Yogi Assignment: The Laundry

I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years. That doesn’t make me a saint or a perfect human being. It also doesn’t mean that I never make mistakes or go through periods of feeling down. More than anything else I am a student of yoga and my testimony isn’t a promise of perfection, but it is a promise of a substantially more peaceful life.

Recently I’ve had a student ask me how I could suffer from depression even though I’ve been practicing yoga for more than twenty years. She said that she now doubted whether the practice works or not because if I could still experience deep states of pain and anguish, then it seemed evident that the practice was a failure. First, I’d hate to be the only standard-bearer that anyone judges the practice by. I am not a naturally gifted student of yoga. I’ve struggled a lot on the yoga mat, in the poses and certainly in the world of my own mind. I hope there are better students out there than I am so that people can look to them as models of more grace and ease along the path. Second, until we reach the stage of final and ultimate enlightenment, we will stumble and fall countless times along the path. Along the way, as we get back up from each fall, we pick up the pieces of grace, humility, strength, forgiveness and love. Despite having experienced some truly transcendental experiences of meditation absorption I have not yet reached a stage where I am able to maintain that unbroken awareness. In the words of Jack Kornfield, after the ecstasy, there’s the laundry. As for myself, I still have loads of laundry left to do (I mean that both figuratively and literally—have you ever been away from home for a whole month?).

There was a moment that I thought the purpose of the spiritual path was to get “enlightened” as fast as possible and enter the state that’s called Nirbija Samadhi, the state of meditative absorption from which there is no possibility of recidivism. In that state the yogi stays immersed in that timeless space of peace and never has any more laundry to do. If there’s one thing I have learned from 20 years of practice it’s that I’ve got a backlog of dirty clothes that need attention before I have much hope at attaining that permanent state of peace. And yet, yoga works. My life is qualitatively more peaceful than it was before. I am more empathetic, more sensitive, more humble, and yes, more strong too. On good days, there is a sense of deep self-love that permeates outward towards others and sometimes even embraces the whole world. There is more space between my old habituated reactions to traumas and triggers. I am less reactive and more conscious.

It seems pretty evident to me that we all have a bunch of laundry to do in the inner world of our mind. This “laundry” is like a huge pile that follows us around the world wherever we go. In fact, the majority of the work on the spiritual could have more to do with doing the laundry than anything else. Those moments of radiant bliss fill you up with hope and inspiration and provide sustenance for long periods of cleaning.

This week’s Yogi Assignment is the Laundry. I’m using the term “laundry” to refer to your inner work, the deep dive each spiritual practitioner has to take into their own mind and into their own life. While you could see the laundry as a perfunctory task, I find it useful to use the ordinariness of laundry as a metaphor for the cleansing of the mind. If you never clean out your thoughts they will pile up like a mountain of clothes. Soon you won’t be able to see anything other than those old accumulated thoughts. By cleaning out your thoughts and doing your own laundry you contribute to the cleaning of your immediate world.

These tips help me when I find myself buried in the chore of doing my own laundry. This applies both to the ordinary task of doing laundry as well the inner work of cleaning out your thoughts—

1. Do your own laundry. Don’t expect anyone else to do your laundry for you. If you think that someone has come into your life to fix all your problems, you will have created a destructive cycle that will eventually leave you with an even bigger pile of laundry to do. Only you are responsible for processing your own emotions and thoughts. As soon as you give the power to do that to someone else you create a co-dependency that is potentially toxic and unproductive.

2. Love your laundry and the act of doing it. It’s easy to get annoyed with how much laundry there is in your own mind and wish that you didn’t have to deal with it. Instead, see if you can find small things to cherish about each item that needs cleaning. Cultivate a sense of pleasure in the work that you are doing. If you notice yourself complaining or cursing, try and catch yourself. Recognize that you can choose what type of thoughts you think, even about your own thoughts.

3. Forgive you laundry. If there was any way that you could have not created all that laundry in the first place you wouldn’t have. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the laundry. If you’ve been harboring negativity towards yourself or your laundry, choose to let it go. Recognize that it’s not your fault and let it go.

4. Don’t overload the washing machine. Another way to think about this is to recognize your limits. If you’ve got a particularly big bulky load that needs to go in, perhaps it’s not a good idea to try and shove a few more pieces in there even if they’re the same color. When you’re processing your own stuff it can be easy to start throwing everything and the kitchen sink in, dragging up old stuff from the past and trying to take it all on at the same time. But, perhaps it can actually be better to simple do load at a time and let things take the time they take.

5. Don’t mix too many different colors together. Whether you have whites and coloreds or just brights and darks, I think of separating the laundry like setting up healthy boundaries. You can’t really do your own laundry well when the colors are going to bleed all over each other. Sometimes you need to space things out and give each thought or feelings it’s own space.

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