What I learned from sweeping.
Last June, my girlfriend & I took part in a week-long silent meditation retreat in Koh Samui, Thailand. It was simple. We slept in wooden cots with wooden pillows, situated in large open rooms. Two large geckos lived in mine. We woke up before the sun. We had two meals by noon each day, & then around sunset some tea & a banana or two. We did sitting meditation. We did walking meditation. We listened to Ben, the nun who led the week. We kept silent, apart from some afternoon chanting. We took cold showers. We hand-washed our clothes. We all had chores.
Mine was sweeping leaves.
On day one, I was a sweeping machine. Everything in my path, gone. I felt like I’d accomplished my task well, but was quite tired and had to rush to shower that morning because I’d taken forever to do the job.
On day two, I decided to be more mindful. My motions were more precise. I was more aware of each sweep, and of the many tiny creatures, ants and spiders, that lived in my path.
By day three, I was actually starting to look forward to the task. I’d picked up some sweeping tips by watching others — longer, firmer sweeps got the job done better than my short, rapid ones. But as I was finishing up, picking up the last of the leaves by hand, the wind blew and about eight leaves dropped to the ground around me. I took this as a lesson in impermanence. (Actually, I had a few conversations with the wind that week.)
On day four, I woke up feeling fresh, despite the fact that I’d been struggling with my meditation. The night before, Ben told us to look at day four as a “second day one,” so I did. I hopped out of bed at the sound of the bells, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and headed up the steps to the meditation hall. Halfway there, I kicked the black cat that lived at the center squarely in the belly, which had me mortified all morning. (I love cats — hell, by this time I’d grown to love ants.) Despite the rough start, I felt confident about sweeping.
As I got going, I came to realize that for the past three days, I’d been sweeping dirt off one of the steps onto a tiny little spider & her web. She was hopping around angrily at me, surely shaking one or several of her tiny fists. I felt badly but thought, “Tomorrow’s another chance,” which had me happy.
Then on day five, as I pulled out the broom, a little spiraled-up millipede fell out of the bristles. I had to laugh — I hadn’t thought of inspecting the broom before getting started. A lesson in ego?
The last day actually went pretty smoothly. In Buddhism, it is often discussed that mindfulness (or concentration) leads to wisdom. Maybe I was being rewarded for a week of mindfulness with the wisdom to effortlessly perform my task well on the final day. Or maybe it was just dumb luck.
We’re often so busy, performing the same or different tasks again & again, day after day. One thing I learned from sweeping that week is that if we take the time to look & listen, there are lessons in the details all around us, all the time.
& that’s a beautiful thing.