A mala, muesli and a broom
The broom ... ah yes, the broom ...
When guests are greeted at Gaia House, as part of the introduction to the retreat, they are assigned a daily job for the duration of their stay. On past retreats, I’ve done room cleaning, vacuuming of corridors and chopping of veg. I’ve enjoyed them all. But my favourite job is sweeping and mopping the main hallway. One of my favourite quotes, attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh goes something like “When washing the dishes, just wash the dishes”. When I came back from a Gaia House retreat a few years ago, and started sweeping the kitchen floor at home every day, I think Caralyn must have wondered what had happened. But I had really discovered what Thich Nhat Hanh meant, and I had realised the truth that everything we do can be a meditation.
I had a similar experience (it may have been around the same time) when I was dismantling a wall in the garden. I look at the job with gloom. It wasn’t exactly a ‘slough of despond’, but I definitely wasn’t looking forward to the task. However, as I was taking each brick off the wall, knocking the old bits of mortar off, and putting it into the wheelbarrow, it dawned on me that the experience was a meditation. All I had to do, when taking a wall down, was to take a wall down ... brick by brick.
And, while sweeping the hallway at Gaia House, all I have to do is sweep the hallway, one stroke of the brush at a time.
Of course, the mind doesn’t stop while you’re sweeping the floor, does it? “She’s just walked through that little pile of dust I’ve sweated to gather together for the last few minutes, and she’s kicked it all over the place!” “I bet she did it deliberately; if she didn’t, she’s mindless!” The story could have spiralled from there, and I could have included some expletives if I’d chosen to, but telling myself that all I need to do is to sweep the floor; gather the pile of dust up again, and continue sweeping the floor, makes the whole thing so much easier. I could have gone into a whole rant; my heartbeat could have ratcheted up a notch or two; I could have sulked, etc, etc. For what? Without realising it most of the time, we add layer upon layer of extra emotion, negative thought, story-telling, mind-reading. Most, if not all, of it is completely unnecessary. All we have to do is to do what needs to be done: while sweeping the floor, just sweep the floor.
All I have to do is to observe this breath. (Actually, of course, this breath is the only one I can observe ... I can’t observe the previous one or the next one: they don’t exist.)
Sweeping the floor is the job I was given on the retreat in January. If I’m given the same job on the next retreat, in April, I’ll be delighted. If not, maybe, while peeling the spuds, I’ll just be peeling the spuds.