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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tao of electrical goods

Because of the division of labour in our farm household when I was a child, ironing was one job I never had to do. I had three sisters, and they were always ironing dance dresses or school uniforms with box pleats. Girl stuff like that. I know about box pleats only because of how much Lyn and Kay hated ironing their school uniforms, which were loaded with them. "Box pleats" with additional adjectives often came up, and the adjectives tended to be colourful.

   The time came, eventually, when I had to do my own ironing. It was a novelty and I didn't mind it. One day I was in a hurry, and was ironing furiously, but it wasn't going to well.

   Stop. Think. Understand the nature of the thing you are trying to do, Mr Ironing Man. The iron is set to iron cloth at a certain temperature. Go too fast and you're always trying to iron cold cloth. Cold cloth doesn't iron, or at least if it's not up to the right temperature, it's going to take twice as long to do, and not look even half as good.

   So, it's a classic case of "more haste, less speed." I quickly learned that there was a perfect speed which created optimal efficiency, something that experienced ironers knew almost by instinct.

   Instinct? No, it's not that. It's using their intelligence, observation and experience. The old "ironing lady*" understood perfectly the nature of the job, and from the outside at least, it seemed effortless. 

   In that sense, she was using Taoist principles. In Buddhist terms, it can be a meditation, like walking meditation, attending fully and understanding the task every step of the way.

   "Washing the dishes while washing the dishes."

   Many would call it plain common sense, but as often has been noted, common sense isn't always as common as it should be, or the world would be in better shape.

   This principle applies to everything really, but in a society always trying to make things "easier", it can produce exactly the opposite result. A lot of electrical things make good examples. There's a right speed to use a power drill. Forcing it only damages the motor and the drill bit. No point racing along your teeth with an electric toothbrush – just ... slow down ... and let the brush do what it's designed to, in its own way. An electric shaver? Take it slowly and allow it do its job as designed.

   Polishing shoes. Churning cream to make butter (not a lot of call for that these days, admittedly, but if you've ever churned cream, it's surely a case of "softly softly makee butter".) Everything has its own correct mode and rate.

   It all comes back to one thing. Understand the nature of the thing we are trying to do, and it will look effortless, and there's a chance may even feel that way.

   Doing ordinary things this way will also be a meditation. If it's prayers, they are meditation too. Racing through them doesn't seem to be quite what it's all about. 

   None of it is fundamentally about religion. It's about wisdom based on knowledge. Would that I had more wisdom.

   It's what the Taoist calls "non-action", and this is very far from doing nothing. Yes, I've written about this before, and discussed it with decades of students. It's knowing the discipline needed for the task, and applying it effectively, and that takes away all the frustration. The right outlook can even make the hated job pleasant.

*No outraged snorts of indignation please. When was the last time you sent out stuff to an "old ironing man"?


  1. I admire the way that you can see philosophy in ironing but I am inclined to the view that your old, calm, proficient ironing lady had practised so hard on her wretched box pleats that she had it all down pat. The welcome decline in the need for ironing does seem to have coincided with the demise of box pleats. A philosophic decision or a correlation? Anne P. @Qyntara

    1. Yes, that's where the experience part I mentioned came in! oh, and pure pragmatism [and new fabrics!]

      Ironing in this household is now minimal except that the suave 19 yo in the house wants his stuff ironed to perfection. Consequently he has learned how to raise and lower an ironing board, taught by his mother how to use an iron, and told to go for it. Which he has.

      Understanding the true nature of the things still holds. Marvellous how much that is in the breach rather than the observance.

  2. I'm sure we can all apply this reminder about focus(timely, for me) to calm and enrich our daily lives. Working at something quite at odds with my own inclination, I tend to feel frustrated and restless. But as soon as I do focus, and absorb myself in it, it becomes not only bearable but interesting and occasionally rewarding.

    Perhaps I even understand 'reward bitterness with care', seen in that light. 'Work without doing' - now that is quite tricky. But yes, if I can remove any emotional tenseness, any investment of ego in this necessary task, it's so much less exhausting..

    A word about ironing. In this house the man also irons, and enjoys it, but if the phone rings at that time, he always tells the caller that he is ironing. Make of that what you will:)

    Julie M, who is very pleased the modem problem is solved yet again!!

    1. "Work without doing". Here is the problem of language that the translators of something as cryptic as the Tao te Ching always face – how literal do you leave it when you're going for the minimalist and poetic version?

      It means "If you do it with the deepest understanding of the task, it will appear effortless." But saying that takes away the flavour intended.

      Tricky. Very tricky. Even for a sage like Gia-fu Feng, guided by Jane English, it's always a compromise.

      Welcome to life, hey?

  3. I was thinking how my 16yo would gain so much in his final year at highschool if he grasped "attending fully and understanding the task every step of the way". But then so would I. *sigh*
    Our hearts open a little more as our eyes open a little wider.
    Wisdom and understanding.
    Thank you Denis. Again.

    1. Me too. Maybe I could still do with the reminder as I sit here, juggling six different programs. In fact, I'm sure of it! Thanks, Debbie.

  4. Hi, I found this blog as informative and well designed as well. We also manufacture high quality Electrical Control Panels & Plastic Auxiliary Machines in India.
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