Zen and the Art of Vacuuming: A Near-Fable


Introductory Note:

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for quite a while, and I am very serious about it; it’s had a beneficial effect on my life. But in my description of my blog, I speak of “seeking dialogue to inform, enlighten, and/or amuse you and me.” The emphasis here is on “amuse.” I realize things have been pretty heavy in Annie’s blog world, with focus on climate change, the political scene, and race relations, so I thought it was time to lighten up a bit in this holiday season.

What follows is a piece I wrote some years back, which was published in a now-defunct humor magazine. It still amuses me, and I hope it will elicit a smile from you as well. Perhaps it will also evoke feelings in concert with my desire to find common ground…

Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, is positively nuts about housework. She claims if she were to let someone else do her housework for her, she would feel alienated from her own life. Cleaning one’s house, she says, is like “Zen meditation.”

Because I, too, would like a clean house, inner serenity, and best-selling novels, I decided to apply Ms. Oates’s philosophy to my own life. I first endeavored to wash the kitchen floor while seated in the middle of it meditating in the zazen, or cross-legged, position. As one might imagine, this was a rigorous exercise, requiring great self-discipline and flexibility. I felt myself stretched beyond what I had earlier assumed to be my limits. After fifteen minutes, I had grasped a Higher Truth, which I quite willingly share: Life Must Provide Us With a Longer-Handled Mop.

One of the foci of Zen is the koan, an unsolvable riddle or nonsensical proposition. Surely, housework provides us with the ultimate koan: Why Dust? Why devote time and energy to casting motes into the air, only to watch them reconvene above one’s head tauntingly in anticipation of their certain descent?

Vacuuming, on the other hand, puts one in touch with the Cosmos. It is the practice of piecing together disparate elements of nature in one location as a cohesive whole. However, the vacuum cleaner is an artificial device, separating the true Zen student from the kind of self-reliance necessary to approach enlightenment.

The serious Zen-cleaner uses masking tape wrapped around the fingers to effect the same essential unity. This process, painstaking as it is, leads to contemplation at close range of the complexity inherent in what had appeared to be a superficial layer of carpet debris. William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. The Zen-cleaner sees contemporary civilization in a piece of sticky tape.

Sorting clothes provides another koan, elegant in its simplicity but profound in its implications. Whither the Other Sock? I leave the reader time now to meditate on this Universal Question…


 Like Zen, housework poses the kind of paradoxical problems that will shock the student out of dependence upon ordinary logic. No other human accomplishment is apparent only when it is not accomplished. All is process. The devoted Zen-cleaner knows never to seek the sense of satisfaction other mortals derive from their work when the job is done. One operates with constant awareness of an Eternal Verity: The Cleaning of a House Will Lead, With the Passage of Time, to a House That Must Be Cleaned.

The practitioner of Zen incorporates a love of nature into one’s life. It is important, then, that the house be properly aired and smell of the great outdoors. When I had completed my tasks and felt myself approaching Nirvana, I flung open the windows, inviting the world into my home. A small brown sparrow accepted my invitation. It flew across the living room, swept into the kitchen, and lighted briefly in the middle of the freshly waxed floor, almost precisely on the spot where I had meditated not long before. It then departed, leaving behind a tiny organic reminder of our transcendental experience.

With that symbol, I had reached satori, the ultimate insight. I now had a penetrating vision of the value of housework. Thank you, little brown sparrow. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates.

Happy holidays, everybody! See you in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to browse through the posts you may not have seen yet. Backstage in My Blog World, written immediately after I experienced a frenzy resulting from an early technical snafu, may also make you smile.

I hope 2019 brings us a calmer, more unified, and democratic nation in a more peaceful world. And, in the mindfulness tradition, I offer this message, which I learned from renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield:

May you be filled with lovingkindness;

May you be safe and protected;

Well in body and mind;

Strong and healed;

May you be happy.


8 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Vacuuming: A Near-Fable

  1. Indeed, your newest here made me smile. (Don’t even get me started on the zen of ironing.) I was especially intrigued by a bird in the home, too, and in the kitchen no less. I feel there is more here than meets the eye, some kind of omen maybe . . . ?

    I also loved your closing blessing — thank you — and want to extend one to you that I’ve always liked.

    May the sun bring you new energy by day.
    May the moon softly restore you by night.
    May the rain wash away your worries.
    May the breeze blow new strength into your being.
    May you walk gently through the world and know it’s beauty all the days of your life.

    Your devoted reader,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Denise–

      Ah, the Zen of ironing–hadn’t thought of that. It reminded me of a line in a lighthearted essay I wrote some time ago that was published in a regional newspaper. Speaking of a then-newly adapted morning running routine and the energy it created, I noted: “And while it didn’t actually inspire me to retrieve the ironing board from the garage, it did noticeably increase my preprandial accomplishments.”

      Have to ponder your point about the little birdie–you may be on to something there. Any ideas are most welcome.

      And thanks so much for that lovely blessing; it’s greatly appreciated, and I extend it to you as well.



  2.     To dust or not to dust, that is a tricky question. Whenever I meditate while buttering a pan, I wonder if the pan feels buttered up or loved if I don’t dust it with flour; does it actually wish to stick to the bottom of a loaf of bread.
        As to the hands. Rather than Jazz hands, Zen hands can cup a small amount of water and dish detergent, and with a swirling motion on the surface to the carpet create a hair ball bigger than a cat that can be lifted up and put in a sand-sculpture collage with Papier-mâché to fill in the dark matter of the universe and fill the emptiness of outer space with love and coffee beans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is excellent, Doug! You have elevated my Zen musings to a new genre: the culinary/astronomical/metaphysical/sentimental. Quite an achievement. I welcome your take on any of my other postings at your leisure.

      Very nice to make your virtual acquaintance. I shall visit your blog shortly.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s