By Peter Schaller
My son goes to a private school in Managua, where they must wear a uniform—white shirt and blue pants, every day.
Because Nicaraguans are impeccable in their personal hygiene and presentation, it is expected that these articles of clothing should be sparkling clean, and flawlessly ironed. I’m not very good at getting the shirt white enough, but I especially don’t like to iron. Most household chores don’t bother me much at all, they are an integral part of single parenting. I love to cook, wash dishes, sweep and mop, but I have never made peace with ironing. And so, on a Sunday evening, I decided to give myself over entirely to one of the things that I really don’t like.
A few months ago, I was listening to a teaching by a Buddhist monk. He explained that when he arrived at the monastery as a novice, he knew that he would be required to perform service hours in the different activities supported by the monks. He told his teacher that he would gladly perform any task, but he did not want to work in the hospital, as he did not like to be surrounded by illness and suffering. His teacher responded immediately that he would, naturally, begin his service commitment in the hospital.
The monk went on to explain the essential nature of confronting and mastering those things that we dislike.
In a truly mindful and meditative life, every moment presents an opportunity for awakening and understanding. Every moment has the potential to cause great joy and peace. By fully concentrating on each task, each instant, we can find peace in the most mundane, seemingly unpleasant activities. We cannot truly appreciate the things that we love if we do not come to terms with the things that we dislike.
So, I set my full attention to ironing. I pushed the iron in quick, even strokes, watching the wrinkles smooth and disappear. Every so often, the iron would sigh contentedly and a cloud of steam would rise up towards my face. Rather than letting my mind remind me how much I disliked ironing, I simply allowed myself to be absorbed by the moment—the motion and the simplicity of the common task. Before I knew it, I had ironed my son’s uniforms for the whole week, as well as three of my own shirts that looked like they had been balled up and used for packing material. When I was finished, I discovered that I had the ability to turn a seemingly unpleasant activity into a moment of concentration and reflection.
Of course, ironing is an inconsequential example of how mindfulness can be used to make peace with the things that we dislike. The same practice can be used for dealing with people who cause us pain and suffering, or for situations that rob us of peace and balance. In every moment, no matter how difficult or disagreeable, exists the possibility of discovering great joy. In every person, there is beauty. In every heart, there is suffering. In great beauty, there is ugliness. In every situation, there is an opportunity for learning. In tragedy, there is discovery. Only by embracing those things that cause us pain, suffering and discomfort can we truly find peace.
Buddhist teacher and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that even when brushing our teeth, we should find two or three minutes of pure joy. After all, we may not always have teeth to brush!
Now on to running. I love walking and cherish hiking, though I have never been very fond of running. However, at 46, I feel a greater need to make sure that my body is kept in optimum condition. The things that really suck about aging are metabolism and gravity. So, I think it’s time to run.
After that, I will have to confront mushrooms and their inappropriate texture…
Peter Schaller is an artist and activist who lives and works in Nicaragua. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how to reduce his karmic and carbon footprints. He is the author of After the Silence, a collection of poems, essays and photographs, which can be ordered by contacting him directly via email or Facebook.
Editor: Dana Gornall