Last month, during my annual teacher’s training, we were concentrating on Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – the chapter on method. It’s in this chapter where we find the famous 8 limbs of yoga, namely
- Yamas – morality in my relationships with others
- Niyama — personal observances
- Asana – postural practice
- Pratyhara – withdrawal of the senses
- Pranayama – breath regulation and control of the life force.
- Dharana – concentration and cultivating inner awareness
- Dhyana – devotion and meditation
- Samadhi – union with the Divine.
While we were sitting in the beautiful comfort of my teacher’s home studio overlooking the banks of the Nashwaak river, I realized that while I’d managed to get myself fairly straight on the yamas – issues of basic morality – I’d fallen down big time on the niyamas – my personal observances. The first of them is shaucha – cleanliness. For the record, I bathe on a regular basis – just wanted to get that one out of the way. It was housework that was my buggabear. I never been a huge fan of it – like who is? It’s always been a necessary waste of time that I begrudgingly did because I had to… and did again, because I had to, and did again, because I had to. Probably the number one complaint about housework is it is a never-ending job. We do it, knowing while we labour, it needs to be done again in a day, a week, a month. There’s an element of futility associated with it.
Last August when my heart condition came to a head, followed by the treatment protocols which are possible worse than the illness in the short-term, housework hit an all time low. My husband and daughter did the basics on a regular basis. The dishes were always done, the bathroom was clean. There were clean clothes to wear – sometimes even hung up and put away. The clutter and the general debris of human existence, on the other hand, never went away. Stuff accumulated. Dust accumulated. And as more stuff accumulated, the clutter took its toll on my sense of equilibrium. Even as my energy improved, I’d take one look at the overwhelming pile of clutter and sink back into the couch in discouragement.
So what is my clutter? Some of it was sheer slothfulness – too lazy to physically walk over to a garbage receptacle and junk the offending item. That is the easy stuff to clear away. More problematic were the accumulated crap that had its origins in emotional and mental turmoil in my head. And there’s the big point – clutter isn’t about in intermittent bout of untidiness. It’s a physical representation of the emotional and psychological uproar of my mind. Clutter happens because I’m mentally incapable of letting go of things I no longer need. It’s when I try to fortify my physical existence with the accumulation of things, like books and bric-a-brac and yoga accessories. It’s about my unresolved emotions surrounding a persons who is no longer in my life but that ‘thing’ has some connection to them and I don’t know how to throw it out without losing hold of them (or my memory of them).
And so my life has slowly been an accumulation of more and more and more and I realized this summer in class that it had become a burden and I no longer have the strength or the desire to carry this burden any further. So little by little, at least twice a week, I tackle what I call a ‘shaucha project”. It’s the cleaning of a closet or a cupboard. It’s about throwing out what is no longer useful to anyone, and sending what I no longer use to places where it can be reused or recycled. I keep the projects small so I don’t become overwhelmed. Rather than do these chores in a resentful way – my normal mode for doing housework – I’ve decided to turn things around by doing these chores in a yogic manner –with joy.
Years ago I read a book by one of my favourite authors Thich Nhat Hanh called Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness verses for daily living. In it he collected or wrote many gathas – little poetic reminders to be attuned to each action, infusing sacredness into the most mundane moments. Here’s one that goes with washing the dishes:
Washing the dishes
is like bathing a baby Buddha
the profane is the sacred
Everyday mind is Buddha mind.
While my particular brain sucks at remembering any sort of poetic verse for more than 90 seconds at a stretch, the use of gathas is a wonderful reminder to stay present in the moment. What has stuck is the spirit behind them – to be fully present and awake during a ‘routine’ activity and not using the tediousness of it as an excuse to escape into the fantasy worlds of past and future.
There’s something very beautiful about being able to turn my ‘ordinary moments’ of everyday life into extraordinary moments of practice. Yoga is not confined to the yoga mat or the studio. Yoga happens whenever we bring ourselves fully to the present moment, to truly live life on its own terms instead of trying to negotiate for a better deal, or in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, when we allow the profane to become the sacred.
What’s been transformative for me is that this ordinary housework has ceased being a chore. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is. The results are neither good nor bad. They simply are. I don’t start the project with a grumbling heart and I don’t start manufacturing my resentments over it. Let’s face it, one of the leading complaints about housework is that it is never DONE. At best, it’s done for now. The next meal will mean more dishes. Tomorrow, the floor will need to be re-swept… again. There is not inherent, lasting sense of accomplishment in these tasks.
The real question is: why was I looking for a lasting sense of accomplishment in these tasks? That’s ridiculous. The nature of floors is that they need to be swept. They don’t stay clean. They accumulate everything that was subject to gravity since they were swept last. So why would I be resentful of this? That’s just silliness on my part. Furthermore, with all the time and energy I consumed being resentful over the intrinsic nature of “floor”, I could have swept the damned thing 18 times and still had time for a coffee.
Oddly enough, there are plenty of daily living tasks that I don’t get weirder out about. I don’t resent my shower time or my tooth-brushing time because I’ll only have to do it again tomorrow. In fact, I enjoy the sensations of warm clean water running over my body, the smell of my soap, the feel of my skin when I get out. A shower is an extremely pleasant experience if I let myself be present to it. So how is it different than cleaning the floor?
In a word, it’s attitude. I start housework with a negative attitude. I start my shower with a positive one. I accept the shower for what it is – I’m going to get wet. I don’t accept the floor for what it is – the place where falling stuff lands. In other words, the problem has never been the housework – it’s been my piss-poor attitude around all along that caused my suffering over it. And I know from other yoga practices that when I change my mind, I change the moment. By cultivating shaucha as a practice, I change the nature of my relationship to the floor – the profane becomes sacred.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,