Monday, November 7, 2011

Therapeutic benefits of physical work

Deck cleaning produces suds like waves washing on shore
Suds trickled from the sponge in my hand and mixed with the water surrounding me. The frothy water moved up and around me, like a wave washing onto shore, before dripping off the deck.
As I watched the suds rinse away mildew stains, I felt a release of tension, which had built in my body after hardship had inflicted my family's life and my own life the last two months. A long list of disappointments, ranging from just annoying to utterly tragic, had left my family feeling like the only light at the end of the tunnel was a train coming full speed toward us.
My thoughts seemed to move from out of my head through my shoulders to my arms to my hands to the sponge to the suds to the water and dripped to the ground 15 feet below me. With that release went sadness, and mental clarity took its place.
A looming house appraisal required for a refinance forced me to scrub the deck, a task I had avoided for a year. But once I started scrubbing mildew off the deck floor, I only felt better and better. The therapeutic benefits of physical work turned a chore into a needed emotional release.
The activity reminded me why I have structured my lifestyle to include physical work. The needs of my large garden keep me moving throughout the year. Our bodies hold tension as we overthink and become needlessly stressed in our busy lives. As we work in the garden, those points of tension release.

Over the years when working with gardening newbies in farm fields, I've noticed they immediately start dreaming about technological fixes and labor-saving devices that would decrease their time in the field. "I wonder if there's a machine that rips the bean plants out of the ground and then shakes the beans off the plants," one of my friends said to me as we slumped over a row of green bean plants in the heat of the summer.
My fellow farm workers' imaginations have also invented robotic insects that could eliminate the tedious task of thinning the carrot patch. The robot would be able to discern which tiny seedlings were not the beginnings of a feathery carrot top, and pluck the weeds from the patch.
Society has trained us to think of ways to avoid physical work, rather than letting ourselves glide into the moment, ignore our complaints, and instead enjoy the repetitive movement.
Organic vegetable farmers will tell you they become addicted to farming once they learn how to enjoy work. Moving quickly from task to task, their bodies act before (it seems) their minds can instruct, driven by an invisible force. Just when the farmers think they can't work any longer, energy rises from that unknown source to propel them further, so that working from sun up to sun down is actually enjoyable. (Not that I'm advocating overworking yourselves—I know from experience how taxing this adrenaline rush can be on the body.)
Time and again I have felt the therapeutic benefits of physical work in the garden. Even tasks like heavy lifting, mulching and digging are relaxing and meditating, as the hard work forces superfluous thoughts from my head.
"Short and Sweet" Wild Pinks.  Silene caroliana var. wherryi
     My rough two months spurred me to finish a yard project that I've been working on for three years so that I could feel those therapeutic benefits. I finished filling in native plants in a disturbed area of my property. While appreciating the golden light against the color of the surrounding trees, I dug up about 75 lilies (which had started from a gift of about 10), and transplanted them to another part of the property. In their place went false indigo, yellow root, nodding onion, Carolina bush pea, creeping phlox, rudbeckia, coneflowers, culiver's root, floxglove beardtongue, liatris, beebalm, anise hyssop and blue eyed grass. Nothing gives me energy like quickly disappearing fall weather.
            My mom also mentioned the therapeutic benefits of chores during our period of bad luck. As she washed my windows following the day after we received yet more tragic news, she said "Cleaning is good for the soul." She's the one who laughed at me ten years ago when I suggested that she likes to clean because it's her meditation method. (That was well before meditation became widely appreciated).
Modern technology has nearly eliminated the need for the majority of the population to perform physical work. Fewer and fewer people are lucky enough to use their bodies throughout the day for their vocation. Meanwhile, what has replaced physical work is a booming "healthcare" industry. Perhaps if we all picked up shovels more often, if we handled the grimy chores rather than avoiding them or hiring others to do them, then our backyards would be the primary places we go for healthcare.

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