Author Archives: tolu

The other side of cleaning

Lightstock.com

Lightstock.com

Spring is a good reminder of the need to clean again and again. But a cleaner perception allows us to see beauty and potential in what may be considered at best a chore. Beneath the surface, there is much more happening and much more is possible within you and in the space, beyond the obvious fact that you are moving dirt from one place to another. There are studies about the benefits of engaging in cleaning and Bill Gates gets to wash his own dishes. But here are some potentially helpful thoughts if and when you get to clean.

First consider this:

Cleaning is the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject, thereby exposing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.

Alignment. Cleaning is aligning with the default tendency of the universe, which is healing, movement from brokenness to wholeness. One reason we do not experience healing often is because we block it, intentionally or unintentionally. Cleaning unblocks flow and facilitates healing in a practical and basic way. Brokenness in nature tends naturally towards wholeness. This is what cleaning aligns with simply by removing dirt and trash and therefore revealing beauty. Thankfully, when properly stewarded, we get immediate feedback through an inner sense of peace and satisfaction.

Love. Cleaning is an expression of love, and respect. We clean because we care and when we don’t care about ourselves or our immediate environment, it shows. The attention we bring to a space and to the various objects and surfaces is truly rewarding when it is an expression of love. If cleaning does not proceed from loving attention and intention, it is just using the body to move dirt, which may be done much more efficiently by a robot. There is enough cruelty in the world than to be cruel to yourself in not loving the fact that you get to reveal beauty. Even when you do the dishes, be kind to yourself by doing it out of love for those who used or will use the dishes not just out of obligation.

Belonging. Cleaning creates a sense of belonging and a true sense of ownership. It shifts your relationship with a place from somone with no sense of belonging to someone who truly belongs, because you practically care for it. Cleaning can move you from apathy to empathy. Cleaning is a great ritual to engage in when you move into a new home or a new office. It is as though you do not truly become an inhabitant of the space until you have at least participated in cleaning it, even (especially) if you are the CEO. The sense of ownership that develops when you clean has to do with stewardship, custodianship and care. This has huge implications in education, immigrant and refugee integration and community development. We do not begin to belong in a place until we practically care for the place and the more we care for a place, the more we will care about it. And people who care do not inflict violence on the people and the place for which they care. Rather, they are protectors and custodians of the beauty, potential and sacredness of the place. If you feel out of place somewhere, try cleaning there.

Workout. Cleaning movement is healthy movement. It is not as intense as running on a treadmill or playing football but when done often, it keeps your joints lubricated and your blood flowing while helping you to move different parts of your body in a natural way. Like most exercises, the benefits lie in consistency. When cleaning, it helps to bring the same loving attention, intention and awareness that you bring to the space being cleaned, to your body. Be kind and listen to your body in the process of cleaning and after. Allow it to be exercised and healed just as you are “healing” and restoring the physical space or thing you are cleaning.

Presence. Cleaning trains you to be present, a quality we are all in desperate need of. Cleaning trains you to be aware of what is immediately before you right now by calling you back from where your mind has wandered into the present moment and place. This stain after all, needs attention. It is difficult to be 100% present because the mind naturally wanders but in the process of cleaning, there is always a reminder and a need to return to the present, to bring the mind back into the body and into the present physical location again and again, which is itself cleansing. The benefits transcend the physical act of cleaning. There is much healing that can happen within and around us when we start to be present with all our senses, mind and heart. Cleaning is an opportunity to practice spirit, mind, body presence and as you learn presence in cleaning, you can be present at other times, like this moment. By the way, I recommend cleaning without headphones if you want to practice presence partly because cleaning time is an opportunity to practice deep listening – listening with your whole being to what is happening around you and within you.

Touch. When you touch any thing or any one, what transpires is more than heat or germ exchange. There is energy transference even when you are not conscious of it but when you are aware and do it intentionally, you can transmit healing through contact with physical objects. I found out while reading Marie Kondo’s bestselling book about tidying (which I highly recommend), that the Japanese word te-ate which means to heal or cure also means to apply the hands or to touch with the hands, which is consistent with the belief in some circles that healing can occur through touch. We do not appreciate the power and magic of human touch until it is absent. When you clean you have the opportunity to transmit and receive energy because there is a lot of touch going on as a matter of necessity. Objects and physical surfaces are not inert, there is intelligence and life in them because there is intelligence and life in all matter but they pick up the vibrational frequency of the space they are in which I believe has much to do with the nature of the thoughts, words and actions that take place there. True, it is possible to exchange germs through contact with people and contaminated surfaces but joy in the heart is contagious and can neutralize the harmful effect of germs and negative vibrations.

Recalibration. Cleaning is an opportunity to recalibrate a space and remove negative “charge”. The normal use of a space generates dirt on many levels. There is physical dirt we can see, there are physical germs we cannot see and there is dirt in terms of the “vibe” of the space, which has to do with harmful thoughts, words and actions. A land may be in need of deep cleansing or a place of business or a home, depending on what transpired there. When you clean, you have the opportunity of recalibrating the “vibe” of the space. How do you do that? That is a different topic as it depends on the situation but you can begin by cleaning with love, joy and peace in your heart. Just as a meal cooked with love tastes different than a meal cooked without love, a space cleaned with love feels different than a space cleaned without love and this difference goes beyond physical appearance. I believe it has to do with the tangible effect of Love on the molecules and atoms around us just as love affects the molecules and atoms in food so much that we taste the difference. Clean your space or dishes or vehicle or body, with the understanding that you are recalibrating it each time you clean.

Loving-kindness. What you are doing when you clean is bringing care to various surfaces, objects and corners in a space, thereby permeating the space with loving-kindness. In reality, you release kindness within yourself by genuinely caring for the space and that can be healing in unexpected ways. Carefully removing dirt from a surface releases healing within you. When you inflict violence on any thing or any one, you are inflicting violence on yourself too. Violence towards any thing or any one is first a maltreatment of oneself and often proceeds from violence within oneself. When you are cruel to the space in any way, you release cruelty within yourself in addition to transferring the same energy into the space and the objects you interact with and that can be harmful in unexpected ways. One of the ways humans are designed to self heal is to extend kindness to others. This is one of the reasons cleaning is so therapeutic. Caring for a space is an opportunity to care for oneself so thinking of it as just a chore is at best unintelligent. When you clean, think of yourself as being kind to yourself by extending kindness to the space, to the objects being cleaned and the people who will benefit.

Meditation. I am sometimes asked if we meditate before or after cleaning and I often say that the cleaning is the meditation. Sometimes when I want to meditate, I go clean. The repetitive motion in cleaning calms the chatter in your mind and can easily put you in a meditative state. When you clean, do not just see it as an activity you would rather not do but an excellent opportunity to meditate. True, cleaning helps you to be fully present, spirit, mind and body but it also facilitates wandering, which is great for your mind, Those times when our minds wander, are times when our minds are in receptive mode rather than processing mode. Such moments are indispensable to mental health and true creativity.

Possibility. Cleaning is a reminder that with your participation, whatever is broken around you can be healed. It is a statement of hope and an enactment of possibility. When you clean, remind yourself that you are enacting and celebrating the fact that you live in a universe where, with your participation transformation, healing, restoration is possible. Just having this belief in situations where you may feel stuck can help you see possibilities you never saw and to find your way to resolution. When you want to remind yourself that transformation is possible in a difficult situation, go and love yourself by cleaning the bathroom or the dishes. You may very well begin to see differently, which is often what is needed in difficult situations. Cleaning after all, is a process of discovery. By removing dirt, you uncover beauty and potential within and without. Eden Philippots said, “The universe is ful of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

There is so much going on in the world today and we can debate endlessly on how to address them but there is a profound immediacy about cleaning. Your dishes still need to be washed. Your floor still needs to be swept. Your body still needs to be cleaned. Your mind still needs sweeping. Your way of seeing is still in need of cleansing. And these call your attention from everything going on out there to what is needed here and now. And that is a kind of protest. A subtle, noiseless, way of making the world better.

Happy Cleaning.

Cleaning our Lenses of Perception

Istockphoto

Istockphoto

Ever since I discovered window cleaning, I have been fascinated by it partly because of the difference it makes within and without and partly due to its value as a metaphor. Window cleaning is about changing what we see by transforming what we are looking through, not what we are looking at.

What happens when we clean dirty windows is that light is finally allowed to come in unfiltered and we get to truly see the view beyond the window, the colours, the beauty, the reality rather than the filtered view of reality that the dirtiness of our windows have conditioned us to see. The goal of window cleaning is to not see the window but to return the window to transparency. That transformation from fuzziness to clarity can be deeply rewarding for the Cleaner.

Now I see windows as a metaphor for our way of seeing the world, a metaphor for our lenses of perception. In the process of cleaning, clarity of vision makes all the difference. For effective cleaning, we need eyes that see reality and not just what we are conditioned to see. If physical windows need periodic cleaning, our inner lenses need a lot more cleaning, because they are responsible for what we see – including opportunities, possibilities, challenges, dangers, what we consider real and how we act. We have internal lenses and since most of us are not familiar with our inner worlds not to talk of engaging in periodic cleansing of our lenses, they often get clouded to the point where we think fuzziness is clarity. The lack of familiarity with our inner worlds also condition us to mistake darkness for illumination. Imagine cleaning in the dark.

We mostly engage not with ourselves as we truly are, with others as they truly are or with the world as it truly is, but with our thoughts and ideas about them, built up over time and rarely refreshed. And that is a recipe for accidents in a dynamic and fast-paced world such as ours where most people live with lenses that are effectively filters. In such a world, you need to periodically clean your own lenses or refresh your view – set aside stale ideas and obtain clarity even if for a moment. To avoid collisions when driving in wet conditions on a busy dirt road, you will need to wipe your windshield often.

In order to see beauty and possibilities within your view, never stop cleaning your lenses – they do not stay clean for long. When we truly see, we see wholly, including the dirtiness on our windows and the ugliness “outside” but the promise of cleaning is that no matter the dirtiness or ugliness, we can unveil beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.

How do we clean our lenses of perception? This is an exploration each person has to make. But one easy thing to do is periodically stop and change your view. There is a high likelihood that when you come back to your regular view, you will see what you never saw. By looking away briefly, we are forced to refresh our views. True Cleaners have a practice of stepping outside the spot they are working in and observing it from a different angle. This makes them appreciate any spots they may have missed as well as the transformation in which they are participating.

To truly clean our lenses we need practices that help us to periodically pause and set aside biases and filters. In my view, an indispensable element of such practices is periodic stillness within and where possible, also without. In order to think clearly and see clearly, we need practices that help us to periodically suspend thought and truly see. I experience cleaning as one of such practices that can help to silence inner chatter, in addition to other benefits. Such moments of clarity are like wiping dirty windows, suspending thought and suddenly seeing what was always there. Cleaning after all, is revealing, not creating. This sudden clarity of perception can be called insight or epiphany. I used to be puzzled by the Yoruba phrase, “má ronú mó” which means stop worrying or stop thinking, until I recently saw that insight, change of thought requires momentary suspension of thought. We are in desperate need of insights today in every area of human endeavour since in many ways, we have either become lost or effectively driven ourselves to dead-ends and it will take cleaner views to find our way out.

Cleaner lenses help us to momentarily become aware of reality on multiple levels at once. They help us to see the extent of the challenges and the vastness of the resources and possibilities within us and without. Some cleaners are excited to go into dirty spaces not because they are blind to the dirtiness of the space but because they are aware of the tools and possibilities for transformation.

When our instruments of perception are clearer, we become more alive, more humble, more present to what is, to pain, to beauty, truth, potential and sacredness in the world, at work and at play. By cleaning our lenses, we expand our view, we expand our field of play, our field of awareness and our intelligence. Dirty lenses limit our intelligence and possibilities because they limit our view. A counter-intuitive effect of limited view is to prevent us from being aware of the immediate, making us blind to possibilities and opportunities in the here and now. And if we are blind to what is possible in thismoment and in this place, we will not suddenly start to see better at a latter time and a different place. One of the beautiful truths about cleaning is its immediacy. The clearer yo see, the more you will see that it cannot be shifted out of the present, away from you.

None of us ever becomes exempt from the need for cleaner lenses. It is one of the outcomes I hope for when I speak or write about cleaning, starting with my own lenses, not to “reduce” people to floor cleaners. Although I think cleaning a floor or cleaning anything, is a pure and truly beautiful act, no less beautiful and sacred than any other act that makes the world better, inside and outside. A workshop or an article about cleaning that is true to the spirit of cleaning ought to contribute to cleansing our instruments of perception, thereby expanding our awareness, not just about cleaning.

When you hear about cleaning for example, what are you seeing? When you hear of “liberals”, “conservatives”, “immigrants” what do you see? In your various roles, your job, your organization, your industry, what challenges, possibilities and opportunities do you see? Who defined your job or your industry for you? If you see your job or industry as threatened by any development such as artificial intelligence, you may need cleaner lenses that let you see an expansive field beyond artificial boundaries. If you see profit for example as an evil idea to be done away with or as purely financial, you need to clean your lenses and expand your view. If you only see what you have always seen or what everyone else is seeing, it may be time to clean your lenses and that realization is itself significant. Cleaning your lenses helps you to at least momentarily see what is and what is emerging, not just what is in your memory, not just your thoughts and not just what you have been fed. Clarity of perception is an experience which when tasted, you will always long for, because it changes everything.

Originally published on LinkedIn on February 28, 2017.

Cleaning in Cape Town

With Cleaners after Cleaning as Practice Workshop at UCT GSB

After Cleaning as Practice Workshop at UCT GSB

“Cleaning is the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject, thereby exposing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.”

Ever since I had the above epiphany, I have spoken it countless times in many places. Each time I do, I get washed by it, as the essence of cleaning is invited into the space to do its work. This happened again and again while I was in Cape Town recently for Cleaning workshops and conversations organized by my friends and the best hosts I could have asked for, Tana Paddock and Warren Nilsson of Organization Unbound.

Cape Town happens to be a place, like the rest of South Africa, where cleaning is especially needed, given its largely unatoned past. The words of Iain Harris, a resident of Lynedoch Eco-village near Stellenbosch, continue to ring in my ears: “This land where we stand right now is in need of cleansing…”

In one of the sessions, Cleaners at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB) guided staff and faculty in cleaning a hotel room and public washrooms, accompanied by conversations exploring the meaning of cleaning and mining insights from the experience. In my company, Zenith Cleaning, we call this experience Cleaning as Practice. So many beautiful things emerged from that 3-hour session and the other sessions I had around Cape Town. Here are a few that I continue to chew on:

  • The practice of forgiveness. During the post-cleaning conversation at the GSB, we reflected on how it felt to clean up behind people after one of the toilet seats was soiled before we finished cleaning the washroom. It was similar to how it feels when someone wearing muddy shoes walks across a floor you are mopping when they could easily have taken off their shoes at the entrance. Yet, we had to go back and clean it and hold no grudge against whoever made the mess. One of the Cleaners talked about her experience cleaning hotel rooms; occupants sometimes screamed at her because they did not want their room cleaned, yet she had to wipe the stain from her mind and heart as she moved on to the next room to prevent her day from progressively spiraling downwards. Cleaners and domestic workers, we realized, with the on-going systemic and day-to-day abuses they suffer, were continuously practicing forgiveness. They never know what to expect and they encounter all sorts of dirt on many levels; yet their task is to meet abuse with the all-purpose cleaner called Love, bringing loving-kindness to spaces and people, while washing their own minds and hearts with the same loving-kindness. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The most forgiving people I have ever come across are people who have suffered – it is as if suffering has ripped them open into empathy. I am talking about wounded healers.” I think this applies to many Cleaners.
  • Being with the mess. When the toilet user soiled the toilet seat at the GSB, we may have been tempted to flee the scene, but we did not have that luxury. Regardless of who made the mess, as Cleaners we were responsible for the transformation the space called for. Our job was to clean, not to go after the person who made the mess, not to complain about it and not to leave it for the next person to deal with. During my interview-style talk, hosted by the Bertha Center for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the GSB, I reflected on the fact that Cleaners do not have the luxury of escaping from a physical mess like many of us do when faced with a societal ‘mess’- like fleeing the seemingly messy United States to a seemingly cleaner Canada. What happens when Canada becomes undesirable? Who will take it upon themselves to make the undesirable desirable? A Cleaner’s task is to be with the mess, any mess, and with the practice of loving-kindness transform it into beauty. There is more suffering involved, it is more difficult, you will get dirty, and you may ‘fail’ or even die in the process. But it is more fulfilling to be in the world as a beautifier than as someone who is only drawn to places and spaces that are already beautiful.
  • From abusers to protectors. I shared earlier that when a cleaner is mopping a floor and someone knowingly makes it dirty, they could get offended. This is not because cleaners are angry people but because the practice of cleaning, when properly stewarded, shifts you from an abuser to a protector. You start to personally identify with the space you are caring for. If you want school children to take care of their learning environment, just get them cleaning it like they do in Japan. It is hard to clean a space and knowingly abuse it. It is hard to clean a space and not become its custodian. And over time this sense of ownership transcends the tangible. You are not simply developing a caring and respectful attitude towards the physical space, you are developing a more caring and respectful attitude, period. In environments where people exhibit violence towards others, whether men to women or school children to each other, cleaning can be used to start a caring revolution. During my visit to Rlabs, I met a group of budding social entrepreneurs who, just like Rlabs itself, are doing much needed cleansing work in Cape Town through their organizations. An idea that came up during our conversation was to organize groups of men in some of the more violent and physically neglected areas of Cape Town to periodically clean community spaces together and then collectively reflect on the experience. If well guided, could they begin to shift from abusers of their sisters and brothers to keepers and protectors?
  • Cleaning upstream. We can spend our days forgiving endlessly and we should. But cleaning is fundamentally incomplete if it does not get to the root of the mess. Compassion is broken if it continues to enable abuse and neglects the intangible source of abuse. Systems and paradigms need transformation. They need cleaning even more than the immediate effects we experience, and that is where the real work of cleaning and compassion lies, not just in cleaning after the fact again and again. This applies in parenting, in relationships, in politics, in education, in real estate, in finance, in technology, everywhere. Cleaning and cleanliness needs to be built into the design of tangible and intangible systems and structures or else we are not really cleaning.
  • Cleaners as teachers. Cleaners may not realise it, but they are in a good position to teach the world how to clean the intangible. I was delighted when Warren suggested during the workshop at the GSB that the Cleaners host conversations at the school about how people can approach their work with a cleaning lens. The potential of an educational institution is being unveiled when teaching and learning is all encompassing- when the Professor sits at the Cleaner’s feet just as the Cleaner sits at the Professor’s feet. Education, after all, is from the word ‘educe’- “to draw forth or bring out, as something latent or potential” (dictionary.com), which is similar to my definition of cleaning. An educational institution is truly clean when it welcomes everyone, from all walks of life, to participate in the unveiling of truth and potential.

While I hope I left the people and organizations I visited in Cape Town better than I met them, I certainly left better than they met me. I feel greatly nourished and still have lots to digest from each of the seven sessions. The experience reaffirmed to me that we need more cleaners in the world. At the very least, if I am a stay-at-home dad, a banker, a teacher, a politician or an administrator, I should be one who cleans, one who transforms messes into beauty, not one who makes the world worse than I met it and not one who passively or actively chooses not to make a difference. Whoever we are, wherever we are and whatever our roles are, may we get our hands dirty unveiling beauty, potential, truth and sacredness while we have breath in us.

Postscript

I am grateful to the following organizations in and around Cape Town for hosting me:

Originally published on LinkedIn on December 7, 2016

Our power to make the world better

Social MediaGiven the result of the Brexit referendum, what is the invitation now, where the rubber meets the road, where individuals get to choose? Among those who favored a Britain that is part of the E.U. what is the opportunity occasioned by the fact that 52% of Britons voted for Britain to be out of the E.U? Is it all doom and gloom? Do we just lament and blame the people who caused it? What can individuals who are part of the 52% or the remaining 48% do now to make the world better and leave a better world for the next generation? Nothing?

I reflect of course as a Cleaner, not a political analyst. The practice of cleaning is about being confronted with a mess, a mess that most times, was not caused by you, and choosing to bring beauty out of it. We all respond to messes. Some of us respond by ignoring it, some respond by moving away from it, some respond by blaming those who caused it and some respond by getting their hands dirty and revealing beauty and potential, in the mess. Cleaners take dirtiness as an invitation, an invitation to unveil beauty and potential, sometimes at great cost.

What is the invitation of an Obama Presidency for the individual right now in the United States? What is the invitation of a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton Presidency? Some may respond by moving to Canada because they can and because Canada is welcoming, for now. What happens if Canada becomes hostile? Perhaps we need people who are able to be with a mess that was not caused by them and still reveal beauty in it, not necessarily on a national scale but on an individual level, which is where it really matters, even if Liberals are in power, even if Donald Trump becomes President, even if the British government exits the E.U.

What is the invitation of corruption and lack of governance in Nigeria for Nigerians who truly care? To lament corruption and lack of governance? Could we as individuals still be capable of making a difference when confronted with a mess that we did not cause or do we simply respond by lamenting, blaming and relinquishing our power to make a difference, especially when things are not looking good?

For those who care, the time to get our hands dirty to make the world better, is when the world is in a mess, not when it is paradise. Like I once said, “Hope is not needed when there is hope, hope is needed when there is no hope.” That time is now and to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can strip us of our power to make the world better unless we let them.

All Cleaning is Internal

When we mop a floor, wipe a counter top, scrub a toilet, dust a table, it is not so much about the physical dirt we are removing from the object, surface or space. It is about the dirt we are removing within us.

When we enter a dirty space to clean it or if we live in a dirty space, we internalize the dirt. The dirt without takes up residence within and the way we get rid of the dirt within is by engaging in physical cleaning. We take time to remove a stain from a surface because doing so creates satisfaction within us.

This is not entirely different from taking time to improve an article one is writing – inner satisfaction comes from doing so, whether or not the readers appreciate the accuracy, correctness, simplicity or profundity of the article.

Inner transformation happens as we engage in outer work. The inner transformation then also produces more transformation outside. The more you clean the outer space, the more your inner space is clean and the more you want to live in a clean space.

The goal of every cleaning is not external cleanliness but internal cleanliness. The space that we are trying to clean is not the visible space but the invisible space within us. This is true whether you work as a Cleaner or you are cleaning your room. The inner lives of those who work as Cleaners will be greatly enriched if they saw cleaning as an internal work as much as it is external.

When we declutter a space, the real decluttering we are doing is internal. Clutter, like dirt gets internalized. Since there is a strong linkage between the exterior and the interior, the visible and the invisible, the internal decluttering only happens when we start to get our hands busy with external decluttering.

The real estate we need to be concerned with is invisible, within us, whether we are users of a space or cleaners of the space. Cleaners have it a little harder because they have to internalize dirt they did not create and clutter they did not cause. Cleaning happens without because of the need to get rid of this internal dirt. Decluttering takes place without because of the need to declutter our internal space as cleaners.

True cleaning requires the ability to tune into our inner space and be as familiar with the inner as we are with the outer. As familiarity grows with our interior spaces comprising of our paradigms, thoughts and emotions, we become better able to clean not just tangible dirt that has been internalized but any kind of intangible dirt including fear and anxiety.

Rethinking design

Lightstock.com

Lightstock.com

Cleaners happen to spend more time interacting with built structures than the designers or builders of those structures. We experience how design often makes cleaning difficult. Cleaning mostly conforms to design and therefore happens after the fact but a more expansive view of design and cleaning considers the need to clean even before design and all through construction. Doing that saves much effort, time, space and resources throughout the lifecycle of materials, objects, gizmos and structures.

Designing for cleaning among others ensures ease of restoration and renewal. Designers and cleaners need to talk to each other despite perceived social and intellectual separateness. Designers ideally want ease of use and that is why cleaners clean. It is not easy to use if it is not easy to clean. It is unusual but not a bad idea for designers to spend time cleaning what they design in order to gain new perspectives and for cleaners to contribute to design just because they have intimate knowledge of spaces and built structures.

Taking cleaning into consideration is acknowledging that whatever we make will generate dirt simply through use, which will necessitate regular renewal and restoration, unless of course we are designing not for durability but for quick obsolescence and discarding, which seems to be the prevailing design intention. If we are designing for long-term thrivability and ease of use however, ease of restoration is key.

To facilitate cleaning, fixtures need to be easy to access, move and remove. Windows are a case in point. They should be transparent or translucent and be easy to open and/or remove – they should be designed to let in light and air which may seem obvious but is not always the case. Often one of the first things we do when we clean a space is to open the windows and let clean air remove stale air. Clean windows make a huge difference to a space because they allow more light which is a very easy and cost-effective way of changing the “vibe” of a space. Clean windows also create a feeling of spaciousness because they seem to remove the barrier between the inside and the outside since there is no dirt on them. If windows are not easy to remove or to access inside and outside, cleaning them is costly in many ways and when simple restorative actions become too costly in money, time and effort we tend to neglect or discard.

If a phone for example costs nearly as much to restore or repair as to replace when worn out or broken, replacement becomes more attractive and that adds to the waste we are already almost drowning in. Waste management and recycling which are environmental cleaning initiatives need to be considered not downstream at the point of discarding but upstream even before design.

A better way to design spaces is such that occupants can easily clean their own spaces themselves and not need a cleaning “professional”. After all, you do not need a PhD to clean anything. You only need the ability to identify and remove dirt. In addition, the process of cleaning your own space is so therapeutic and healing both for you and your space on many levels that you should regularly do it yourself even if it’s an office space. If it’s an office space, few activities bond people together than cleaning together.

An extreme example of a surface not designed with cleaning in mind is a painted, grooved white flooring in a high traffic area. A grooved floor is difficult to clean but painting it white adds insult to injury. By painting a floor white in a high traffic area that is not a laboratory or sterile environment, you may be unintentionally making a statement that people are not welcome to walk freely on it while making it difficult to clean.

Having said that, there are environments where sterility is important and dirt needs to appear easily because there is a strong need to avoid contamination. Such floors should be painted white so that the need to clean can be immediately obvious.

Floors on which people are welcome to walk freely should not be in sharp contrast to the color of earth in the area. A natural concrete or wood floor may be more dusty than a white painted floor but look and feel cleaner. Much time, effort and water can be saved by having flooring that does not require regular mopping, where regular sweeping or vacuuming makes a difference. An extreme example is dirt floors which only need sweeping and never need mopping. In such spaces, earth is not dirt, it is the floor.

My observation as a Cleaner on many levels is that the closer a material is to nature and culture in the area, the less costly it is to build and maintain, the easier it is to clean, the cleaner it looks even when used often. In any case, not all dirt is bad. After all, our bodies are composed of the same elements as earth. It is okay to befriend some dirt. The farther you are from nature, the harder it is to maintain, usually.

The one who suffers most from making cleaning difficult is of course the Cleaner who could be a janitor, house cleaner or the owner or occupant of a space. For a Cleaner nothing is more frustrating than the inability to easily see the difference your effort makes. True Cleaners exist to make a difference, to restore spaces, surfaces and objects back to beauty and wholeness and when they are denied that satisfaction, cleaning is not rewarding. But it is not only the Cleaner that suffers. The space also suffers.

The beauty of cleaning is that it applies as well to the intangible as the tangible. It is as practical as it is a metaphor. Designing for ease of cleaning goes beyond mopping floors or cleaning windows.

Our bodies are designed for ease of internal and external cleaning, which prolong our lives. Rest is a cleaner that restores our bodies and minds to wholeness again and again and most of the time, we do not need to pay for it. Food ought to cleanse and facilitate waste removal from our bodies and our cells as well as satisfy hunger. Eating food that does not cleanse is like living in a house where cleaning does not happen. At some point, the house becomes uninhabitable. The prevalence of food with minimal to non-existent cleansing value creates a huge market for medication which violate our bodies more than heal them. Much medication can be avoided and we will live healthier if we ate foods that are as cleansing as they are filling.

Relationships eventually become toxic when cleaning is neglected for long enough. They should be designed and built to facilitate regular “cleaning” and “waste removal” through empathic communication and forgiveness. Without these, no relationship can last, no matter how great it starts. Why? Dirt and trash get generated just because imperfect people exist and interact with each other. So cleaning needs to happen again and again. A relationship that is not designed for regular “cleaning” simply allows dirt and trash to accumulate and when that happens, “shared spaces” become unhealthy, not because dirt gets generated but because cleaning does not happen.

Designing and building with cleaning in mind is wisdom. Design should make cleaning an invitation and not drudgery. Design should welcome dirt that comes naturally from traffic, friction, interaction and transactions while making dirt removal easy. The simpler the design and the closer to nature, the easier and less costly it is to clean. The easier it is to clean, the more likely you are to clean. The more regularly cleaning happens, the more sustainable and thrivable a space, a human body, a relationship, an organization, a culture.

Why I am a Cleaner

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Gift from Jeffrey Sparr

This post started as a response to the most recent comment (by “No No”) on my article, “I am a Cleaner” on Organizationunbound.org. The comment reflects the experience of most people who do cleaning and this response does not claim to address all the issues raised in the comment. Reading the original article and comment is best, for context. The original “I am a Cleaner” article was also featured on Stanford Social Innovation Review and on Walk out Walk on blog, an initiative by Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley.

Cleaners are often treated like the dirt and trash we deal with although at Zenith we are “unusual” in that we are privileged to have clients who treat their cleaners with non-condescending respect. However, even at Zenith, we experience condescension, disrespect and outright abuse. It is not uncommon for people who hire cleaners to take advantage or be abusive and that is not just because they are bad people. It reflects the loveless nature of human society where we exploit the “weak” and crush the downtrodden. It is not limited to cleaning. Just look at the conditions of construction and farm workers in the United States and elsewhere. Look at the conditions of factory workers in the fashion and high tech industries in Asia.

Cleaners often experience the ugly side of humans and the underbelly of our economic system because we are mostly invisible – no one has to impress us and people can get away easily with abusing cleaners – so we experience a reality most people don’t. We are way down in the hierarchy, which though exposed to negativity, is a vantage point that makes me conclude that the most urgent crisis facing us is not climate change or environmental degradation but humanity’s growing inhumanity. Cleaners everywhere experience the same ‘shit’ to varying degrees and we get to choose how to respond. I chose to respond in a way cleaners respond to dirt – see beyond it to the beauty it obscures and see its nourishing and transformational potential – which I agree makes my experience in cleaning unusual.

I am an outsider to cleaning and that definitely gives me an advantage which is only true if it helps to bring about change, not just in the cleaning industry but everywhere cleaning happens. Change has a strange habit of coming from outside. I am a Cleaner because I get to be an outsider in most spaces including the cleaning industry, which the comment testifies to. Being an outsider enables us to see what insiders easily miss. I prefer the Cleaner title and role because it keeps me an outsider while granting me entrance into any space that needs cleaning literally and figuratively.

I think it is true that the typical cleaner stereotype is someone with some kind of disability including the inability to find something “better” to do. And it is true that many people do cleaning because they believe they have nothing “better” to do. Cleaners are recipients of cruelty and we cleaners in turn internalize it and engage in cruelty to ourselves and to one another. This is neither strange nor limited to cleaning but it is easy for cleaners to internalize negativity and abuse because we deal with residue on many levels. Here is an excerpt of an email message from Melissa, a fellow cleaner, after a plenary session at a conference where I got to speak about cleaning as though it was a privilege and a thing of beauty:

Hearing you speak, I felt so moved by what you are infusing into our world, culture, and being. It touched me so deeply into my heart, which I still don’t understand the complexity of it. I realized in the moment as you were sharing that I had been in shame of this part of my life. I was ashamed that I was someone who cleaned people’s homes and offices. I felt that I was looked down upon as less than, and as menial and uneducated. I realized that I created these stories that I in turn told myself. I believed them, and I became these stories of cruelty to myself. I also realized that I was infusing shame and self abuse in all aspects of my life and work.

I also know there are people regardless of their physical characteristics and social standing, who clean because they have become convinced that there is nothing better to do than to make things better. I know people including myself who came to that discovery after having been through the rite of passage of external and internal abuse and have emerged on the other side, seeing better. Here is Melissa’s email one year after the initial encounter:

I am still cleaning…and my relationship to it has changed. Recently, we did a floor to ceiling clean at the office we work for and it was about six hours of cleaning…which as you know is a lot. Of course, a few times I was in my head saying things like…why do I have to do this…this is hard work….etc…But then, what is cool is that you can change that story around and re–phrase it to …..I am able to do this, and I am going to bring my whole being in to this process to fully experience it.

I am a Cleaner because I get to clean the intangible as I do the tangible.

The issue of low pay reflects the fact that a group of people have to bear the brunt of our regard for money over people, focus on transactions over relationships and preference for disembodied actions over embodied physical work. The people messing up our world are not necessarily cleaners or those who do physical labor. As a group, I think their negative effect on our world is minimal. Yet someone has to be compensated comparatively little in order to sustain our economy the way it is.

A cleaning service is typically seen as a mere transaction whose value is limited to mere removal of physical dirt, which a robot may do better. We ignore the fact that it is done by “the most sacred thing ever presented to our senses” (according to C.S. Lewis), called a human being. Weignore the impacts of cleaning  and how it transcends what we can see and touch and so the markets compensate cleaners very little. Comparatively, what cleaners do is not considered valuable in our social and economic paradigm.

This is part of what we seek to address as we go into schools. In our workshops we get kids thinking differently about the value of the lowliest of jobs. In order to clean “cleaning”, there is a lot that needs to happen in our society and it will not happen by griping about it anymore than a dirty space can become clean by complaining about dirt. We will have to roll up our sleeves as Cleaners of the intangible and begin to address how we raise the next generation, among others.

I love what Buckminster Fuller said,

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete

This is my approach and it is why cleaning is not my job but my calling. I am as disenchanted as anyone about how our world treats cleaners as well as construction and farm workers and I am privileged to be able to transmute my disenchantment into creating a new reality that has as much to do with how we see and relate with each other, especially cleaners. Cleaners happen to experience the true state of affairs because of their position in the hierarchy. I have chosen to use my privileged platform as an “outsider”, an unusual and slightly more visible cleaner to address the issue as I see it.

I am starting with declaring myself a Cleaner and not just declaring it publicly, but continuing to privately and publicly clean. There is huge power in going into a place as a cleaner and not as the owner of a cleaning company. As “owner”, certain truths are masked from you. I like to be “just the cleaner” because I get to experience the world as it is not as it appears to be. That way, we can at least “identify the dirt” as one of the participants said during one of our recent workshops. Without identifying the dirt, how can we clean it? I and the Zenith team are also involved in a number of initiatives that among others aim to turn the stigma on its head and shatter the stereotype while creating value.

Cleaning companies are often forced to pay little because they are under pressure to bid low since cleaning is considered low value. This is one of the reasons we have chosen not to expand for the sake of mere expansion or take on cleaning contracts where pricing is the primary consideration. Among others, we could get easily sucked into business as usual when we are here to cause a paradigm shift. Also, just having a traditional cleaning company and being nice to employees and clients only skims the surface in my view. We can continue to “innovate” around cleaning and make it easy for people to find cleaners as homejoy did without addressing fundamental problems in our society that show up very clearly in relationships between cleaner and client. The true innovation needed in cleaning and everywhere else is not so much in products and services but in human being. This is why my work transcends “cleaning service” and includes “promoting” cleaning as a practice and a metaphor and when it is a metaphor, it immediately renders me, you, everyone in need of ongoing transformation. No one is exempt, thankfully, from the need to be better. Cleaning is beautiful like that.

The cleaner needs as much cleaning as whatever it is they are cleaning or trying to transform just as a mop needs at least as much cleaning as the floor it cleans, again and again. And that makes it very difficult to point fingers. An abused cleaner needs at least as much transformation as the person perpetrating abuse and often, once the cleaner sees themselves as an integral part of the solution they seek, they are able to confront abuse with compassion towards self and others. At Zenith Cleaning we refer to Love as the All Purpose Cleaner.

I said at the Business Romantic event put together by Tim Leberecht author of the book by same title:

I dislike the business of cleaning but I love the practice and metaphor of cleaning.

I will unpack that statement. I am in the business of cleaning because I dislike what it looks like presently. Cleaning can only begin when we become uncomfortable with dirtiness enough to get our hands dirty. The business of cleaning is an apt vehicle for the practice and metaphor of cleaning. In the process however, the business of cleaning will be transformed.

On the face of it, there is nothing to love in cleaning but that is the nature of dirt, isn’t it? We tend to run from dirt but a true Cleaner does not run from dirt, within or without. Rather, they interact with it, they remove, recycle, re-purpose it if necessary, leaving behind beauty, potential, truth and sacredness. There are countless opportunities today to encounter ugliness and leave beauty in our wake and that is why I am a Cleaner and want to be a Cleaner.

I am a Cleaner not for anything that appears good about cleaning presently but to unveil beauty and promise where there seems to be none, starting with cleaning. That, is why I am a Cleaner.

Cleaning Education

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Cleaning Practice @ MCC Workshop

When we started to envision cleaning as a transformational practice and metaphor, we had no idea how to transition from a residential and commercial cleaning company to one that used cleaning to change – to clean – the world on many levels. From a traditional viewpoint, what we were envisioning was not “cleaning” but perhaps “consulting” since we were starting to concern ourselves with “bigger issues” than just garbage or dirt on the floor. When I explained what we were doing, I was often told “you are not just a cleaning company,” but I stubbornly refused to accept that improving the intangible aspects of an organization, a culture or a society was outside the scope of a Cleaner.

Even if we were only cleaning the hallways and bathroom, it was hard to go into a school and not see that the invisible space of the school, where interactions, teaching, learning and thinking occurred, needed at least as much cleaning as the visible, tangible space. I thought that cleaning needed to be unshackled from influencing and transforming only physical spaces and that it ought and sought to transform the invisible and intangible too, which is in much more urgent need of transformation given how broken our world is. While my hands swept the floors of a school, my heart and my mind could not help but desire to sweep the invisible space of schooling, education and learning, removing accumulated dust, debris and trash that prevent true learning and potential from unfolding.

If cleaning can transform and restore the physical space of a school, why can’t cleaning transform and restore education to wholeness? This is one of the questions a relatively obscure Montreal-based cleaning company chose to grapple with and explore until gradually opportunities started to open up to work with and hold workshops in schools and youth programs.

But how does a cleaning company successfully hold workshops that invite people of all ages to clean on every level, grounded in the physical act?

After all, there are important barriers, including the stigma and shame associated with cleaning. In addition, we only have experience cleaning and extracting insights and wisdom from the physical act of cleaning. Our familiarity is with the principles and wisdom of cleaning, which technically makes us inexperienced workshop facilitators at best.

Social Enterprise Alliance conference with Becca Stevens and Kevin Lynch

Although I am very comfortable speaking in different environments, I struggled with nervousness when I found out we would be holding a workshop for a group of basketball playing teenagers. We would be introducing them to Cleaning as Practice and would be exposing them to the universal metaphor of cleaning and how it helps both with basketball and with the life issues that matter to teenagers. Metaphor or no metaphor, we would be inviting them to do something as “uncool” as cleaning their gyms by themselves, regularly. I am fine presenting the practice and metaphor of cleaning to hundreds of business leaders at once, but I was nervous about presenting something so “uncool” to teenagers.

The first thing I did was acknowledge my nervousness and not run from it or sweep it under the carpet. I engaged with it and owned it. This is Cleaning 101. Cleaners do not run from or hide dirt, rather they are attracted to and engage with dirt. They not only remove it, they shift it from where it makes a mess, disfigures, contaminates or corrupts to where it beautifies, nourishes and makes things grow. This is why a rotten piece of apple on a conference room floor becomes food and nourishment in a compost bin. Composting, recycling, management of waste, conversion of waste into nourishment and energy and eliminating the concept of waste are all part of cleaning.

I decided it would be helpful to think of the workshops like a cleaning assignment: the goal is not to bring something new into the space, but to expose what is already true, beautiful and sacred within the space. As a Cleaner, you are relieved of the pressure of being an expert. Your task is to reveal the essence of the space. Our task became going into our workshops to unearth, to expose the wisdom already in the space. This was liberating.

Cleaning is fundamentally an act of caring, a practice of empathy and service in pure form. We would not be cleaners if we did not prepare to go into our workshops to love the participants, to share with them, to reveal their wisdom rather than dump ours on them. Teaching and learning would be simultaneous, indiscriminate and mutual and that realization dispels nervousness. Love cleans out fear.

My nervousness became an opportunity to self-clean, to clean the intangible as I prepared for workshops about cleaning the intangible. The effectiveness of cleaning lies in embodiment, integrity and authenticity. As a practice, it easily exposes and cleans out dishonesty and other intangible dirt. The practice of cleaning makes it difficult to hide! This is both a challenge and an opportunity.

School Workshop

Linda and Tolu @ a School Workshop

In cleaning my nervousness as I prepared for the workshops, I spoke to several people who were more experienced with teenagers. One common piece of advice was that our “vibe” and how we showed up in the space mattered much more than the content of our presentation. A great workshop experience, like a great talk, is not so much about doing – communicating what we know – but about being – sharing who we are. This put me at ease and reminded me of this quote from a group called Creative Leaps International:

“We are transmitters, natural transmitters of mysterious transmissions. Whatever it is we as parents and teachers give or transmit to our children and colleagues, it is far more important than the mastery of subject. It is very much palpable essences of ourselves and our impulses toward growth. We are transmitters of life…or the absence of life. Our choice is clear.”

Teachers and communicators do not just transmit what they know, but who they are. Our students and listeners pick up not only what we say but also what we do not say and may never say. They pick up who we are.

Linda and I went into 3 “special-needs” classes at a school in Laval, north of Montreal, unsure what we would experience but open to whatever emerged in the space. The theme of our workshop was Labels and Stigma, which was apt considering the stigma associated with “special-needs.” The power of cleaning’s simplicity was evident as it was easy to convey the idea of cleaning and dirt at any level. Framing issues like bullying, anxiety, honesty, kindness, stigma, shame and prejudice around cleaning and dirt made them easily digestible. The special-needs students understood the idea of tangible and intangible dirt, although it was heart-breaking to find out the intangible dirt they were dealing with when we asked them to write down dirt they needed to get rid of and symbolically throw the pieces of paper in the recycling bin. One of them wrote, “I am tired of being judged by society.”

We asked these “special-needs” students to comment on two photos: one of a janitor and one of a business executive. We ourselves happened to play both roles but chose to dress closer to business people than cleaners for this workshop. Most students favored the business executive but one of the students had the courage to say he preferred the janitor. When we asked why, he said, “the janitor is likely to be wiser because he spends a lot of time alone.” Very loaded response from a “special needs” student who will not graduate because they are “intellectually handicapped”. I wondered what else he knew that was buried under “special needs.” This and other responses reaffirmed our role as cleaners of the intangible – to reveal the wisdom in the space as we would reveal the beauty of a floor. However, exposing the hidden potential of a 15-yr old labelled “intellectually handicapped” is, to put it mildly, more rewarding than making a floor shine. Making a floor shine is the metaphor. Making a teenager shine is the real deal. In the “special-needs” classes, there were unsurprisingly, special insights. And if there are special insights, wouldn’t there be special gifts and talents if parents and educators approach them as cleaners whose task is to remove blockages to potential?

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Franklin and Tolu @ MCC Workshop

In preparing for a workshop with Montreal Community Cares, an organization that uses basketball for leadership development and character building, we (Linda, Franklin and I) decided to do away with presentation slides. We had a structure, in terms of activities and themes to cover – conversations around the comparison of cleaning and basketball, physical dirt and the act of cleaning, intangible dirt and intangible cleaning solutions. But we prepared to go in ready to present their wisdom back to them, to use whatever arose in the space, trusting that truth will emerge from them. During our check-in, it was clear that there was confusion about what on earth cleaning had to do with basketball. But it was a delight to witness the transition from perplexity to full engagement and participation. We essentially used their words and contribution to show that the act of cleaning was good for life and for basketball and to enrol them in the act. We welcomed every objection and disagreement but we witnessed how truth emerged from the seeming chaos of opposing views. All the conclusions were theirs. They gave us all that was needed to move them from resistance to the idea of cleaning to a desire to clean at all levels. Perhaps the desire to do something good for themselves and the world was already within them; our task was simply to reveal it.

After asking a question about what was needed for a basketball game to happen, we asked what was needed for cleaning to happen. One of the participants said, “you need to identify the dirt.” The significance and profundity of what he said almost eluded me but thankfully, I caught it before it slipped away. I realized he did not say, “you need dirt” but “you need to identify the dirt.” He was teaching us what creates the impetus to clean, to change. If dirt is not identified as dirt, implying that it is an impediment, why remove it? Why clean? Change, healing, restoration cannot begin until we come to terms with brokenness.

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MCC Workshop Participant

I was asked by one of the participants, “so how did you clean your nervousness?” This put me on the spot but thankfully I was ready. I shared with them how I cleaned my nervousness – honesty, love (the number 1, all-purpose cleaner) and courage not to run from it but just to do it. While answering that question about cleaning my dirt, I realized how happy I was to be in their midst and to share with them, to teach and also to learn from them. Love dispels fear, creating a field where everyone is free to be themselves and show up just as they are, faults and all, free to be human. Then potential is unleashed and anything becomes possible, even getting teenagers to look forward to cleaning and to tell us after the workshop, “thank you for giving me something I can use in my life”.

We are still inexperienced in delivering and facilitating workshops and I am aware of how that admittance may seem self-sabotaging from a business standpoint. But our experience suggests that we only need to embody cleaning to have great workshops. It seems we do not need years of workshop experience to go into any space and activate a field where potential is free to unfold. We are still holding the question, “how do we move from providing cleaning services to introducing cleaning as a transformational practice and metaphor for individuals, organizations and society?” It seems we only need to be cleaners – to identify the dirt that blocks us, including fear and all its offspring – and to start by being a channel for the all-purpose cleaning solution – Love.

Dancing between immersion and observation

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Photo: galleryhip.com

When Will and I went homeless in late 2014, we did it partly because we both value immersive experiences. We were conscious of the need to not only be immersed but also to observe our experience, internally and externally. Certain aspects of the experience lent themselves easily to one than the other. Sleeping on the mountain was something to be immersed in because we were in nature. Sleeping in a homeless shelter the following night was an experience we wanted to do more observing of than be immersed in. In reality though, true observation requires immersion and vice versa. They are one and the same although in unguarded moments, we tend to see them as separate.

We were not homeless in the sense that other homeless people are and probably never will be but during and after the experience, I realized that an easy way to understand homelessness or any other societal issue we are confronted with is to be immersed in it, rather than merely observing it from a distance. Mere immersion in an experience without periodically stepping outside of it is toiling and results in going round in circles. Mere observation without participation can be disembodied and passive. With immersion, the experience and learning can be fully embodied and much richer than what you can ever hope to know without touching it. While they can never be wholly in the shoes of the people they are serving, policy makers, community or economic development people dealing with any issue cannot honestly claim to understand the issue they are dealing with without in some way experiencing it and periodically being immersed in it as part of their work.

Human beings cannot truly learn anything without their whole being touching the various aspects of what they are learning. True learning needs to go beyond cognitive – it seems we are designed not only to learn with our minds but also with our bodies. We forget what we merely experience conceptually but when an experience is felt in the bones, it is hard to forget. This speaks to the need for education to be redesigned to engage spirit, mind and body of the learner and the teacher who must of course play both roles again and again. Work is incomplete if it does not engage our bodies and hearts as much as it engages our minds, even if you are the Queen or the President. Notwithstanding our seeming technological advancement and “civilization”, our bodies are meant to be actively involved in learning and in working, period. Having said that, learning is impossible if we do not periodically step outside of our experience and become observers of ourselves, our thoughts, ideas and paradigms and what we are experiencing.

One of the themes participants in Cleaning as Practice explore in the act of cleaning, is Perspective. When you are mopping a floor, most times you are fully immersed in the experience. But if you leave the space without observing your work, you can be 100% sure you would have missed something. Observation requires stepping outside of your spot and changing the viewing angle. From a distance and from a different angle, gaps, patterns, interconnections, interplay, dependencies, possibilities, insights, beauty, emerge, effortlessly. It pays to step away from what one does day-to-day or from any project or undertaking and observe from a distance. Immersion and observation is a dance and true learning and work must involve both – clean, then step outside of the spot you are in, observe from a distance or from a new angle and act on what you see.

On the first night of our homeless experience we decided along the way to head to Mont Royal, having set out like true homeless pilgirms with no place in mind to lay our heads. We made a fire to warm ourselves up less than half-way up the mountain and then decided to hike to the top. We found a space directly under the cross, with a bit of covering in case it snowed. We set up our sleeping bags and slept for the night. It was cold. Waking up the next morning was not a prolonged process like when you are in your bed. We had to be quick about waking up.

We walked down to the Mont Royal chalet to freshen up before heading into the city. In the chalet, I noticed 2 microwave ovens for public use and the Cleaner in me could not resist looking inside. I thought they were dirty beyond what anyone should allow their food to be warmed in. I found cleaning supplies nearby and informed Will that I would be spending some extra time to clean the microwave ovens. I then proceeded to clean until I was fully satisfied that they were clean enough for me to use. Then we hiked down to the city where the experience continued and more will be shared later.

However, I had the privilege of stepping aside from what I had just experienced and observing the various parts in order to extract insights and truths. Why did I feel compelled to clean those very messy microwave ovens? After all, I did not make them dirty and I was not going to use them.

I thought,

1. I am a Cleaner.
2. I have seen the mess.
3. Even if no one knows I am a Cleaner, my heart knows, my eyes know, my hands know, the microwave ovens know, the universe knows. This may seem far-fetched but Quantum Physics shows us that seemingly inanimate objects are far from inanimate and unintelligent. Walls truly have ears, as one Yoruba saying goes – ogiri l’eti.
4. The tools are within reach.
5. The mess called me – the microwave wants to be cleaned. Not every mess calls you. You cannot respond to every problem on the planet but there are some that speak to you deeply and incessantly.
6. I am addicted to unveiling beauty. I not only want to see, experience and feel beauty, I want to take part in its unveiling and the transitory mess is all that stands in the way.

I realized that the responsibility of cleaning now rested squarely on my shoulders. In true Cleaning as Practice fashion, where we extract fundamental truths from simple thoughts (since thoughts, ideas and truths in the universe are as much fractals as physical atoms and is why metaphors can exist), I saw not just “responsibility of cleaning the microwave” but Responsibility. I also saw not just cleaning a microwave but being a change, making a difference on any scale and in life. Responsibility is a kind of burden one carries, to make a difference. This burden acts on you and makes you want to wake up in the morning and run up the stairs. It is the kind of burden that makes you Thank God it is Monday.

Because the microwave oven was dirty, I could no longer walk away from it. The dirtiness was what drew me and kept me until I released the burden I carried by cleaning the microwave and releasing its beauty. In reflecting about it, I realized this is why I could no longer walk away from the world of cleaning after experiencing the shame, the stigma and how much we waste a practice that has so much value and is an apt metaphor for what our response needs to be to the mess we face today at every level. I would be untrue to myself if I walk away from it. “Woe is me” if I walk away from it without playing a part in transforming it and releasing the beauty, potential and essence of Cleaning trapped by stigma, shame and prejudice.

Responsibility, according to Linda Sarvi, our Communications Director is not about who made the mess, who caused the failure or disaster or trouble but who is presently in a position to make a difference. Irresponsibility is leaving a dirty space unchanged when you are aware of the need for change and you can make a difference, no matter how little.

Cleaning not only teaches us that we cannot truly observe or bear witness to a situation without being immersed in it, spirit, soul and body, it forces you to be immersed because you have to interact with mess, waste, ugliness in order to get to beauty. Observation and immersion go together and there is no need to swing from one to the other even if we have become conditioned to separate them and do more observing than be immersed in the dirtiness, messiness and corruption we are presently confronted with.

I am a Cleaner. Aren’t You?

Erasing the borders of our openness

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It is stunning the opportunities we miss to bring our whole selves to all we do and connect dots that stare us in the face.

Why do creative and imaginative people (and we are all inherently creative and imaginative) shut down their creativity when in certain domains or situations that are in no less need of their essence and presence. Why would a great writer or a good student or an amazing teacher close up their openness to learn and grow when in the seemingly mundane? Why is it hard to see that attention to detail is attention to detail whether you are preparing a presentation or mopping a floor? Why is it hard to see that exiting a space you just cleaned without looking over the work you just did is the same as creating a piece of art and not enjoying the beauty that just came through you or writing an article and not going over it at least to see if there are corrections to be made? Why don’t we see that being limited by a task list or cleaning tool is the same as a failure to step outside the box?

Why did it take me long to see that being a good custodian of a temporary structure like a building is great cross training for being a good custodian of timeless structures, values and principles?

Perhaps the essence of janitorial work and the essence of banking for example, are the same, assuming a banker is truly a custodian of and not a gambler with or a “stealer” of other people’s financial resources. What limits a banker and building janitor from exploring custodianship and stewardship together? Perhaps that very outside the box experience done periodically could expand both their worlds and return them to their essences, which is what cleaning is about. Cleaning is revealing essence again and again.

Centuries of compartmentalization has trained us to bring our whole selves to certain situations and shut down parts of ourselves in others. Perhaps we need permission to “decompartmentalize” and see that the universe is an interconnected system and separateness is a severely limiting mental construct.

Cleaning as Practice is giving people permission to “decompartmentalize”, to “unseparate”, to cross imaginary boundaries to bring our whole selves to the seemingly mundane, to be as open to learning about ourselves, the world and the universe from the act of cleaning as we would in the loftiest of domains. And it goes beyond the act of cleaning. But cleaning is an apt metaphor for the process of wiping off limiting ideas. Cleaning as Practice is the invitation to look where we have been ignoring. It is giving ourselves permission to erase the borders of our empathy, creativity, imagination, integrity, humility and openness.