Before entering the monastery I was never one to put energy into housekeeping. But I’ve learned that when I have time to clean, and especially when I have other people to do it with, I enjoy tasks such as washing dishes and sweeping mindfully.
We teach “working meditation” on our retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery, and I love leading the toilet cleaning team. Most people are horrified when they find out that they’ll be cleaning public toilets while on vacation! But once they learn to work slowly and even to bring flowers in to beautify the toilets, the work transforms into play. Seeing as most people have to clean something at some point in their lives, learning to enjoy cleaning is a valuable skill!
On the Lunar New Year, which marks the beginning of spring, the monastery begins its annual cleaning. For a several days, everyone pitches in to deep clean the kitchen, sort the storage, and take care of any other tasks that have been neglected for too long. Cleaning is a part of the celebration, not just a preparation for it. Once the main buildings are done, we continue into our rooms.
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Although we don’t own very much, clutter still builds up.This year I was again delighted to notice how free I felt after cleaning and sorting through my room—bringing out a bag of recycling, giving back library books that I was finished with or not able to read in the near future, giving away the extra hat that I never use. You get the picture. It’s very simple and very effective. A month later, I want to keep going.
My first novice teacher always said that if you’re having a bad day, go clean your room. The act of cleaning changes your point of attention, and also goes deeper. Bringing calm to the outer world through cleaning, even in a very small space, can also bring some calm into our hearts and minds. Every time I remember her advice, I feel grateful because I’ve found it to be true.
As the outer and inner worlds are connected, I’ve been looking at ways to do spring cleaning on the inside. I just finished a home retreat simply by practicing silence, gentle fasting, and staying away from the Internet. I sat a few times a day, spend plenty of time walking in the woods, reading and doing chi gong, and napping. I had no schedule and no to-do list other than letting each day unfold at its own pace. Perhaps this practice is what my teacher Master Thich Nhat Hanh would call aimlessness, one of the Three Doors of Liberation [shunyata (emptiness), animitta (signlessness), and apranihita (aimlessness)].
Related: A Yen for Cleaning
It is liberating to have no schedule and no plans, and in our community we call this a “lazy day.” This is different from scrubbing the kitchen and giving away unused household items—it’s a deeper practice of letting go. So many of our relationships and our society as a whole are built around productivity, consumption, and speed. Even a meditation practice can turn into a self-improvement project to get “good at.” Choosing to slow down and not accomplish anything is a revolution in itself. Like cleaning behind the fridge, it’s not meant to be done every day. But from time to time, it’s a breath of fresh air.
For those who want to do a little spring cleaning but can’t get to a retreat, or just want to refresh their home practice, here are some ideas that you can try:
- Give yourself a whole week away from email, or at least a weekend. Put on a vacation reply, hide the computer, or just turn off your phone.
- Give yourself a day without a to-do list. It might take a week of serious to-do lists to achieve this, but a day without that inner pressure is worth it.
- Plan a “lazy date” with a friend or your family. You set the time, but no plans! See how slow and easy you can take it.
- Commit to drinking your morning coffee/tea/smoothie slowly and in silence for a week for some mental cleansing.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to set up a concrete and achievable plan. Let the exercise be a dharma practice by breathing mindfully, noticing your thoughts and emotions, and looking deeply to cultivate understanding. Don’t see your spring cleaning exercise as taking on a new lifestyle or changing a habit. Make it fun! Then, if the activity is enjoyable and easy and you want to continue on a regular basis, you can choose to do so later.
Related: The Dust Beyond the Cushion
Remember that letting go, or renunciation, is not a punishment or meant to cause pain. Forcing yourself to give up what you love and value is a quick path to repression and resentment. The joy of letting go comes from insight into what truly brings happiness and suffering, and choosing the lasting happiness. Letting go may take some work but it can be a joyous relief.
The path of the dharma offers us an amazing array of practices and teachings. But if we’re too cluttered to receive them, they can’t help us. So make sure that part of your practice includes going out in the sunshine and making some space from time to time. And if your boss or your spouse tries to call you back to work, you can just tell them, “Sorry, I’m doing some spring cleaning.”
[This story was originally published in 2016]
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