The Mindful Home

What does slow housekeeping mean in a culture that feeds on instant gratification? How does home provide a safe haven in a world that moves too fast and demands too much? On social media, we record our public triumphs—the tantalizing meal, the perfect vacation, the pack of smiling friends—trying so hard to be special that we cease to value ordinary life.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

If you’re bored with your persona, or with endless competition, spend a few hours cleaning up the living room.  My tip of the day: Household chores can be the quickest antidote to personality overdrive and digital fatigue.  All we need to do is ground ourselves in the simple rituals of home. This is what I call the Slow Housekeeping movement. As the Slow Food movement reminds us to honor the food we put on our plate and consider its origins,  Slow Housekeeping asks us to appreciate the everyday grace and gratitude of home-making.

The sink, for example,  is a domestic altar, the place where we clean the chicken and rinse the fish, transforming bloody offerings into the miracle of sustenance. At the end of every meal, we push the scraps down into the dark-lipped garbage disposal, shoving bones and gristle into that dark maw in the center of the sink.  With a flick of the switch, it swallows them up and grinds them into fertile compost.   Cleaning it should be a sacrament.  The sink, our alpha, and omega.  The repository of our discarded plenty and our raw desires.

Sorting out the refrigerator takes us back to our early ancestors digging through some frozen cache in the wilds of Siberia.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

The fridge is like a wooly mammoth that’s just been unearthed — a half-thawed remnant of the Ice Age. Here’s how I deal with it: Once a month I perform a forensic autopsy of this hulking creature, checking for things that are past their use-by date then tossing out accumulated leftovers—soups and sauces with a lacy fringe, lemons that resemble shrunken heads, figs that have hardened into fossils, and some half-burnt carcass that appears to be left over from the Pleistocene.  The shelves are a constant source of wonder—the sweet relish or the marmalade that a friend put up last summer, the essential chutney or wasabi mayonnaise that came with the take-out dinner. The freezer I ignore until just after Christmas, when I give it a good once over, chucking out the soups and stews that by now are ringed with frost, and promising to revisit it by the Fourth of July.

The fridge: A modern convenience? Or a testament to an era of forgetfulness and waste? Cleaning it makes me pause and think about all the ways that I contribute to the Age of Throwaway.

Evolutionary Aspects of Housekeeping

Illustration by Ann Arnold

The psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed caring for the home was deeply therapeutic, a kind of slow medicine that gave people a rest from their ambition and connected them to age-old patterns of renewal.

In the 1930s, Jung built a portion of his country house by hand, using tools designed in the Middle Ages. When in residence, he spent long hours in the kitchen, fanning the fire with leather bellows, and tending to his pots and pans, as analyst Marie-Louise von Franz recounts in the documentary Matter of Heart.

Elizabeth Osterman, an American colleague, visited Jung at his lake house in 1958, entering through a heavy wooden door in the middle of a thick stone wall. Inside she found a strong-bodied, white-haired 83-year-old in a green workman’s apron, chopping wood. “I have found the way to live here as part of nature, to live in my own time,” Jung told her. “People are always living as if something better is about to happen…They don’t think to live their lives!” (C.G. Jung Speaking, 162).

The father of evolutionary psychology, Jung felt that household tasks keep us human and keep us down to earth.  In the mid-twentieth century, he worried about our addiction to speed and abstract thinking and warned us about the dangers of technology.  In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, he described his own antidote:

I have done without electricity , and tend the fireplace and stove myself.  Evenings, I light the old lamps…I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple, and how difficult it is to be simple!

Dependent on our new devices, we have less interaction with our physical environment. Instead, we spend the day crouched over a computer, expecting Alexa to order the groceries, Roomba to do the vacuuming, and GPS to guide the soon-to-be self-driving car.  And instead of chopping, skinning, and sauteeing, we rely on Grubhub to deliver.

Yet here’s the funny thing:  Housework provides a confirmation of our usefulness in a robot-driven world. While we’ve managed to automate everything from piloting a plane to building a truck, dusting and vacuuming are two of the tasks done best by hand!  The reason: Scientists have been unable to create a bot with the right motor skills to deal with fragile objects or clean tight corners.  I doubt then that it will be able to make the bed with tight hospital corners, or remove the dust from a carved mantel with a recycled toothbrush. In the age of “life hacks” You might well ask: Does anybody clean like this anymore?  I’ll be there are more late-night cleaning rituals performed to soothe the soul than any of us can guess.

Remember, too, it’s just plain good for the body to get up and move. Cleaning is great exercise. When we put our soul in it, the mop, dust cloth, and broom become an extension of our limbs. We grow more aware of the subtle rhythm of our breathing, the subliminal lubdub of our heartbeat.  Our nerves are soothed by the sound of running water. Our noses pick up the sweet scent of polish. And our fingers are entranced by the smooth consistency wax.  Jung was right: We come back to our senses when we perform these basic chores.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

Finally, we come to the way these ordinary tasks help shape our character. Home-making provides an antidote to the kind of knee-jerk narcissism we see in nearly every aspect of public life. Our society might be better off if all Americans had to clean up after themselves: politicians, CEOs, tech pioneers.

It all comes down to this: Who can be power-hungry or inflated when mopping up the kitchen floor or searching for those errant socks?

In American culture, the word homely has come to mean something that is ugly or unattractive. Yet originally it called our attention to the unadorned, the simple. The word also means earthy, or “down to earth.” And it’s related to the practice of humility. To be homely is to engage in the process of slowing down and noticing our surroundings. Acknowledging the main tenet of mindfulness — that we are here to love and serve.

Housekeeping grounds us psychologically, offsetting our fascination with extraversion, ego-image, end result. In our current cultural meme, every impulse is directed “out there” into compiling more followers and friends, asserting our opinions, making the next deal. That’s why those unsung moments we spend washing dishes, putting away our clothes, tidying the living room, matter.  They give us time for wool-gathering, dallying, and daydreaming. For coming home to our introverted selves.

What chore can you do mindfully today? Remember, as you tend the house, you mend a portion of the world.

Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

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  1. Thank you, Valerie, for this wonderful reminder. As a big fan of the mundane, I believe that the dread of house chores is actually intrinsic to the bread of life … of creating a home no matter how big or small the family.

    While I readily admit that I am super finicky in my housekeeping, I enjoy its meditative power and the glow of everything brilliantly clean. I also try to be as eco-friendly as possible in how and what I clean with, though in my opinion whoever invented the washing machine deserves heaven beyond heaven.

  2. Friends use to ask me how I could find peacefulness in ironing clothes, and I would always say, that its my time to be silent and listen to the thoughts roll around in my head, and coming up with good ideas for writing. It was therapy. Housekeeping doesn’t always have to be boring as you so eloquently state Valierie. Thank you.

    • Yes! Thanks, Lynn. I’m an ironer, too! So glad you agree with this mindful approach to and hope you’ll follow us at Reinventinghome.org as well as on this wonderful platform Dennis has created.

      The people I meet through BizCatalyst are beautifully attuned to the inner life of home. Perhaps because so many of us work from it — and others are glad to get back, at the end of a long day, to its warm embrace.

      • I am and always have been a homebody despite my career of being mostly away from home. However, at the end of a shift, I would just think of nothing but being home with my daughter and enjoying its comfort. I will take a look at Reinventinghome.org. Thank you

  3. Valerie, thank you for sharing this lighthearted yet insightful article. I always find a certain sense of calm when I clean the house. While it’s a chore that I sometimes dread doing, I do enjoy sitting down afterward and relaxing amid tidy surroundings. Plus, it is an excellent way to destress and work out angst. Even if I only run the vacuum, it is sometimes the boost I need to be able to reframe my thoughts.

  4. I absolutely love this article, Valerie! Your beautiful prose and appreciation of Carl Yung make my essential feng shui heart very happy!

    Along with the experiences you’ve described eloquently here, I also see cleaning as a form of meditation and a way to practice gratitude for all the belongings that inspire, support, and serve my life. Internally, I thank each precious treasure as I dust or wash it. I know these belongings feel sacred to me-especially because I have loved and let go of so many other items. The ones in my home right now seem extra special-they, like me, made it safely to this Bonus Round of Being Alive, the quieter days of writing in the house on the side of the mountain, and the realization that I’ve been an introvert pretending or feeling shamed into being an extravert for much too long. All I really want to do is live quietly, peacefully in the home of my soul, and be of love and service to others in the nuanced moments of full presence interaction.

    Living life in a flow of housekeeping, meditating, running around a gorgeous lake, writing on this laptop, commenting on beautiful articles like this one, serving clients, connecting with beloved ones feels much simpler, fulfilling, and aligned.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article that makes my heart sing!

    • Thank you, Laura. I always love hearing your take on these things and I’m so pleased you enjoyed this. Ann Arnold, the illustrator and I are working on two books, The Secret Lives of Our Possessions and Slow Housekeeping, both of which feature a rich, imaginal approach to the home. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes deeply spiritual, our love affair with home really sets the stage for all other relationships from community to government. I know you are a student of Eastern wisdom. Remember this quote from Confucius?

      “When the perfect order prevails, the world is like a home shared by all. Leaders are capable and virtuous. Everyone loves and respects their own parents and children as well as the parents and children of others. The old are cared for, adults have jobs, children are nourished and educated. There is a means of support for all those who are disabled or find themselves alone in the world. Everyone has an appropriate role to play in the family and society. Devotion to public duty leaves no place for idleness. Scheming for ill gain is unknown. Sharing displaces selfishness and materialism.”

  5. How wonderful, Valerie! So it’s interesting that I dread housekeeping with every fiber in my body, yet when I give into the need, find peace and sometimes even joy in the process. I’m hoping your piece might mitigate the dread so I can get to peace and joy faster!

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