When I was in my early 20s, I found myself in an existential tension that I’d come to wear like a familiar sweater throughout my adult years. The tension feels ancient. Not personally ancient, but impersonally so. Not to do with the world as it is, these times we’re in, the current cultural memes and ripples, but to do with being human, grappling with human existence and what it means to be and evolve the Self.
Am I being and fulfilling what I’m meant to, in the truest sense of my spirit?
Why does this continually shift and evolve and why does every new edge feel so risky?
I’m 22, doing dishes and talking to my friend Lisa, wearing one of those bulky headsets, plugged into my portable landline phone. The physio-emotional sensation is best described as thrashing. On the one hand, I feel I am engaging life as I must, doing my earnest best to be in alignment, pursue my ambitions with thoughtful devotion, and Self-actualize, the meaning of which I’m trying to figure out and I’m studious and serious about it.
But I can’t help but feel that I am somehow lacking or going astray. Every Self that feels true somehow becomes a false identity in its reflection. This is itself a paradox that’s been being meditated on and taught about for centuries. I question myself, my motivations, my capacities, my direction. My interior feels like a tornado of doubt and anxiety.
“Lisa!” I say, the meaning of life a weight in my gut. “What am I doing??!!”
A pause on the other end.
“Che. You’re doing the dishes.”
I’ve cycled back to that moment repeatedly over the past almost twenty years. I’m doing the dishes I tell myself when I wonder if I’m doing right by my children. I’m doing the dishes when I’m caught in a shame spiral for having taken on too much again. When survival and activity are coiled through my being like snakes. I’m doing the dishes when my way of being has run its course and I’m in an identity free-fall, begging for this transition to be clean and blissful, knowing that they never are.
I’m doing the dishes has become my own personal stand-in for a pause of presence. An invitation into the now. A self-compassionate nod that my humanity is not something I am succeeding or failing at, but a dynamic unfolding I’m participating in.
The mundane parts of life, the maintenance of life, like doing dishes or laundry or wiping poopy bums or filing my taxes, can be places of reprieve. Like the white space in a painting that brings the rest alive. I can scrape chicken shit off the droppings board and contemplate am I living my life according to my deepest truth and alignment? And it can matter not what the answer is, there’s still chicken shit to scrape and dishes to do.
When I can really inhabit them fully, I find the exact rightness of the moment, in the way that the moment couldn’t be anything but what it is.
The of course-ness of the pain of being alive in a world with so much suffering. The impersonal nature of existential angst. The unanswerable-ness of the questions I’m living.
The places and practices where I can fully relax my seeking mind, my striving mind, my existentially restless mind, help to cultivate a kind of faith in the mystery of things. They help me to face and take the risks of simply being myself, which, at times, is dumbfoundingly terrifying. Right now, these are creative practices. Writing practices. Meeting the page is like washing the dishes of my psyche and its mundane and divine all at once.
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