There is a distinctive misconception about cleaning and tidying ones living space. I have noticed this misconception but not through disagreeing with the complaints I grew weary of hearing from my elders as I grew up. “Oh, now everything is messy again and I have to tidy it up.” “Why am I always the one tidying up?” These are the things I heard from my elders from time to time while I was a child, and even into adulthood when I would visit my parents. I have noticed this misconception through engaging in cleaning and tidying our house with my full attention – with all of my awareness focused on what I am doing in that moment. I haven’t just done this with cleaning and tidying though, I have done this with everything. Even as I type this now and my thinking mind is dictating to me the next words to write – as my fingers tap on the smooth surface of each key – I am acutely aware that I am alive. And that aliveness brings about a sense of contentment in what I am doing in any moment.
This of course isn’t some profound spiritual ideology which I am just telling you about. If that was my intention, I might as well just talk to myself about it. What I’m writing about here – or at least touching on with a delicate precision – is that there is a suffering that we each experience when get lost in the ticker tape of our thoughts and begin to believe them. As I wrote about in my previous post, we have between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day (on average). I didn’t count them, so I don’t know if that’s exactly accurate but from my own experience, I get a sense that we have a lot of thoughts. Some people have lives which are full of expectations and obligations and others (though usually those same people) have very busy minds, so some have more thoughts than others. Some people have very active minds, and others less so. Regardless of what you are doing and what it is you are focusing on, your mind chatter will continue.
The gaps between the thoughts become more evident when you begin to practice deliberate and conscious focus. Connecting with your awareness brings you out of the grasp of the thinking mind’s chatter and into the present moment that you are experiencing now. It is believing the stream of thoughts in your mind which tends to cause the suffering you feel in your life. Out of an average of 48 thoughts per minute (give or take), any number of those could be true, untrue, entirely conjecture or purely a judgement based on categorisation for better conceptual analysis. None of these though are inherently good or bad in nature. They just… are. It’s only when we start to think about those thoughts that they develop qualities. We decide that this thought is bad and that one is good. This one is false, this one is true. The thoughts themselves have no qualities. It’s only when we begin to form a concept around the thoughts that emotions arise in relation to them.
As I’m sitting here in our living room right now, writing this, I am receiving input through my sensory receptors. I can hear the hum of the fridge across the room from me, I can hear the whir of the laptop fan as it rests on my legs. Outside, the chirping of a family – or perhaps just a commune – of small birds in a nearby tree, the rumble of a car’s engine down the street, that same car revving up and driving past the house. I can feel my dreads on my back, my fingers pushing the buttons on the keyboard as I mentioned before, the sensation of gravity pulling me down but the chair in between us stopping that happening. I can smell the faint smell of breakfast lingering in the air, the smell of my clean clothes fresh on today. I can taste the remaining flavour of the sweet drink I drank a few minutes ago. None of these things are inherently good or bad. They are just things. It’s only when I start to think about them that they go from being elements of my experience (without any qualities – good, bad or otherwise) to being concepts which I have attached meaning to.
If I let myself begin to conceptualise and engage in what the Buddists called “papancha” (a Pali word which means ‘to proliferate’), then I might start to think that the sound of the car on the street was intrusive or that the humming of the fridge is irritating. Maybe the taste in my mouth might start to be too sweet. But none of these sensations are inherently intrusive or irritating or too sweet. They just… are. I could take this all to the extreme too and perhaps think these thoughts through to their natural conclusion. For some, that would look like getting up and unplugging the fridge or shouting at the neighbour as they drive off down the street, totally unaware of the upset I had decided to cause myself in identifying with those thoughts. For some, it might happen that they get so upset with the taste in their mouth that they decide to brush their teeth again. Okay, brushing your teeth again may not be the worst example of papancha to the negative extreme but none the less, if we get identified with our thoughts then we might start believing them and begin acting in a destructive manner.
Not all of this proliferation on thoughts is always a bad thing. It’s needed sometimes. If we are faced with a problem and are looking for a solution then papancha is a useful tool. I’m sure that my regular readers will know by now that I am rarely one to write off anything entirely. Balance is something I teach as one of the most essential components of a happy life. Papancha is useful if we do not identify with it and then begin believing that every thought is true or real or – at worst – a reflection of who we truly are.
To bring this back then to the subject matter, applying this approach to my thinking, I have begun to enjoy the moment I am experiencing. The moment within which both love and choice exist naturally side-by-side. A few days ago, I was sitting in the seat next to where I am sitting now and I was looking around the room. As I was taking in all the shapes and forms that were in front of me, the urge to clean came upon me. It didn’t come in the form of a thought like, “This place is messy, it needs to be tidier.” Nor did it come in the form of self-criticism, “I should tidy up.” I simply witnessed my environment and experienced the urge to clean. I don’t know why or where this urge came from. I could speculate that it is related to something my father used to tell me when I was young. He used to tell me, “The state of your bedroom reflects the state of your mind.” I don’t know if that’s true or if it was just a clever tactic to get me to tidy my bedroom. Or perhaps it was both. I don’t know if it’s true but it is a distinct possibility. Why? Because the more cluttered a room is, the more difficult it is to be present there. The more spacious a mind is, the more likely we are to maintain a tidy home. That said, even those with minds which are occupied with papancha all the time find themselves in tidy homes once in a while. So, maybe it’s not true. What do you think?
Regardless of whether that is true or not, it’s importance is subjective. As I was sitting and observing my living room and had the subsequent urge to clean wash over me, I smiled. Then, with no rush at all, I climbed to my feet (which I had left where I was standing before – little joke) and proceeded to wipe down the counters of our kitchen. Then I took to the sink to wash up the dirty dishes which were left from breakfast. Then, I couldn’t stop myself, I wiped down the kitchen sink tap, the sink itself and the draining board. And at no point during did I say, “Oh, this is so dirty.” I didn’t even think it. I didn’t really think anything much. I was just there, cleaning. Paying full attention to the sensation of the scourer in my hand and the noises it made as I rubbed it on the patches of dried food, water and so on. It was more than “cleaning”, it was “the experience of cleaning.” And as I reflected on my work afterwards with eyes which weren’t as critical as they were appreciative, I noticed something…
Usually when it came to washing the dishes, I would “bagsy” not doing them. If you’re not familiar with “bagsy” it’s something that I think may still be popular with kids nowadays. My friends and I would “bagsy” doing something or “bagsy” not doing it and it essentially played the role of “shotgun”. Once “bagsy” was called, no-one could argue unless a deal was struck with the person who called it. This isn’t to say that I’d just call “bagsy” to get out of doing something every time it came up but when it came to washing up, I’d call it more often than not. Anyway, having found myself fully present in the experience of cleaning and then reflecting upon it afterwards I noticed that, not only was I entirely content in the experience of cleaning but I actually felt fulfilled and satisfied as I concluded the work. So much so that an hour later, I was sweeping up the floors. I couldn’t get enough. Suddenly, cleaning had become a beautiful meditation for me wherein I would simply exist as the observer of dirt being removed to reveal cleanness and tidiness underneath.
In fact, there was one moment where I laughed out loud while cleaning the sink. It wasn’t laughter from sheer joy of cleaning though. It was when I witnessed my ego trying to establish some superiority based on my abilities to clean the tap of our kitchen sink. After I followed the thoughts with credence for a second, I became aware that the thoughts were occurring and that I was no longer fully engaged in what I was doing for a moment just in time to witness comedy gold. The thought that had me bursting out in laughter was, “If somebody saw how clean this tap was, they would tell all their friends that they had never seen a kitchen sink tap as clean as when Andey Fellowes cleaned it.” Even now I can’t contain the laughter. Such a brilliantly ridiculous thought.
And so, that’s how cleaning became fun for me. Not just fun, though, it became a therapeutic exercise in presence and cleaning out the clutter both in physical terms and in terms of the mind. Of course now there is likely to be somebody thinking, “Well, if you like it so much you can come and clean my house.” (my papancha, hah). To which, if it was actually said, I might respond with a number of things. Maybe I would suggest that the state of ones house is reflective of the minds of those who live in it. If I was to clean your house for you, upon my leaving, it would likely return to its original state very quickly. Or perhaps I might say, “Pay for my plane ticket and I’d be happy to! I’m always excited to see something new!” Or maybe, I’d simply say, “No, tidy it yourself you lazy git.” And then laugh nervously for a moment while I engage in thinking about how that might be received before remembering myself and returning to presence.
And there you go! Life! Isn’t it brilliant?!
Keep it real, my friends.
Live, love and play!