“He did each thing as if he did nothing else.”

Charles Dickens

Thirty years ago I read an article about a coffee house in Vienna and there was a sentence in the story that has stuck with me all these years: “The Viennese café dignifies the ordinary.”

What a lovely idea, to dignify the ordinary. I then began an application of the phrase to my own life.

How could I dignify the everyday, ordinary objects and behaviors that are part of my experience?

What is it that I do, see, hear, taste, touch and smell over and over again that I do not celebrate?

Not only do I not celebrate them, I virtually ignore them, relegate them to that dull slave of habit. What a waste of time and energy, what a misapplication of attention. What would happen if I brought my full attention to everything I was doing: driving, shaving,  dusting, washing the dishes and, of course, having a conversation.

Later in life I learned that this concept is a part of Buddhism, the idea that we can learn to grant dignity to everyday objects and “chores.” Essentially we can elevate the “lowest” tasks to the highest order.  The simple and mundane act of sweeping can capture our attention, our awareness in a way that enlightens – brings into light – the task, the broom and the sweeper.

Work is a great arena in which to practice this art because much of work is bound up in repetitive tasks and carries a familiarity with what we are doing day in and day out.  We get good at what we do and then it gradually sneaks into habit and routine and can become, at some point, mindless.

Why not, when you consider it, honor to the things we spend so much time on? What we usually do is perform without attention. This is our duality, our ambivalence. We act and we think of something else – thus we are pre-occupied –something else is residing in us while we are living out our lives.

Then this very habit – that of preoccupation – spreads as a virus into the rest of our lives and now we are nearly always doing two things at once. Our bodies are performing a task and our minds are galloping along like wild dogs in some other meadow.

We think we can efficiently pat our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time, and we even think we must. The truth is when we do both of these at the same time we do neither well and we are not at peace when we do.  Attention to two things is distraction which is fragmentation of purpose and focus, which is energy divided. The wise woman centers herself as she addresses a task, or a group, and devotes all of her energy to what is exactly in front of her in that moment. The result: she is more efficient, more effective and more at peace.

This is a source of satisfaction.

John Wood