There is a particular folksy scene that is found in feel-good period movies where an idealized grandfather figure sits outside his cabin whittling a piece of wood with his hunting knife while his attentive grandson sits absorbing his words of wisdom. Have you actually tried whittling? I’ve tried it as a boy with a penknife and as a youth with a rather better knife, and birds always ended up looking like pregnant seals. Anyway, this is 2023, and not many grandsons are interested in listening to an old man’s stories when Fortnite or Call of Duty is on the Xbox, not to mention the beckoning of social media.
If you read my last riveting article (probably you were playing Xbox), you would have learned of one gardening exploit, but once you have a garden, however small, you have an almost endless supply of jobs, large and small, that can occupy your time and mind outdoors, now and then, without a great deal of stress attached. And what about washing dishes? Do you have a sturdy machine that will churn away doing the washing up and leaving tiny lumps of baked-on food, impossible to shift, craftily hidden on the otherwise sparkling cutlery. Labor-saving gadgets like that are all there so that you can spend more time with Grand Theft Auto instead of delightfully fulfilling the task of rendering your dishes clean by hand.
I know what you are thinking: where on earth is he going with all this? Well, I’m talking about the invaluable occupation of puttering, pottering, or whatever you want to call it. Occupying your mind with undemanding, routine activities, like watering houseplants or spraying their leaves. Not quite time-wasting, since those jobs have to be done sometime. It turns out that activities like those are, in fact, not wasting time at all, unlike trying to get to the next level in Assassin’s Creed; they actually have a very positive impact on you.
Two venerable masters of Buddhism have quotes about dishwashing. Shunru Suzuki Roshi’s “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes” is perhaps a little opaque, but Thich Nhat Hahn’s “When you are washing the dishes, washing dishes must be the most important thing in your life” is perhaps more illuminating. While washing dishes may not be the first thought brought to mind by the phrase “living in the moment,” it can have positive results. In 2015, researchers at Florida State University carried out an experiment with 51 students to look for what benefits might be had from mindful dishwashing. Compared with a control group, the group who focused on the warmth of the water, the smell of the dish soap, and the feel of the slick dishes experienced a significantly better mood at the end of the experiment. This included a decrease in “nervousness” of 27 percent and an increase in a sense of “mental inspiration” of 25 percent, as if the simple activity had refreshed their minds. Not inconsiderable benefits.
In a 1976 groundbreaking study, Langer and Rodin, et al., found that even a marginal increase in the sense of perceived personal control and choice offered to residents of an elderly people’s home had significant psychological benefits compared to the control group. Even after 18 months, they still demonstrated improved health. Subsequent research over the years has replicated those results.
Taken together, these studies and others like them have shown that taking some time for “puttering” activity, over which personal control can be exercised, even in the context of a busy stressful day, can materially benefit both the psyche and the physiology. Such simple activities as tidying up, dusting, cleaning, sorting, decluttering, garden jobs, folding laundry and, yes, whittling, would all qualify, provided the individual uses the opportunity to focus the mind and divert it from other, more stressful avenues for a short time. Decluttering a workspace can be especially important since, when you resume work, the brain has fewer items in your visual field to distract it.
By reducing anxiety levels, soothing stress responses, increasing focus, and triggering endorphins, benefits both mental and physical can be had. Stacey Bedwell, a psychologist at King’s College, London, is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t [even] have to align with actual control as long as we believe, or feel we have control… simply being able to change our environment can create an agency that is beneficial.” You simply need to shut out the noise of the outside world for a while. I’m sure I certainly changed my environment with the shards of wood showered from my seals.
Experiment with a potted plant or two in your office. Take a break from the work for a few minutes during the workday and care for them: water them, mist the leaves, wipe off dust, or inspect for bugs (the live kind. If you find any other kind, call the police). The key is to let it take your complete and undivided attention so that you truly forget about the stresses or mundane work of the day for those few minutes—or, put another way, care for them mindfully. Your mind and body will thank you.
Making tea of an afternoon is a little ritual for me, even on a day when all sorts of demands enter in, and it is nearly tea time now, so I will let Thich Nhat Hahn have the last words: “While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life. When you are drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life.”
© David Cuin 2023