The weekend’s here, and while that can mean “fun,” it can also mean chores. (Shoveling and scraping, anyone?) Here’s Sumi Loundon Kim with a little perspective on getting things done.
“And here is your work assignment for the next seven days of the meditation retreat: clean the women’s bathroom in the dormitory.” The meditation center’s staff person noted it on my orientation sheet. I was excited about my job, because I had heard that in the Zen tradition cleaning the bathroom is a form of practice – even the abbot does it. I decided to pay attention to how I cleaned the bathroom.
The next day, after meditation at 5:45 and breakfast, I looked in the door. It was not pretty. Three toilets, three shower stalls, sink, mirror and floor. I began spraying down the toilets, noticing bits of poop stuck to the white seat and smelling the acrid urine. On the floor, long hair and footprints. Then I sprayed down the shower stalls, while the toilets marinated in solution. One had gobs of dark snot on the walls, and the other had hairs of various colors and lengths on the walls and in the drain. My stomach turned and I felt disgust.
I got down on my haunches, not daring to let my knees touch the floor, and began cleaning. Although at first the bathroom didn’t seem all that dirty, when I got close to the fixtures and floor, I saw that areas had been neglected for some time. I realized that the person on retreat before me, who had been there for several months, had not done her job well. Grime in the showers accumulated such that the walls were a different color, and dark gunk lined the doors’ sills. I made the mistake of running my cloth under the door’s metal framing, only to collect chunks of old, orange-brown goo. As I neared the toilet base, I noticed the dusty corners of the bathroom had not been attended to in months. My mind filled with resentment and irritation. Later that day, I thought about how I would clean that bathroom. The mind that plans the future was in full bloom, as usual.
The next morning, after 24 hours of meditation, silence, and a night of sleep, I attacked the bathroom like a cleaning tornado. I scrubbed and scrubbed, and got every last corner clean. I continued to feel repulsed by the poop, pee, blood, snot and hair, but I reflected on how I too am not exempt from these defilements, that I too contribute these “disgusting” things to the world. By the end of the cleaning, the bathroom sparkled but I was out of breath, hot, sweaty, dirty, and my mind was buzzing with chatter and continued resentment for the previous cleaner. I was also about to be late for the next meditation. Seeing this, I laughed at myself.
After another day of meditation, I returned the third morning and looked calmly at the bathroom. “I aspire to make this bathroom clean so that other women may feel comfortable and happy here. It will be the bathroom of a palace.” As I cleaned, my mind was calm and clear. I had fewer non-cleaning thoughts, and simply wiped. I wiped the toilet seat as if it were my baby’s own bottom. I got on my hands and knees and stroked the bathroom floor with the towel, back and forth, like I was soothing the floor. I noted when my mind wandered and was not mopping. I wiped the very last tile, stood up, and felt that my mind was quiet and empty.
On the fourth day, I again cleaned with a calm and clear mind, the body working quickly but not hastily, taking up each task without confusion. In regard to the accumulated grime, I dedicated myself to just one part, such as the caulking along each edge of the showers, and let go of the rest. Would it be the end of the world if the rims of the tiles were not dusted? As I wiped the toilet, I reflected on the housekeepers at airports who clean bathrooms all day, every day, for many years. At one point, they must have had to clean up my dirt. When I wiped up the snot in the shower, I did not feel repulsed, nor did I curse the woman who had carelessly left it there. In the remaining days, this open, non-judgmental, and mindful disposition continued.
Practice can inform work. When we find ourselves upset, irritated, or distressed with our work, a little bit of meditation – even just following the breath for three cycles – brings us back to a more even and stable frame of mind. Most of us are working all the time, but few of us realize that we can practice meditation while doing certain kinds of work. The next time you are wiping your kitchen counter or folding blankets, do it with your full attention, moving your body as if in a slow, graceful dance.
Likewise, work can inform practice. In spiritual cultivation, it is easy to fool oneself into thinking one is now an enlightened, compassionate, and wise person. Particularly when we are in silence or out of contact with others, we can come to believe we have made progress. But work reveals where our mind is really at, whether it is predisposed toward agitation or toward equanimity. If you want to test your spiritual progress, you don’t need to visit a Zen master. Just clean a toilet.
Sumi Loundon Kim is the Buddhist chaplain at Duke University and minister for the Buddhist Families of Durham. She has published two anthologies, Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists and The Buddha’s Apprentices: More Voices of Young Buddhists. A mother of two young children, she has ambivalent feelings about her Blackberry.
For more from Sumi, see these previous Shambhala Sun pieces (links open in new windows):