Zen and the Art of Remodeling
Updated: Apr 17
Many philosophical and contemplative traditions stress living in the moment. But mind-wandering is our default mode. Mind wandering correlates with unhappiness and with activation in a network of brain regions associated with self-referential processing (Brewer, 2011). Meditation is one way to quiet the busyness of the default mode network. In a 2011 study, researchers found that the main nodes of the default-mode network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. "Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control), both at baseline and during meditation," researchers wrote.
A Zen correlate states simply: "When walking, walk. When eating, eat." In other words, pay attention. Cut mental elaboration and focus on the task at hand. This can apply to any chore.
The Korean Zen Master Songdam put it this way: "If you think meditation means going deep into the mountains and sitting in a quiet meditation hall with fresh air all around, then you've come to the wrong place. The Way to Truth I teach is washing dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor, doing laundry with your hands, hammering nails, and digging with a shovel. It's not about sitting calmly and peacefully like a mountain spirit."
I am remodeling my office studio. Gutting, pulling nails, installing drywall, mortaring stone, sanding and staining old wood moulding, or installing new electric outlets can be done mindfully, with full attention to detail. I get into a creative zone and am more craftsman than impatient DIYer distracted by this or that. Fundamental to the ethos of craftsmanship is the intention to do something well for its own sake.
The Shaker Philosophy of Furniture Making states: "Make every product better than it’s ever been done before. Make the parts you cannot see as well as the parts you can see. Use only the best materials, even for the most everyday items. Give the same attention to the smallest detail as you do to the largest. Design every item you make to last forever.”
In the West, performance excellence is valued- think of the craftsman who does not compromise on quality, the winningest athletes, the most influential CEOs. In the older, contemplative-mind traditions of the East, they make a state/trait distinction. A state is temporary- think of an athlete in the Zone during a game, a skilled surgeon operating on a patient, or a corporate attorney successfully closing a multi-billion dollar deal.
A trait is a more enduring characteristic or more stable and consistent pattern of behavior. The ethos of doing things well extends to life itself and to all the mundane chores that require our attention throughout the day. The top athlete may be good at dribbling a basketball down the court, the surgeon may be a general in the operating room, and the corporate attorney may appear on the cover of magazines, but, outside of work they may be unhappy, unfulfilled, incomplete, miserable. The state trait distinction is one of doing vs being. In contemplative traditions, the emphasis is one doing everything, even small things, well.
When I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the annual Rains retreat all the monks would come back to the monastery to practice together for three months, and sometimes we were only two novices who had to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes for well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a difficult chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then we had to heat up a big pot of water before we could do any scrubbing. Nowadays with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even hot running water it is much easier to enjoy washing the dishes.
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost. I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy.
Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.
We can apply this same attitude toward the most mundane chore.
In the Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo writes: “Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.” The mind can elevate the mundane into the sublime. In Japan, "the tea ceremony is a worship of the imperfect… [it’s] the art of being in the world." The intention is to live with a refined attention to detail.
Every action can be an excuse for the worship of the mundane. This reverence can infuse our work- whether pulling nails from old studs, mitering joints, or chiseling stone. I remain fully present. I feel it all, see it all, and rest in stillness while the hands work.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Prisig brings this same presence to working with metal and motorcycles engines. “The Buddha resides quite as comfortably in the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain... The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”