5 tips for meaning in cleaning

August 14th, 2012

It seems to settle deepest at the end of summer, in the stark raving middle of withering heat and drought, in the geologic layers of dust, grit and cobwebs that converge at this time of year. It’s dirt, and my house is full of it. It’s a good time to remember these 5 Tips for Finding Meaning in Cleaning:

1. Make it meditative. Focus on the doing, not the getting done. The motion of simple, repetitive tasks can make you more attentive and calm – the back and forth of the vacuum cleaner or dust rag, the concentrated effort of spot cleaning, the methodical sorting of laundry – chores are meditative, as long as you’re not thinking about how much you hate them. The key to mindfulness is not thinking something lofty, but thinking nothing at all, and it doesn’t take any thinking to clean the sink. Throw open the windows and doors! Spring cleaning is spring break for your brain.

2. Find what you’ve been missing. We spend most of our lives ignoring what’s in front of us and looking instead for something more. The life we already have doesn’t seem like it’s worth our time or effort. The life right now is the only life we have, and when we don’t take care of it, we reinforce our feelings of inadequacy. Seeing things clearly is the foundation of wisdom and the path to genuine fulfillment. Plus, you’ll find your car keys faster.

3. Enfold your life in dignity. Carry out the garbage and it carries over into every part of your life. A cluttered closet reflects the distraction and disorder between your ears. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The daily rituals of housecleaning enfold your life in dignity, because they are nothing other than the way you care for yourself.

4. Don’t expect to like it. Just do it anyway. When we expect things to be more enjoyable or rewarding than they are, or when we devalue them as menial and insignificant, that keeps us at arm’s length from our own lives. Most of us think we have to follow our bliss somewhere else. But when you’re really present in every moment, even when you’re just scrubbing the bathtub, you scour away the scum of dissatisfaction that dulls your happiness.

5. Someone has to do it. This could be the biggest aha moment in your life. Someone has to clean the house, wash the dishes, and empty the closets, and the only person you have to work with is YOU. Running away from the things we would rather avoid is what makes our lives feel like an endless chase. Still waiting for the happy ever after? Only you, with your own attention, can change your life. Attention is love. Pay attention to the dusty floors, the dirty windows and the cluttered closet. There are no cleaning secrets, and there is no hidden meaning. Your own attention is what transforms your life.

Photo of the installation Blue Mop by Carolyn Mason


  1. Yep. I always wondered why doing kitchen duty on retreat was considered “meditation” while doing kitchen duty at home is a “chore.” I finally figured out the only difference was the name and subsequent expectations.

    Comment by Lorianne — March 16, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  2. As always, really good post. Your words hit my heart all the time. I’m gonna go make my bed now. Thank you.

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — March 16, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Thanks for including me on your read list.

    Comment by Kaishu — March 16, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  4. I loved this post. You captured something so important. Because so much of life (especially for mothers) is filled with these tasks it is refreshing to approach them as opportunities for mindfulness. And it does feel great to be able to find things. Releasing extra stuff helps, too.

    Comment by Sarah — March 16, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  5. Thank you so much for this. I find myself looking for more meaning in cleaning every day. I’m printing this out and posting it on the inside of my broom closet.

    Comment by Kathleen — March 16, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

  6. Wonderful and timely thoughts for me. We just moved into a new house, our second move in four months, and the packing/unpacking has gotten a bit tedious. I’ve been waiting for that day somewhere down the road when everything is settled and organized, an absolute waste of NOW. Thanks for the reminder that life isn’t tomorrow or next week or next month, but in this very moment.

    Comment by Carol — March 17, 2010 @ 1:08 am

  7. I just finished reading “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge” a classic book on Waldorf parenting, and one of the reminders that I took to heart was about mindfully going about our daily chores. The idea is that we’re modeling purposeful, deliberate and caring action for our children.

    I began to practice this for my son’s benefit, or so I thought. Surprisingly, (or not so much so)I gained such peace and serenity! I found myself looking for the next chore to be done. I know it sounds crazy, but the repetitive movements and the care I was giving to each task were very soothing. So there you go.


    Comment by Alexis Ahrens — March 17, 2010 @ 5:27 am

  8. I stumbled across your blog and enjoyed this post. I love the clean look of your page too. What you say is so true. I often forget to be in the moment, especially when doing housework. Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment by Karen — March 17, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

  9. I love reading your blog … it’s adds so much to my day 🙂

    Comment by Erin — March 17, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  10. Very nice tips. Very far reaching too! I quoted and comment on #4 on http://thushaveiread.blogspot.com/

    Comment by puerhan — March 17, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

  11. I can do the dishes without loathing them. And, I actually enjoy seeing the dust eradicated. The laundry? No prob.

    I struggle with #2, Karen, in that I am always wanting to be somewhere else. I love to travel. I love adventure. I have a hard time just staying put. Any tips for reconciling that? I can get stir-crazy quick!

    Comment by Cam — March 18, 2010 @ 3:33 am

  12. There’s nothing wrong with traveling. As long as you don’t expect to end up anywhere else! It’s tragic when people spend all their lives looking for home, when it’s the one place you can never leave.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 18, 2010 @ 3:48 am

  13. […] this week, I found myself re-reading Karen Maezen Miller’s latest post at Cheerio Road. In 5 Tips for Meaning in Cleaning, she describes cleaning as meditative, a beautiful way to shift my thinking from cleaning as a […]

    Pingback by Casual Friday: Reads of the Week « Eva Evolving — March 19, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

  14. […] I will complete a couple household chores. Only a couple: I will empty the dishwasher and start the laundry. Don’t get worried! I’m going to use Belinda’s 30-minute rule, and I’m going to attempt Karen’s meditative approach to cleaning. […]

    Pingback by What is your ideal day? « Eva Evolving — March 19, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  15. Thanks Karen–very inspiring and exactly where I am these days and what I needed to here to remind me. What a wonderful reminder to keep me anchored in my life. Will be linking to this this week.

    Comment by Meg Casey — March 23, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  16. […] Six summers ago our babysitter went away to Central America for three weeks. Juan and I were short on cash and so we could neither afford a vacation away nor could he take the time away from his fledgling business. It was just Max and me for three weeks. We spent lots of time in the parks and library and when he would lay his toddler head down for a nap, I discovered the joy of “mindful cleaning”. […]

    Pingback by Of cleanliness and Godliness and peace found in laundry - Meg Casey — March 25, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  17. […] stay done nor soap scum scrubbed. She consulted Zen Buddhist priest Karen Maezen Miller, who boiled it down to this: “Only you, with your own attention, can change your life. Attention is love. Pay attention to […]

    Pingback by Quality is Love, and You Can’t Institutionalize Love — April 15, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  18. Thank you ever so for you post.Really thank you! Will read on…

    Comment by Kaitlyn Kessler — February 8, 2012 @ 5:58 am

  19. Thank you for a wonderfully inspiring post Karen. So practical yet deep at the same time. I love it!

    Comment by Alper — August 12, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  20. Ha ha ha! We have been putting stuff in bags (to be frozen) throwing things out cleaning and rearranging for the last 10 days because we discovered that our house/ stuff was infested with moths. Our house is starting to look and feel so much better. We are happy that this happened during a holiday and not in the middle of the schoolyear with all that comes with that. The weather is great and our backyard is wonderful. In between we play games and make puzzels with the kids. This post was written for us. (And no bickering that’s the best part). Thank you.

    Comment by Simone — August 15, 2012 @ 5:07 am

  21. Strangely, when on vacation at a small cabin, for 2 weeks over each of the past 6 summers, I have found this is where I love hand washing the dishes, sweeping and I actually enjoy (even look forward to) doing the laundry in the separate laundry building….I have never understood why, but it is at this cabin where I have the ability to live fully in the moment and see the minutae of life, it is here that I pay attention, it is here I feel alive, well and happy,despite the daily chores. Now, to transfer that feeling to the craziness of here and now. You let me see that I can choose to do this.

    Comment by mj — August 15, 2012 @ 8:03 am

  22. There is so much in life that is beyond my control. Perhaps that’s why I take a certain pleasure in cleaning. A few minutes of attention, and the sink is clean.
    A few minutes more, and the mirror sparkles, the laundry is folded, the counter is clear. It is such a relief to pour my energy into a place where the results are right in front of me: predictable and satisfying. I love your post, just as a reminder that there is dignity in this humble work of sustaining life in a home.

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — August 15, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  23. Thanks for an excellent post. It seems like you look into my life and tell me how to make it better. Great exposition of the dharma.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — August 16, 2012 @ 12:48 am

  24. This is marvelous. I plan to do the cleaning that comes after a move — sorting, helping find the place for things, clearing boxes and making order. I feel that exact way you describe with the clutter and while I don think I was looking forward to the process, after reading this I almost am!!

    Comment by Katie — August 17, 2012 @ 7:52 am

  25. Oh my goodness,I SO needed this, thank you!

    Comment by Angela@mamarosemary.com — December 15, 2012 @ 10:39 am

  26. […] love Karen Maezen Miller’s writings when it comes to mindfulness and cleaning.  She offers suggestions for bringing mindful attention and meaning to cleaning tasks, as it can be a perfect opportunity to practice not thinking of anything, and not judging our […]

    Pingback by With Apologies to My Twenty-Year-Old Self ~ I Love Cleaning! - Left Brain Buddha — May 17, 2013 @ 3:32 am

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