Transformation and the Hidden Power of Chores: Lessons from the Mundane


The Hidden Power of Chores: Photo of FireAnyone who has ever devoted the full intensity of honed human attention to a task knows that even the most mundane act has something deeper to offer. When we stay present with whatever we are doing, even a simple chore is an opportunity for transformation .

This particular example of how chores can reveal hidden lessons came to me while I was clearing a part of our land to make it safe for our horse. (But wait! Urban Creatures, Fear Not! You can adapt these ideas to cleaning your home, the garage, your work space, etc. So read on.)

If you don’t want land to revert to an overgrown, impassable wilderness, inhospitable to humans and posing a severe fire risk, then tending the land will entail pruning, chipping wood, burning brush, etc. And upon closer inspection, these tasks parallel transforming the forest of our inner world.

Tending a patch of nature begins with keen observation. Be it a few acres of gently sloping mixed forest, or the more varied and sometimes precarious terrain of our psyche, we begin by taking a clear look at the landscape. What is growing out of control? What lies on the ground destined to rot? What poses a trip hazard? What thickets or dead wood could fuel a wildfire if exposed to a spark? Where is the dead or diseased wood that needs pruning? What trees could be felled to allow more light to reach the understory?

These questions can be answered literally: An invasive weed severely increases fire risk. A scraggly fir tree is not getting enough light in the shadow of a majestic oak. A crowded patch of young cedars compete for nourishment. A recent storm scattered branches all over the trails, and so forth.

But things get far more interesting when we answer each question by shifting our focus to our inner world: An addiction can act like noxious weed, where a behavior takes over much of our time and energy and creates unhealthy and volatile conditions in our life. Perhaps the trip hazards are the tasks we know we need to get to at some point or there will be undesirable consequences. Dead wood might be the things that are no longer serving us, such as past memories or traumas that have not been processed and released. When we survey this landscape, what can be reduced or eliminated (pruned or felled) from our life to create more room for the things that nourish us and help us grow? What needs transformation?

Once we’ve identified what needs clearing, we gather it up. Out come the pruning shears, the hand saw, the chain saw. This is the work of separating the dead from the living, the future from the past, the thriving from the weak. We cut, we gather, we haul.

We can then sort the brush. The gnarly and thin wood (or the twisted and weakest parts of our character) and the thickest branches (know the limits of thy wood chipper) are best burned in a carefully tended campfire, where they can transform into warmth and light. The brush suitable for chipping is ideally collected into an accessible pile.

Donning the appropriate safety gear (self-improvement need not cost an eye) we are ready to fire up the wood chipper. Or if invoking the power of fire, keep the hose nearby . . . our goal here is transformation, but probably not house into ashes. This is not reckless work. It is meant to be focused and seeped in sound judgment.

Now comes the intense part, where the wood is fed through the chipper or the fire. We are taking something that was in our way, something awkward, something that was taking up space in our psyche, and we are subjecting it to a powerful force, whose energy will transmute it into something useful: ashes, charcoal, wood chips. Do this step with clear intentions, know what you want to change as you work with the wood. As you see it shredded or watch it burn, keep an open mind and pay close attention. Insight often hides in the ordinary. Notice the thoughts that come through and you may discover spontaneous guidance and inspiration. The dead wood and hazards are transformed into forms that are useful and easier to manage.

Now spread this substance where it will provide cover and nourishment for your future gardens . . . or the life you want to create, your goals and aspirations. As it decomposes it will build soil fertility and retain moisture. It will prevent erosion and cover the muddy paths, and it will help living things thrive.