It was a scorching afternoon and both of us had given up on doing any serious work for the rest of the day. We’d surveyed most of a disused section of railroad tracks past the suburbs, when across the field I saw Mark pause, look at his watch, and begin packing up the equipment.
“F this. Time for Slurpees,” he announced over the radio. “We’ll finish up Monday.”
We loaded the trunk and jumped into his tiny, sweltering Honda. Already beading up with sweat, I grew impatient as he took his time fiddling with his CDs before starting the car. I needed A/C, or at least power windows. Fast.
He noticed my sense of urgency, and smiled at me as he slowly, mockingly, brought the keys up to the ignition.
Finally he started it. “Let’s see who’s the tougher man,” he said ominously, tapping off the A/C button, and cranking the heater. “First one to open the door buys the Slurpees.”
Friday-giddy and possibly already delirious, it sounded like a fun idea to me.
The car was already at sauna temperature, the sun was cooking our bluejeaned legs through the windshield, and there was hot air blowing in our faces.
Now that I was playing this game on purpose, I knew I would beat him. A few years earlier when I worked as a hotel housekeeper at a ski resort, I had learned a powerful life skill which would come in very handy here.
Housekeepers clean up after people who take their messes for granted. I cleaned luxury suites with complete kitchens and dining rooms. The clientele was high-end and high-maintenance, with strong evidence of entitlement issues. Quite often an affluent family of five or six would leave all of their breakfast dishes sitting on the table — and quite often most of their breakfast — as if they’d fled the suite mid-meal to escape a gas leak or something.
When I started the job, few things were more disgusting to me than the remains on somebody else’s plate. I held back my own breakfast as I gathered sticky plates glowing with egg yolk, smeared with drying baked beans. Looking away, I scraped it all off, cringing as I heard the rejected food slop into the bin, not unlike so much vomit.
My queasiness was moral as much as physical, as I pictured richie-rich kids being told by their turtlenecked lawyer-dad to go suit up for the slopes and forget their plates, because the maids would take care of it.
Much worse, though, was when they rinsed the food off directly into the sink, apparently unaccustomed to sinks without built-in garbage disposals. By the time we arrived on the scene, there would be bloated toast crusts, noodles, and egg whites slithering around in the drain well.
I couldn’t stomach it. Even with dish gloves, the thought of reaching into the soggy pile of organic matter to scoop it out with my fingers was enough to make me gag.
The members of our housekeeping teams rotated between cleaning different parts of the suite: kitchen, bedrooms, living room, bathrooms. I volunteered to be a bathroom specialist (regarded as the least desirable room to clean) so I could avoid ever having to confront the horrendous aftermath of a failed garburator session.
Of course, eventually I ended up on a squad with somebody else who had the same aversion, and I had to put in my time on kitchen detail. To my horror, most sinks had some pale, bloated food in them, usually too much to stab down into the little holes with a fork handle. This was a problem that wasn’t going away, and I had to approach it differently or spend the whole ski season dreading this awfulest part of my awful job.
Most of my equally squeamish co-workers employed the classic grit-your-teeth, roll-up-your-sleeves approach. It usually involved holding your breath and averting your eyes as you scoop out the food-slime and hurriedly direct it toward the garbage bin, bracing yourself throughout, as if you’re jumping into icy water.
It’s the same strategy a wide-eyed Fear Factor contestant uses as he chomps frantically on the June bug in his mouth — he doesn’t want to confront it, he wants to escape it.
That method didn’t work for me, it just made me more aware of how awful it was. As soon as I tackled one sink, I began dreading the next room.
I don’t remember when it clicked, but after not too many kitchens, I learned the secret:
Let it feel like whatever it feels like.
Just do it and let it have its way with you. Turn toward it, not away.
Whenever I came to a gunked-up drain, I just scooped it out without rushing. I reached into the drain with no more reluctance than I would have reaching into a cookie jar. I looked at the mess with a stoic curiosity, allowing the swollen noodles and bread-mush to rest freely in my fingers for the two or three unhurried seconds it took to transfer them to the garbage can.
As long as I wasn’t rushing or trying not to touch it, it was painless. It wasn’t worth trying to escape.
I’ve already written about my naked bathroom epiphany from a few years before that, in which I learned that it was resentment — as opposed to the thing I resented — that caused suffering, but I hadn’t yet found a practical technique for bringing that philosophy to bear on everyday moments.
This was it. A mantra that always works. Let it feel like whatever it feels like.
It has so many applications. Every single day presents dozens of opportunities for that mantra to transform the quality of moments that would otherwise be awful or uncomfortable.
- When the room is too hot or too cold
- When you’re carrying something awkwardly and you can’t wait to put it down
- When you’re exercising
- When your underwear tag is scratchy but you don’t have a chance to tear it off quite yet
- When there’s caraway seeds in the bread, and you hate caraway
Any time there is a physical sensation you feel like you want to escape, that is the perfect time to practice doing the opposite. Feel it fully, with a calm, stoic curiosity. Don’t hide from it.
To “let it feel like whatever it feels like” sounds kind of meaningless. It already feels like whatever it feels like, doesn’t it?
Technically yes, but by default we don’t give the moment permission to be itself — to do what it wants to us. We deny it. So what we actually experience is the acute stress of attempting to escape something, rather than the physical reality of the thing we’re trying to escape. This stress, that “I hate this, get me outta here” feeling, is almost always the worst part.
Of course, we don’t have the authority to deny the caraway seed its acrid taste, the air its stifling heat, or the wind its obnoxious will to mess up your hair, but we still try. Once something is already happening, giving these sensations permission to feel like what they feel like is actually liberating yourself from their worst effects.
Disagreement by Default
Normally we automatically enter a state of disagreement with any unpreferable aspects of the moment that arise, and this gives it power over us. This is reaction.
Most of our reactions are to phenomena that are so mild that we’re much better off voluntarily taking on the full brunt of their unpleasantness than to put ourselves through the stress of escape mode.
But to do this, you have to recognize the “escape mode” habit as it arises and know what you’re going to do instead of going along with it.
Luckily there are opportunities to practice everywhere. Next time you feel too hot, instead of turning on the A/C or fanning yourself, see if you can just look right at the feeling of being that warm for a few minutes. Dive into it. Observe the feeling of a flushed face, of beads of sweat forming. Sit in it and let it feel like whatever it feels like.
When you are actually doing this successfully, you’ll recognize the incredible potential in nonreaction. With a bit of practice, you can put up with almost anything of a physical nature that you might run into on a regular day. Once you’re used to letting physical feelings come over you freely, then you can extend the same technique to deal with more abstract things: emotions and situations.
You’ll notice much less aversion in your life — to harsh weather, to difficult chores, to inclement conditions of any kind.
You won’t need to fear contingencies, because you know that whatever arises, you’ll just let it feel like whatever it feels like, without the dreadful emotional strain of needing to escape.
You’ll feel much less of a need to control outcomes, which — in a brilliant instance of irony — frees your capacity to control your response, and create an outcome you like. If there is some action you want to take, you can take it with grace and cool-headedness instead of frustration and desperation.
I’ve mentioned many times that evolution has left us with minds that create a state of constant disagreement with our surroundings, to keep us on our toes, to keep us making adjustments. It keeps us alive, but at the expense of our ability to enjoy life.
We can turn the tables on our trouble-making minds by embracing adverse feelings and sensations, taking them on board as if we had chosen them. Only then do circumstances lose their power over us. Compulsions become mere preferences.
I cannot overstate the usefulness of this skill. Life becomes so much more agreeable when you stop disagreeing with it.
Soaking it In
The temperature continued to rise. Sweat ran down the backs of my calves inside my jeans. I could feel my face redden. I let it.
Mark began to squirm. He took a few deep breaths and tried to fan himself with his hand.
I reclined my seat and put my hands behind my head, soaking in the heat as if I was unwinding on a Mexican beach. I was pouring sweat, but in no rush to go anywhere. I could tell that my relaxed face was bothering my opponent.
As the heat reached ludicrous levels, we laughed at each other again. Mark hit the A/C and rolled down the windows, and we both sighed aloud as the breeze washed over us.
“You win, you psycho.”
Photo by Paul Otavio