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Spring Cleaning as a Gratitude Practice

Zen garden and spring cleaning and mindfulness

Spring is here, and I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation. I’ve been plugging away at a book and a video project, both of which seem to be progressing (glacially). So much to learn! We all go through energetic cycles, and as the seasons change our bodies seem to crave different things. Every culture, every religion, and every wellness tradition recognizes that “to every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” Spring is a time of new beginnings and projects, clearing out the old and stale, and getting moving again.

I used to hate spring cleaning, because I much preferred building dams in the drainage ditch to washing the walls and emptying the cupboards. My Mom channelled Marie Kondo before Marie Kondo was a sparkle in her parent’s eyes. Spring cleaning was a duty, like filing taxes, that loomed over us every year—usually during March Break. It felt as if some punitive version of Martha Stewart was coming to rate our home. My mother was raised that way, and my siblings were allergic to everything, so her stress was worsened by the doctor’s command to keep the house dust-free.

But my relationship to cleaning has shifted because of Zen practice. Most people are aware that Zen retreats involve a lot of time sitting in meditation. But what most people don’t know is that when Zen students are not sitting, they’re usually cleaning. I think this is probably true of most Indian ashrams as well. The point is to turn cleaning into a form of meditation practice. When you’re cleaning, you’re just cleaning. I used to spend all my time cleaning fretting about the other “more important” things I should be accomplishing. After all, I love to achieve things. I love rewards. I love ticking off the boxes on the endless “to do” list.

The Zen view is  all about keeping it real, and keeping it humble. After all, we’re just passing through and we’re just as fleeting—“dust in the wind” as they say. I was raised a Catholic, and every year about this time, we’d be reminded to “remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” So much dust to be dealt with! Cleaning is just another opportunity for getting real and paying attention to where you are, what you’re doing, and what your mind is doing. It’s also a deep form of respect.

My house doesn’t get cleaned much more often for my knowing this, but at least now when I’m cleaning I’m doing it with a better attitude. It’s not “beneath me.” It’s not unimportant just because the results are transient. It’s not a waste of time. Instead it’s a way to practice mindfulness AND get the dishes done.

My friend Nabiha used to say that cleaning is how you build a relationship with your house, and how you express your gratitude for your good fortune. I often think about her when I’m scrubbing the toilets. She used to remind me how lucky we are to have indoor toilets, and how recent a development that is.

I used to have a magnet that said “dull people keep immaculate houses,” but now that I’m older I have a whole new appreciation for dull people. And on the rare occasions when my house feels totally clean, I feel calm and content.

And lately, I’ve been able to reimagine my cat litters as tiny Zen gardens—and another dreaded job has become strangely satisfying. I make an effort to rake the things perfectly flat, demonstrating to my cats how much I care and knowing that they absolutely don’t appreciate it. Either it’s because they don’t care for the Zen aesthetic, or they are trying to one-up me by adding new features. Cats will be cats.

Happy spring cleaning and new beginnings,

Love,

Elaine

PS Maybe next week we’ll break down the movement components you need to scrub out the bathtub, like twisting, balancing, lunging…it’s all yoga lol.

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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend

3 Comments

  1. I love this post Elaine! I too resent cleaning because there are much “more important” things calling for my attention. But I do love having a drawer that’s newly organized or a fridge without a single moldy vegetable hiding in the bottom of the crisper. Or a linen closet where – temporarily – the towels are folded and stacked in neat piles and all the pillowcases are with their matching sheets.

    You’ve given me a new outlook on the process of getting there. It can all be satisfying!
    xo

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  2. I love these gems, Elaine. I agree with the idea of respect for the living space; a definite pleasure for me when it is clean. And I’ve always raked the litter when there are “deposits”. (Patsy deserves a clean toilet bowl as much as I do.)
    About the dust…. there is going to be one heck of a pile when I have gone on to my next life!
    So now, yoga poses notwithstanding, I am off to play with the vacuum cleaner!
    Love, lynn

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