Help me learn to maintain perspective about the role that The Mundane plays in life.
December 31, 2012 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn to maintain perspective about the role that The Mundane plays in life.

Please share you recommendations* for how to make the most out of Life when so much of [modern, Western, relatively affluent] Life requires that one's attention, time and energy be spent on the the mundane of everyday life. Paying bills; keeping a home organized; maintaining a wardrobe, or a car; regularly reviewing the budget, taxes, or retirement plan; keeping up with acquaintances (i.e. networking). The activities which -- in the pursuit of other ends -- are necessary but are not important, nor are ends in themselves; those things which probably won't matter one iota when you're lying on your deathbed but which for various reasons (growing and supporting a family; pursuing bigger-picture, longer term goals) must be done.

In other words, if you subscribe to the notion that humans are meant for something beyond just following the whim of the moment and "doing what feels good," then how do you prevent the feeling that Life is often made up almost entirely, or in large part, by the execution of the mundane?

How do you keep yourself from sinking into a spot where it feels like life's made up of Going Through the Motions?

I find that it's not enough for me to KNOW (cerebrally) that having X done is sufficient for going about the getting of it done. "Having X Done" is often too abstract, or perhaps the value or benefit of having done X will only be realized after many years or decades hence (if ever). So, I'm hoping to find perhaps a new way of thinking about Me Doing X that will help me to see beyond the mere value-attachment aspect of it.

How do you square the necessity of putting/keeping your nose to the grindstone, and being self-disciplined, sacrificing the Now for Future, etc., with the idea that a rewarding and meaningful life also requires us to be mindful and intentional, present in the moment?

* I'm most interested in recommendations for Books, preferrably works of fiction. But... I'll take whatever you'be got !
posted by armoir from antproof case to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Without subscribing to the premise that humans are meant for anything in particular, I can tell you that washing the dishes is an activity Thich Nhat Hanh refers to repeatedly as a matter where mindfulness is still the goal, not something disrupted by the mundane. So my book recommendation is The Miracle of Mindfulness. But I think almost any popularization of Zen will tell you the basic idea is "Chop wood, carry water," i.e. make the mundane something you engage in as an active and willing participant, paying attention to it all, because it's still you and still the world, rather than "lost" time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:09 PM on December 31, 2012 [22 favorites]

couple of things:

1. Consider that the point of life is to have experiences. Go out of your way to have them, whatever floats your personal boat - art, sex, reading remarkable literature, clubbing, solo walk across the Appalachians, whatever. This helps keep the feeling of mundanity at bay, this accumulation of experiences.

2. When you are feeling that disgusted bored feeling (I know it well,) take a moment to think about just how precious every moment is, and what you'd miss if you knew you were going to drop dead in five minutes. It feels so good to breathe; the blue sky is amazing; your sweater is warm and cozy; your children are astoundingly beautiful -- whatever. I find this perspective increasingly useful as I get older.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:11 PM on December 31, 2012 [8 favorites]

so much of [modern, Western, relatively affluent] Life requires that one's attention, time and energy be spent on the the mundane of everyday life.

This has always been true, and is arguably less true for "modern, Western, relatively affluent life" than it has been for any other lives before. The opportunities for leisure (i.e., doing things that do not need to be done) is greater for people in those situations than for almost any other people in history.

When I read your question I immediately thought of the Zen saying: Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water. The point being (or a point being) that it's your attitude and your self that changes, even as the tasks stay the same. Wood still needs to be chopped, water carried. That doesn't meant that there isn't meaning in the acts, and that you can't have transcendent experiences in the midst of that mundanity. For more Zen reading related to that kind of thing, you might look at Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which is a short book of very short Zen stories and aphorisms.

My favorite novel, which also happens to be about this in some ways, is called A Month in the Country. It's about getting to do the mundane things again after fighting in WWI. It's short and very sweet.
posted by OmieWise at 6:27 PM on December 31, 2012 [21 favorites]

Just David by Eleanor H. Porter, a favorite book of mine, taught me the concept of: Horas non numero nisi serenas (I count no hours but unclouded ones).

The main character (David) also discusses chores as "necessary nuisances".
posted by zinon at 6:38 PM on December 31, 2012

I don't know whether this will speak to you, but consider growing a tomato plant. To see a project through from seed to fruition is an abstraction, but a plant? It requires you to be present, to pay attention, to help it along, and to do what's required, every day. It might die. It might live, and you'll have a tomato or two for your salad. But you will have paid attention to the work, as Monsieur Caution wisely suggests.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:00 PM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is something sacred in the mundane, if you look for it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:26 PM on December 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

There is a Zen saying: "Before enlightenment - chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment - chop wood, carry water." There's another saying I heard when I was moving in neo-Pagan circles - "You have to serve the goddess 'Trivia' before you can serve any others."

I've processed these both as: yeah, compared to the intellectual and emotional and spiritual highs of more weighty life, doing things like cleaning the kitchen sink and doing laundry and making dinner are boring as shit. But if you DON'T do them, before long you will be at a point where you will not even be ABLE to do any of the more important things of life, because you will either be dirty (from the dirty sink) or naked (from the lack of laundry) or dead (because you didn't eat). You can only deal with the more important matters of the world if your mundane basic needs are taken care of first, because that is how you keep yourself in the best condition TO tend to the weightier things.

And that brings me to a bit of grafitti I saw - "take good care of your body, because there's a soul inside of it."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:45 PM on December 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Why do all happiness's and experiences have to be big huge exciting ones? I don't get why the doing mundane everyday things gets such a bad wrap. Life isn't made up of big emotional experiences that is a modern way of looking at thing. Look for the small happiness's, because they are the only ones that you can really be sure of.

As much as I hate using Oprah's ideas keeping a happiness journal is a great idea for becoming more mindful of small joys, write down five or so things that brought you joy during the day. Some of mine today at random 1/ Kissed my husband at midnight 2/ my dogs play fighting on the couch 3/the kids opposite building a snow fort for hours this evening 4/Woodpeckers came to my feeder. If you can't find the small happiness's in your day you are going to spend your life just waiting for some big external thing or event to make you happy.

I'd recommend the Tao of Pooh or the Te of Piglet as good books to read to get you started on thinking about things differently. They are a light read and in my case were a great place to start before expanding into more indepth reading. They are non fiction but refer to the Winnie the Pooh books which are fiction.
posted by wwax at 10:02 PM on December 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of that isn't really mundane.

I take a great deal of pleasure in paying the bills and paying my rent, to the point where I enjoy physically doing it. Going to the bank or the post office and handing over money and getting a physical receipt. It's a sign of my achievement as an adult to be able to provide a roof over my head and all the necessities of life. I was very, very poor for a while there, so it's comforting and empowering to be able to say "yup, we're paid."

The same sort of thing goes for a very satisfying house cleanup. I am able to control my environment, to make order out of chaos, to determine what is pleasing to me. I'm currently not able to really clean my home for medical reasons, so I'm feeling that loss of control. The house is tolerably clean, but there is cruft at the corners - just crap accumulating on tables, unwashed dishes from last night, that sort of thing - and it's driving me a bit mad.

One thing you can do is remember that this moment in history and the things you can do - these mundane things - are unique, nowhere else in time have we had so much comfort and control over our lives.
posted by Jilder at 11:02 PM on December 31, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: For starters, it sounds like you have defined yourself into a corner here. You make a vague reference to a higher power, a purpose, but then equate "mundane" more with "things I don't like to do" without reference to that divinity. I don't mean that as criticism, but it might help to think more about what you really mean - Do you (like so many of us) desperately want life to have some meaning but can't find any sign of one; or do you want to learn to enjoy some aspects of the "daily grind" more? Those two goals don't really relate to each another except through your expectation of meaning to make the minutiae more bearable.

For the former, no one can help you (except maybe a priest or hallucinogens, and both of those amount to flipping a coin and hoping it lands on-edge).

For the latter, I would suggest looking into gamification (LGT a topical site's wiki entry about a good book on the topic, but more on theory than implementation). Unfortunately, I haven't personally had the best success in applying that to most household chores, but it works great for exercise, and to some degree for large-scale yardwork (easy to see mowing the lawn / snowblowing the driveway as a Xonix / Qix variant; not so easy for the detailed slow work like weeding the flowerbeds).

Sometimes, though, you just need to find something to enjoy about the little things in life - Make no mistake, I don't mean to ascribe some BS nobility to ironing or scrubbing the toilet, but Jilder has the right idea, about paying the bills. Me, I enjoy washing dishes... The satisfaction of keeping my flatware sanitary, the sensation of warm water on my hands and of touching every surface of the plate to "feel" the cleanness. I wouldn't choose to do dishes over, say, going for a hike, but when it needs to get done, I can find some small part of it to enjoy.
posted by pla at 7:30 AM on January 1, 2013

Have a child. Then all the mundane things become organized around the concept of "family" and can be very satisfying. You wouldn't believe how much fun it can be to change diapers!

For all the other stuff, like folding laundry and paying bills, I suggest you embrace the concept of "maturity". This is what grown ups do, and don't add any drama to it. Just get that shit done, and you will have PLENTY of time for everything else.

And you can pick and chose too -- there is no rule that laundry has to be folded or wardrobes have to be elaborate. You can wear a basic uniform of jeans and shirts, and as long as they are neat and clean and have some dressed-up variations, nobody is going to care. You can sell your car and ride a bike. You can get your food from a community farm instead of Safeway. You can live in a house with roommates and share cooking duties instead of eating by your lonesome every night. You can get a job helping people instead of working for the man. There are a zillion ways your lifestyle can be adapted to be less mundane.
posted by yarly at 7:32 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Coming at this from a different angle, you might want to check into minimalism and look at the ways you can minimize those mundane things by simplifying your wardrobe, getting rid of things you don't need that you find yourself constantly organizing and reorganizing, perhaps even downsizing your home. Here is a list of a few minimalist/simplification blogs to start. Basically, though, they advocate being very mindful of the ways you spend your time and identifying where there's a disconnect between what you're doing and what you want to be doing. In that disconnect, find ways to simplify to lessen the disconnect. If your wardrobe is stressing you out, then get rid of most of it. If it's the clutter in your house, get a big box and start putting things in it that you don't need or want. Store it for a few months, and if you still don't need the stuff at that time, get rid of it.

The more mindful part of that might be that in the mundane things that remain, you begin to see how they facilitate (rather than detract from) your priorities. Paying heating bills facilitates a warm home, so enjoy that warmth as you pay the bill. Paying taxes facilitates street lights and paving. Enjoy those when you use them. Emptying the dishwasher facilitates a clean and organized space, so enjoy that space while you do it.

Yes, a lot of this is about choosing to reframe how you think about the tasks, but there are more concrete things you can do, too, that simplify the tasks themselves.
posted by BlooPen at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your question made me think of Mark Strand and this poem, which is one of my favorites, so, for what it's worth:

The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children crouched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? Oh parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost--a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

Mark Strand
posted by onlyconnect at 9:34 AM on January 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

I agree with fingersandtoes and others. I get annoyed at the mundane aspects of life when I'm aggravated and bored. The best cure for this is is some sort of ecstatic experience: a hike, travel, clubbing, reading an amazing book, trying something challenging, even just having a really, really long sleep.

Try to get away to somewhere beautiful and have a good rest. Then go out and do something that makes you feel ecstasy.

Also, your life may be too stressful. If these details are getting to you, do less crap you don't care about.
posted by 3491again at 10:26 AM on January 1, 2013

For a fiction recommendation I'd have to go with David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. It's a book that revolves around living with the mundane and how to go about living moment to moment in the banal. It's an unfinished work, reads more like a series of vignettes, and I think does a pretty good job responding to what you mentioned.
posted by holmesian at 10:42 AM on January 1, 2013

Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander.
posted by brennen at 10:00 PM on January 1, 2013

Honestly, my strategy has been to work harder on the important stuff to raise my income and status to the point where I can afford to pay people to take over some of the mundane stuff.
posted by paultopia at 10:16 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm hyper organised about mundane things, so they take me the minimum possible time. I also hire other people to do things that I cannot minimise otherwise.

I also organise my life to avoid mundane chores if I possibly can. I wouldn't live in a place with a garden I had to maintain because I don't like gardening and I don't want to spend money on a gardener and a housekeeper.

I'm looking to move at the moment, and one of the things that I'm - no kidding - looking for is a place with fully level floors so that I can have one of those vacuum/mop robots do all my floor cleaning for me with zero intervention on my part. My current solution to floors it to hire someone to clean once a week, but honestly that isn't hassle free either.

I don't own a car currently because of where I live, but if I did need one I would probably lease one to save on hassle.

Pay bills? Everything is paperless and set up to be paid semi-automatically (I just need to review and approve an otherwise automatic payment). That also feeds into my budget tracker which means it takes me maybe 20 minutes a month to review my finances. I do retrospective budgetting for everything except for savings which go out automatically, this lets me track where my money is going without having to put mental effort into every expenditure.

I like clothes, so maintaing a wardobe isn't something I have any advice on because I take way more time than I need to picking out fabrics with my tailor and shopping for shoes.

Above all, I move things into systems and out of my own head. This was the main thing I took away from David Allen's Getting Things Done, the book is about an organisational system but it's based on this philosophy of not having to keep lists of minutia in your head which is ultimately stressful. I have my system automated, so I never have thoughts like "I should clean my gas hobs" or "did I remember to pay my rent?" distracting me, the system will tell me if it's time to do those things or do it for me. This leaves me free to do other things.

The mental energy saved can go on memorising poetry or whatever you want.

How do you square the necessity of putting/keeping your nose to the grindstone, and being self-disciplined, sacrificing the Now for Future, etc., with the idea that a rewarding and meaningful life also requires us to be mindful and intentional, present in the moment?

I try and enjoy whatever it is I have to do. If I don't intrinsically enjoy it and I can't avoid it, sufficiently minimise it by organisation, or outsource it then I find a way to enjoy it.
posted by atrazine at 3:51 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Serendipitously, I was listening to a Zen Buddhist podcast earlier today, and the guide discussed something apparently from one of Thich Nhat Hanh's books. A man came to him feeling distressed and dissatisfied because he spent so much time taking care of his child, and interacting with his wife, and being at work, and all the rest of day-to-day mundanity, that "I never have any time for me!"

Thich Nhat Hanh's response was that the time the man spent with his child was time for him. The time he spent interacting with his wife was time for him. The time he spent at work was time for him.

The most numinous experience I've had happened on an Oakland sidewalk in front of a liquor store on a rainy morning as I was on my way to work. Another notable one happened while my husband and I were having a stupid disagreement.

Life is what happens while you're making other plans, as the saying goes. Pay attention so you don't miss it.
posted by Lexica at 8:00 PM on January 2, 2013

One way to think about this question is to think about the positive side of "the mundane": assuming you have all your limbs and senses and mental faculties, imagine how you would love to be doing mundane things like smelling roses if you lost your sense of smell, tasting the food you love if you lost your sense of taste, walking or even just standing if you lost your legs, scratching an itch if you lost your arms, hearing a bird chirp if you lost your hearing, looking at the light reflect on a wall if you lost our vision. There is beauty and magnificence and miraculousness in the mundane, it's just a matter of whether you can focus on it enough to appreciate it.
posted by Dansaman at 10:18 PM on January 2, 2013

A possibly relevant zen pencils comic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:55 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

That is a great comic!
posted by OmieWise at 9:03 AM on January 3, 2013

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