Most of us are lucky enough not to have worked on a factory assembly line, or relied on dull repetitive work to make a living. In my teens I did work briefly at Johnson Matthey in Royston, a chemical plant specialising in precious metals. My boss in the post room was worried that I was bored and sent me to a different department testing catalytic converters. We had to insert the ceramic cylinder into a an exhaust pipe, fire up a propane burner, wait 20 minutes, take the cylinder out, tap it with a 12” plastic ruler and record on a sheet if it cracked or broke in two. I did it for two weeks and it was mind-numbingly boring. He then moved me to the warehouse where there was literally nothing to do, and I wasn’t allowed to read a book. The hours, minutes, crawled by. Even in the gold grain department I tired of endlessly weighing out measured amounts of gold for the small bars I was told were used for smuggling. Yes, I was bored of gold. I craved going back to the post room where I started – making my walks around the factory delivering the mail to all the different departments.
Even the most interesting job in the world has its mundane elements. There is the filing and the admin. The expenses and the tax returns. Our natural response is to treat these mundane tasks as necessary evils and push through them as best we can so that we can get back to the interesting stuff. And in a world where we can distract ourselves constantly and simultaneously by checking our phones, looking at emails, WhatsApp messages, cute cat videos, or writing mindfulness blogs, it gets increasingly hard to stick at the mundane.
But mundane tasks are great opportunities to practice mindfulness. One of our teachers told us in a silent retreat we must ‘get reacquainted with being bored’. I have never tried a Vipassana retreat, 10 days of almost constant, silent, seated meditation. I’m told it can be very liberating, but it’s not an activity that comes to many of us naturally.
Simple and repetitive tasks can be well-suited for working on mindfulness, but it still takes discipline because a boring task compels us to leave the present moment. Our thoughts wander- anything to escape. We can use our big brains to go off on autopilot and enjoy some fantasy or memory instead. It can be hugely enjoyable but as we flit around our thoughts can alight on some distressing thing, an anxiety that we hadn’t had for days maybe, and then we find we are focussing on that, and, what’s more, because we are trapped in the task, we end up churning it over in our mind.
Instead we can try to come fully into the moment. Not pushing away by dreading how much more we have to do, or how many more hours lie in front of us, but purposefully focussing on and enjoying the task for what it is, the physical sensations it brings perhaps, checking in on our breathing to see if it is steady or not. Not putting any negative value judgments on the experience, such as labelling it boring, or beneath us. If we are lucky we can even achieve something called ‘flow’ where the feeling of the passage of time disappears altogether.
In fact, when we sit and practice meditation it’s as if we treat breathing itself as the task in hand. Repetitive? We hope so. Mundane? Maybe. Essential? Definitely. Also, if we really think about it, it is kind of interesting too.