For two years I worked aboard the superyacht of a Russian Oligarch vacuuming already-clean ceilings, and ironing already-ironed beds.
When I first started, I had no idea that vacuuming a wall that didn’t need vacuuming would alter my life irreversibly.
For the first year of vacuuming my way around the Mediterranean – frequently vacuuming on my knees due to hangover – I hated vacuuming with a passion.
I used my vacuum-filled days to get some solid ruminating done.
In the two hours it would take me to vacuum every (already clean) wall in the cinema, I could cover a LOT of problems in my mind.
I would stress about what I should do with my life, about why I was wasting my architecture degree cleaning up after a billionaire.
I’d obsess about the hot yachtie guy I’d spotted at the pub in La Ciotat the night before.
I’d ruminate about how boring vacuuming was, how pointless my job was.
I’d anticipate our next day off with a yearning so strong that it sometimes made me feel sick.
Until one day, for a reason I wish I could remember, I opened a book on the shelf called the Power of Now.
The book described the problem I was facing with such accurate detail that I was unable to ignore it, despite the vast amount of bollocks in the book that I couldn’t yet wrap my cynical head around.
The book suggested that I was in resistance, and that my suffering – the boredom, the frustration and the rumination – was caused by my resistance to the situation, NOT by the situation itself.
At first I could not work out what the hell that meant.
But I started to experiment.
As I’d vacuum back and forth across the wall, instead of resisting that fact that I had to vacuum a wall, I’d bring my attention into the present moment for a few milliseconds at a time – the longest I could manage at the time.
I’d try to notice the contraction of the muscles in my arms. I’d listen to the sound of the vacuum.
Then I’d get distracted by planning my next mojito-fuelled interaction with the hot yachtie bloke.
Eventually I’d realise I was ruminating again, and I’d go back to focussing on the motion of my arm, the bristles of the vacuum head swaying slightly as I vac-dusted back and forth across the blinds.
Then a stab of shame would hit me and I’d sink into ruminating about someone I’d snapped at a few days before.
Then back to the feeling of aliveness in my hands as I vacuumed, the feeling of the plush carpet under my feet.
Bit by bit, the meaningless, mundane, repetitive work of being a superyacht stewardess became the catalyst for the most life changing transformation I’ve ever experienced.
Bit by bit, rumination by rumination, vacuum stroke by vaccuum stroke, I continued to train my attention.
I eventually realised that I simply couldn’t be bored when I was fully present.
I also realised that when I wasn’t present, that I would frequently be consumed with rage, despair, or shame.
But when I was present, it turned out, I couldn’t be moody at the same time.
Since vacuuming and cleaning already-clean things for 8-16 hours a day was the most excruciatingly boring thing I have ever endured, there came a point where practicing presence was literally the only option I had to stay sane.
That or go mad and throw the vacuum off the side of the 6 story yacht in a fit of rage.
What I discovered over those years living on a yacht changed my life forever.
I learnt that nothing in itself is inherently boring.
No situation, no object, no person.
Not even a tennis ball.
Even though a tennis ball could not be more irrelevant to the first half of this blog. My mind got bored and switched gears unexpectedly, so here we are.
Most of us would never give much time to observing a tennis ball.
Gah, how dull. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
But Riley, my favourite border collie – he disagrees with you.
Riley loves tennis balls so much he dreams about them. When Riley comes to my house he runs straight to the place where my tennis balls usually live.
I’ve learnt from experience to hide my tennis balls if I want any peace from him.
Riley is 9 years old, and if he could, he would spend every day of his life running after a tennis ball and then throwing it back to you with his mouth.
He literally never tires of this game, even though it hurts his old joints.
Yet how long would a tennis ball interest a human?
The difference between Riley and an easily-bored human is the voice our head, our mind.
As far as we know, Riley doesn’t have a complex voice in his head. He doesn’t have a complex understanding of past, or future. Which means that when Riley is playing with the tennis ball, he is completely in the moment, and he relishes the fun of chasing that ball every single second of every single throw.
Even for a human, a tennis ball, properly looked at, is fascinating.
The shades of colour, the light contours, the weight, the colour variations, the marks, the indents. The texture, the furry yellowness, the feel of it on your skin and all the many ways in which you can hold it.
Yet when we think we “know” something, our mind files it away as a packaged up concept in our mind. “Tennis ball.” Then every subsequent time we see something that matches the category of “tennis ball”, we no longer look at it properly, we just see a generic concept of a yellow ball in our mind.
We assume we know that all tennis balls are the same, so we stop experiencing them in the present moment.
Which is a shortcut to boredom with life.
Since Riley doesn’t have a complex voice in his head, he doesn’t do that, so he doesn’t get bored.
He lives life with joy and acceptance of every moment, just as it is. Every time, every throw, is like new to him.
With practice, we can do the same.
By practicing holding your attention in the present moment with curiosity, you can choose to never be bored again.
Next time you’re in a boring situation – waiting for an appointment, in a queue, in traffic, working in your boring job – instead of picking up your phone or one of the other million things we use to distract ourselves – see if you can experience everything around you with a beginners mind.
Use your 5 senses. Use your internal senses.
Look as if you’re seeing everything for the first time.
Because you are.