane

For the past two weeks, I’ve been volunteering in St. Louis, Missouri, at my great uncle’s charter school. This particular school is located in a largely African-American, low income neighborhood, in a zip code with one of the highest crime rates in St. Louis (one of the most criminal cities in the U.S.). I think it suffices to say that I am in a very different world from my own here, and the experience is every day opening my eyes to the life of many Americans.

I asked my great uncle to volunteer at the school with the intention of teaching and aiding in the classroom. I did a small amount of tutoring this week, but otherwise have remained largely outside the classroom. The work I have done behind the scenes- stapling, folding, sorting, organizing, and labelling- is the topic of this blog post. Sounds fascinating, I’m sure.

Before this trip, I never would have considered myself engaged in the acts of folding paper, labelling bookshelves, and sorting books. Given my desire for intellectual stimulation, I used to regard such tasks as the bane of my existence, too mundane to bear. My worst nightmare has always been to end up working in a job that involves repetitive, mechanical tasks devoid of mental strain. It’s not that I felt above these jobs, but that my academic energy made me terribly unsuited to mundane work. I simply didn’t think I could do such jobs for hours on end without banging my head against the wall and giving myself a concussion.

I will not claim here that stapling has become my life’s new passion, or that organizing books will be the central tenet of my future career. I still want to pursue an intellectually vigorous job involving a range of tasks and problems to solve. However, over the course of my volunteer work, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the meditative quality of repetitive work, and for the first time I understand the Eastern teachings on the virtues of the mundane.

I will admit, I did not do the work in silence- I listened to podcasts and audiobooks as I progressed through the piles of paper and books, as I stacked and photocopied, which kept me great company. My brain was engaged in a form of intellectual stimulation while my body performed a task over and over again. The act of repetitive movement calmed me in a surprisingly profound way. Doing the work, I became a sort of machine, not in the emotionally cold or detached sense, but in the perfecting of my physical routine. The more I stapled, the more efficient I became at stapling; I learned where to hold the stapler and how to grab the paper to cut down on time and fumbling. This is not a particularly impressive feat, of course, but it inspired me to strive for perfection, not all at once, but over the course of time. I adapted gradually to the ebb and flow of my repetitive tasks, each time honing my technique subconsciously to make my life easier.

Doing a mundane, physical, repetitive task for an extended period of time sounds about as enlightening and enjoyable as getting a tooth pulled, but the task can become its own sort of meditation if you are willing to persevere. A special kind of relaxation comes with repetition; you find yourself coming closer and closer to a perfect ebb and flow with the outer world. Repetition makes you value time and makes you realize that time and practice cannot be bypassed on the route to great work. You learn to move with time, allowing it to whittle away at the rough edges of your work and smooth your process. You learn to mechanize yourself in a harmonious movement of the body.

I believe these virtues can be learned through repetitive pursuits such as playing musical instruments and sports, but I encourage you to shoulder the “burden” of a truly mundane physical task. Explore the process and the gradual uptick in efficiency that comes with time spent immersed in routine. Allow yourself mental stimulation like I did, if you wish, or enjoy music, the sounds of nature, or the sound of your own thoughts.

What have you learned from a repetitive routine? Do you use physical repetition to calm down, meditate, and explore your physical self? How?

 

Here is a picture of the library!

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8 thoughts on “6/10/16: The Zen of the Mundane

  1. Well written, Avery!! Even though most of the jobs I’ve had require a fair amount of social interaction and intellectual work, there are still of course some repetitive and mechanical tasks (e.g. shelving books, stapling worksheets, recording scores, sorting out folders). I actually find this type of work very refreshing, in the sense that after a day of such work, I’m able to study more productively 😉
    I hope your summer is going well xx

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    1. Thank you! Refreshing is a perfect word to describe it- it almost feels like a welcome mental reset in a world of constant stimulation. Hope your summer if going well too! Mine just officially started today and I hope I find plenty of things to keep busy and to write about!

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  2. The firs activity that came to my mind was cleaning. One day I heard that some people could actually relax while cleaning around the house… it was hard for me to believe, so I started looking at how I could be less annoyed an exhausted when I could not delegate. The first thing that helped was also music, lately instrumental relaxation music allows me to be more present in my body and in the task, and observe my thoughts, sometimes I can even feel some inner peace.
    The second activity is piano scales… I started learning 2 years ago for my own pleasure, and although I understood the importance of these exercises, I just wanted to rush and finish with it… it reflected my own stress to move quickly, be performant, get things done… that inner pressure that I knew so well, oh my goodness! something completely unrelated to work, and yet I felt the same kind of pressure. It was very revealing. Focusing on the metronome and keeping the tempo has helped, but I realized it was something I clearly needed to address globally in my Life… taking the time to move forward in life joyfully, without stress! it still seems like a dream but I’m working on it :p
    Cheers!

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    1. Every once in a while I do a full cleaning of my room- empty the drawers, clear out the closet, and get rid of all the excess; it’s a surprisingly therapeutic process when I’m in the right mood for it. I can relate to the piano as well. For a long time, I absolutely hated doing finger exercises on the guitar using my metronome. I rebelled for years against the metronome and only recently started incorporating it into my practice sessions. To my shock, I actually enjoy practicing with the metronome more than without- the constancy of the beat is soothing in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. Thank you!

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  3. Avery, you are an amazing writer! I so appreciate your viewpoint. One of the difficulties I have is that people feel comfortable using words like “mundane” about my chosen profession. Unfortunately, most people use “mundane” (which has a definition of “lacking interest or excitement; dull”), which carries a judgement with it (the judgement that it’s not interesting, at the very least). A less judgmental word might be routine (as my profession certainly is, and ANY profession can be routine, interesting, mundane or stimulating, depending on how you frame it and how good a fit it is. My boyfriend and his friends would say things like “I’d KILL myself before I’d take a corporate job” (what I’ve done most of my life). People will tell you there’s no judgement in that, but there is. They just aren’t aware enough to know they’re even making a judgement. Thank you for writing something so stimulating, that invited me to look close enough to allow myself to distance from people who judge what other people choose to do for a living. They are the poorer for it! Keep up the amazing writing. I can’t wait to read your first book!

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    1. Thank you so much! And I hope I didn’t offend by using the word “mundane”; I used the word “mundane” to illustrate the Zen/Buddhist concept of the word, which is associated with present-awareness in everyday life, regardless of how stimulating or thrilling it is, rather than as a value judgment. I am so glad you have confidence in your own job choice regardless of what others may say. After all, it is your life, and if you find meaning in your work, then you are actually quite rare in our world today. What you do for a living is exclusively your choice and I’m glad you have been able to reflect on and ignore the criticism and critique from others in your life, even if well intended. Thank you so much for your kind words about my writing. If I ever do write a book (and I want nothing more), I will be sure to share about it here. Thank you!!

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