About seven years ago, Jack Kornfield, meditation teacher, writer and psychotherapist, wrote a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. As someone who feels pressured by concepts like enlightenment and mindfulness, I was thrilled when I first saw this book. Its common-sense title gave me a secret feeling of relief. I hoped it meant that I wasn’t the only person who was deeply uncertain about the possibility of finding joy in the mundane aspects of my life. I even hoped it would say that ecstasy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, just to take the pressure off. But, as when I came across a book in the library called, “Prayers for Dark People,” and giddily assumed it was for people like me who want legitimate space for weirdness and doubt in their faith lives, it didn’t pan out. “The “Prayers for Dark People” turned out to be a book from the 40’s for African Americans, and Kornfield’s book is more about how ecstasy IS actually all it’s cracked up to be. And, with the right mindset, you can find it pretty much anywhere, like the laundry room.
This depresses me. Not because I can’t get into it, but because it feels like so much more work. The clear, calm, glowy states that I associate with “enlightenment” and “awakening” don’t correspond to the dirty, chaotic, exhuasting reality of life with three small children, a job, a house and a husband. I know this is my fault. I know that I am supposed to say that it’s all about finding beauty in imperfection, and that being “awakened” doesn’t mean feeling blissful. I know, I KNOW. But still. It just nags at me, this crotchety, put upon feeling that “I already have so much stuff to do, do I have to feel at peace with it as well?”
Sometimes when I first wake up in the morning, I try to practice deep breathing, to start off the day with a feeling of calmness and gratitude. Usually what happens is that I fall back to sleep, but one recent morning, as I lay there breathing, I started thinking about the laundry. How I had seen it the night before, so much of it waiting to be folded that it had formed itself into a sort of floppy sculpture, loosely arranged in the shape of the baskets it was in before it was dumped out and rooted through. The legs of a little pair of khaki pants formed one corner, one leg folded up and one folded down.
The whole pile looked sad and a little deflated, like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter when it’s not on anyone’s head.
And as I thought about how long it would take me to fold all that laundry, I had an unexpected thought: “Laundry is better than meditation.” Then a second, sort of corollary thought: “Laundry is better than meditation for women with small children.”
After thinking about this more, I realized that there are in fact several things about doing laundry that are more satisfying—I might even go so far as to say more beneficial for mothers of small children—than meditating. For one, there is no guilt associated with doing laundry. Obviously, it’s just the opposite. Doing laundry, especially when there are people around to witness your efforts, is not only guilt-free but virtuous. Further, if you have a sensitive partner, or even possibly sensitive older children, your doing the laundry can be guilt-inducing in them, resulting in an activity that makes you feel not only smugly productive but also superior.
Meditation is not like this. Retreating into your room to meditate results in explanations of why “Mama needs to lie down for a while,” which make you feel not only guilty but mentally ill. While meditation can give you some spiritual high ground, like when I say to my husband, “I really need a break. I’m going to do my meditation CD,” instead of disappearing into the bedroom with a bottle of white wine and a copy of People, laundry gives you the domestic high ground which, in the short term at least, is much more gratifying.
Laundry is also better than meditating because it gives you solitude under the guise of performing a domestic activity. Once when my 8-year old son wandered into the laundry room, I set him to work sorting socks and he has never returned. This is the opposite with meditation. Somehow knowing that Mama is not doing anything except sitting in the dark in the bedroom seems to cause a combination of great anxiety and great curiosity among my family, and usually, just as I feel my breathing start to slow, the bedroom door creaks open, and I can feel a small presence, silent, yet radiating with wounded neglect. And one time, when I was drifting off into a dreamy, Jon Kabat Zinn-induced daze, my husband opened the door very, very quietly, and crept in whispering, “Sorry, I’m just getting the laundry.” See what I mean about the coveted domestic high ground?
Finally, laundry is better than meditating because with laundry, there are few expectations of perfection, and of course this is true with or without children. You’re not looking for ecstasy in the washing machine. You just hope that things get clean and that you won’t have to pick ten thousand pieces of shredded paper towel off the wet clothes. But with meditation, there’s always that state of grace that’s the spiritual equivalent to the runner’s high, or Kim Cattrall’s perfect orgasm. It’s just more pressure because, well, what if you don’t get there? Have you failed at “just being?” This is not a question that arises with laundry.
With laundry, you have the irrefutable proof of a completed task. Everyone knows that you’ll have to do it again two days later, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s done now and you did it. For that moment, at least, your load has been enlightened.