One of the joys having your own small place is rediscovering tasks that used to be burdens because of the sheer magnitude involved. My life at the moment is all about scaling down, downsizing if you may, and making adjustments as I go along. Strangely enough, as fate would have it, this is true for myself, my mother, and my daughter. Whereas my daughter has moved from a life of luxury into the essence of student life with shared rooms and limited budgets, my mother has moved from a life that was dedicated entirely to one man and one home, pushing aside her own dreams and ambitions. Both are learning to spread their wings.
It has been almost 18 years since I set foot in a place that transformed my life and spirituality forever: Bodhi Zendo. Tucked away in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, South India, this Zen meditation center run by the Jesuits embraces Christianity and Buddhism alike in the most fascinating and unique manner. I plunged fearlessly into the unknown and ventured out of my comfort zone, leaving the safety of home and family for eight days. Like the rest of my life, the Jesuits were there to guide me every step of the way, providing with me practical and spiritual tools for the journey, ensuring that I arrived in one piece, safe and sound – and ready for prayer! The only thing I had been told was that I been enrolled in a Zen retreat, but otherwise I was catapulted into the Zen of the unknown.
Once I reached Bodhi Zendo, there was no one at the reception area, in fact, there was no reception area, which was my first indication that this was going to be an interesting place. Eventually I found someone to help me with the “check in” which basically entailed being shown my room and handed a broom, a welcome that left me perplexed and speechless, which is the fundamental attitude needed for a Zen retreat anyway. Confusion means the unsettlement of what is known and familiar in order to allow the new in.
The only additional instructions I was given were the meditation instructions and the strict schedule I was expected to adhere to. Like every other activity at Bodhi Zendo, the assigned chores and activities were to be conducted in a contemplative manner i.e. meditative, prayerful, and in complete silence. I asked myself how I was supposed to accomplish all that while sweeping in order to attain the ultimate goal of feeling liberated and peaceful at the end of the task (which, by the way, was under time pressure).
The next eight days initiated me not just into Zen, but into the Zen of Sweeping – short, steady, consistent strokes in one direction, gathering all the dirt in one spot and leaving a clean trail behind you. What you left behind and walked away from had to be in such a state that there would be no need to look back and do anything over again. Like in life, you do not always get a second chance to go back and rectify, so do it right the first time! You should not move forward until you have dealt with the area in front and around you.
No rush, no loose ends, no regrets.
The meditation of the broom has been with me ever since. I have henceforth never looked at a broom as an instrument of labor. The humble broom, in its simplicity and strength, is a powerful meditation tool. It helps me stay focused, especially in times like these there is a great need to make sweeping changes.
Years later I expanded this meditation and discovered the joy of mopping as well, which I actually enjoy more than the sweeping. The additional element of water and the more drastic change involved in handling a mop became more relevant to me the older I got.
NB: an earlier and shorter version of this article was published on my former blogspot blog