I sat down heavily. I was drenched in sweat and exhausted. After an hour of rigorous practice I was done but class wasn't over yet. My Kung Fu teacher looked at me with his half-smile; he always looked an even mix of amused and intrigued.
"You must learn to clean your sink", he said.
Say what now? I listened, earnestly, but was puzzled. He wasn't one to use metaphors to make a point.
"You always sink! While you practice, you sink about something else.", he continued. Then I remembered he was from the Shaolin temple, in China, and he has an accent. He was saying think. Once I understood that, the rest of the lecture was more powerful. However, the lesson is actually more powerful when you think about sinks.
Our mental sinks get really dirty.
Each day is filled making decisions. We constantly plan the future. Sometimes just for the next minute and other times we are setting expectations for years ahead. That's a lot to think about and it builds up. The most typical methods of decompressing also tend to be unproductive. In the US, the average person spends nearly 5 hours a day watching TV. While this is good for Netflix's stock price, it has questionable benefits to the viewer. We think it serves as a Liquid Plumber™, but there is little evidence to support this.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (just read that as Dr. Mike if you can't figure out Hungarian, like me) discovered that people were happiest when being challenged. Most people reported very low levels of satisfaction while being unproductive, like sitting around watching TV. But sometimes nothing is craved more than plopping down, turning on the TV and turning off our brains. But why do we crave this? How can we satisfy that need to recuperate without being dissatisfied?
I believe this craving does not originate as a result of being busy. Instead, the desire is due to the grime that is left behind from simply living, thinking, and planning. The decisions we must make are dirty dishes in our mental sink. We're very good at using free time to subconsciously tidy up. We make decisions, and those dishes get cleaned up. Except it doesn't do anything at all to the sink itself. There is grime and filth that gets left behind. It builds up, and the result is craving an escape. These unproductive habits provide a moment of escape.
After all that work cleaning up our thoughts, it's tough to acknowledge that things still aren't clean so we avoid thinking about it.
We must also clean the sink.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about how stress builds up. I recommended he try meditating. He, like so many others, reject meditation and almost always because they have a substitute activity they prefer. Usually that substitute activity is focused on putting the dishes away and not cleaning the sink.
"When I walk into work, that's my meditation time to think and plan my day", he said.
Your sink is still dirty! You aren't cleaning away what is left behind, and it builds up. This grime is easy to ignore despite its affects on everything we do in our daily life. It's something hard to even think about. It's ambiguous and fuzzy. It's a feeling that just hangs around.
Meditation is not the only way to clean your sink, but for me it is the most effective. I've been meditating of and on for almost 20 years and my current habit of regular, daily meditation is about 2 years old now. Meditation is still a challenge for me. Many days my sink remains covered in filth. I can feel it; it distracts me through the day.
I struggle to let my mind release all of the leftovers building up. Every day I want to just put the dishes away and do something else. Anything else. Every day I have to tell myself, "Stop, just be still. Let my mind be still and focus only on my breathing." Some days I'm successful, some days I'm not. Even when I'm less successful I still feel better. I'm more in control, less stressed and anxious. After 2 years I'm successful more often than not and most importantly I don't find myself craving unproductive habits that used to draw me in without remorse.
I think my sink is finally starting to stay clean.
Photo courtesy of Andy Maguire.