monk cleaning a bowl
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAKKREE THAMPITAKKULL/GETTY

What The Buddhists Can Teach Us About Household Chores

The practice of soji can help you learn to clean everything.

September 4, 2015

In many Zen temples, there's an activity called soji, a period of about 20 minutes where the whole community participates in cleaning up the temple and its grounds. It usually happens right after a bowing and chanting service, marking the end of the morning meditation schedule.

The premise is simple. You are assigned a simple cleaning task (rake the path, dry the dishes, sweep the hallway), which you do silently and without ambition to finish. In other words, there's no ownership of the task: Just pick up the broom and do the best job you possibly can sweeping the hall until it's time to stop.

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After about 20 minutes, the work leader walks around ringing a bell that signals the end of soji. When you hear the bell, you simply stop what you are doing. If the hallway is only half swept, if there are still dishes to be dried, if you only polished 12 of the 15 windowpanes—it doesn't matter. Just put away your tools and move on to the next thing. (In the case with most temples, this would be breakfast!)

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Soji is a spiritual practice, an extension of meditation, where the fluid, open sensibility that was cultivated on the meditation cushion is brought to the task at hand. If we've had an experience of softening or opening up or had some kind of realization while sitting on the cushion but we cannot experience or manifest it while we're off the cushion, then that experience is not quite complete. We haven't finished fully integrating it. Soji gives us a chance to do the work of bringing meditation to our whole self and to notice in a very real way how well that's going.

So consider approaching some of the tasks in your life from the soji perspective. What would happen if it wasn't so much about finishing but more about simply doing? What burdens can be put down when we redirect our energies not toward the goal but into the process itself, into each moment along the way? What treasures are waiting for us there?

 

Another thing that soji teaches us is how to get tasks done even when we don't feel like doing them. The custom for soji is to receive and accept your work assignment without comment. It doesn't matter if you don't feel like drying the dishes or if you hate the smell of window cleaner or if you actually love turning the compost, for that matter. You just do what is assigned to you, in silence, and ideally with no preference. Or if you do have a preference, you learn to ignore it.

For this reason, I've found that "doing soji" is a great way to tackle unwelcome tasks in the home environment, too. Sometimes, a task is unwelcome because it is very big, or it involves something we're not skilled at, or requires too many decisions. Sometimes, it's just repetitive and boring and will need to be done again next week, or even later that day. Whatever it is, you can probably handle doing it for 20 minutes.

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So the next time you find yourself resisting a kitchen task that really needs to get done, take the soji approach. Set a timer and make a vow that you will stay with it until the bell rings, and when it does, simply stop what you are doing. If you finish before the bell has rung, see if there isn't a smaller task you can pick up for a while—there is always something that needs tending, mending, prepping, or putting away in our lives.

 

If it's a large task, find a smaller aspect of it that you can pick up and complete. Get some onions chopped for the big pot of soup you want to tackle later, measure out the ingredients and prep the pan for a cake, clean and sort one shelf in your pantry.

Or you can just build soji into your morning routine to stay on top of daily home maintenance or to do a little kitchen prep so that making dinner later that evening isn't such a burden. I have a friend who does this with her whole family before they leave the house each weekday morning (it's more like 5 minutes but five people doing soji for 5 minutes means a lot can get done!).

Framing your activity as soji, limiting the time, and then forgetting about the time as you plunge into the activity is not just a fantastic way to get things done, it's also a way to be present for all the moments in your life.

Adapted from Finding Yourself In the Kitchen, originally published on Rodale Wellness.

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