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Transformation = Not-knowing + Bearing Witness + Taking Action

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Bernie Glassman, founder of Greyston Bakery spoke these words at the Social Venture Network conference in Connecticut late last month. They are the guiding principles of Greyston bakery but they are also principles for transformation. Cleaning, an apt metaphor for transformation, is an opportunity to radically practice these principles.

Not-Knowing
When you go into a space to clean, you will need to set aside what you know and prepare to be surprised. You may have cleaned the space many times before but this is the first time you are cleaning it at this point in time, at this point in your development as a human being, at this point in the lives of the occupants and the space itself. You do not know what you will find. If you have never cleaned for others before or you have never cleaned the particular space before, there is a whole lot more you do not know.

Not knowing can be scary and uncomfortable but it can also be liberating. Knowing it all is an impossibility in a universe that is not static but is continuously expanding. Not knowing is setting aside what you know and entertaining new ideas, new thinking, new solutions. Creativity is impossible without not-knowing. Not-knowing is about curiousity and holding the right questions. It is a skill that opens you up to new possibilities, to knowing what you do not know. And if we will be honest, whether we are CEOs or Janitors, parents or children, teachers or students, there is a whole lot we do not know than we know.

Bearing Witness
Bearing witness is the process of knowing and we cannot truly know without not-knowing because only empty vessels can be filled. When you enter into a space to clean, you cannot effectively clean without appreciating the dirtiness and messiness but also the beauty, potential, essence and inherent value obscured by dirt and clutter. Bearing witness is allowing ugliness and beauty, dirt and truth at the same time without filtering. It takes not-knowing to truly bear witness. If we go in with preconceived notions, it is like looking through dirty windows. To see clearly, to see reality, to see truth, we need clear windows.

True cleaning is bearing witness to the big picture while also noticing the minutest details, both seen and unseen, within and without. This is why cleaning is one of the best and little appreciated mindfulness practices.

Bearing witness goes beyond seeing with the naked eye. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said,

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Truly bearing witness involves the heart, our true connection to wisdom. It involves seeing what is not apparent and hearing what is not said. When we truly bear witness, we will notice the dirt but we will also understand that dirt is transient even when it coexists with beauty and blocks essence and potential in individuals, organizations and society. Bearing witness involves noticing not only the seen and unseen state of affairs but downloading appropriate answers, especially the invisible, outside-the-box solutions, which involves the heart.

Taking Action
Not-knowing and bearing witness are meaningless if they do not lead to appropriate loving action. Compassionate and wise action needs to flow from the knowledge and wisdom which eludes us when we already “know” and are not open. The one thing that prevents you from being weighed down by the ugliness and dirtiness you see is that you can remove the dirt and return to beauty. If we could not take action, our world would be sad indeed.

Awareness of poverty, abuse, failure, degradation, violence, corruption or any kind of individual, organizational or societal mess does not have to lead to hopelessness and despair but to appropriate loving action. What keeps one from throwing in the towel and giving up when you are in a mess is that you can clean it or at least take part in cleaning it and transform ugliness to beauty.

For a true cleaner with the right attitude, intelligence and tools, a mess is motivating and dirt is not a repellant but an invitation to unveil beauty, an invitation to transformation.

Redefining Opportunity

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When seeking a job, a position, a career, an industry, a market, a place to live, it is common to seek what is already attractive and has high associative value. We tend to seek situations that are already appealing rather than those that are unappealing, unattractive, wasted and hopeless. On the face of it, this makes sense but on closer look, it does not, because:

  1. We are prevented from the fulfillment and deep satisfaction that comes from being agents of transformation, which is a primordial need. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from transforming a dirty space into a clean space, bringing out beauty where there was none. The joy a cleaner experiences during and after transforming a space is akin to the joy of the creative process.
  2. Following the beaten path of existing beauty, we cannot make progress individually or collectively. There is no incentive to utilize our latent potentials so they atrophy. In reality, situations that are already attractive and appealing are somewhat demotivating in the same way spaces that are already clean are demotivating for a Cleaner. A true Cleaner is motivated by dirt because of the opportunity to make a difference. The cleaning paradigm is the paradigm of making a difference.
  3. By pursuing the beautiful and glamorous, we often squander the opportunity to transform the ugly and shameful. The change we seek individually and collectively is in the ugly and shameful. It is a waste of time if not hypocritical and unwise to clean spaces that are already clean while leaving the parts of the house that are so filthy they breed disease, critters and pests that will eventually spread to the rest of the house.

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

True opportunity is not opportunity to capture, compete for or consume existing value but opportunity to create value where there seems to be none. That is what we were designed for and what unlocks potential.

There are many more opportunities to make a difference in our messed up society than opportunities to capture existing value, many more opportunities to share than to take, many more opportunities to create than to consume.

When next you are looking for a job or an opportunity, perhaps you should go where no one wants to go, where you can make a difference not where you can’t. You will not have to look far and at least for a while if not forever, you will have no competition because human beings only compete for the visible and not the invisible, the beautiful and not the ugly. We also do not compete to contribute but to take.

The spirit of contribution is generative and creative. In contribution, competition against others is not only unnecessary, it is inhibitive to creativity and realization of potential.

Another name for the quality of seeing value and beauty where there seems to be none, is Love. It is trans-emotional and trans-rational. It is paying spirit, soul and body attention to something until you see its essence and beauty and like a sculptor, work tirelessly to carve out its inherent beauty and unseen value, which exists in the sculptor’s mind. This is the spirit of cleaning.

Love, the all purpose Cleaner, is too potent to be an invitation to contentment with the status quo or with decadence. Love is too potent to be an opportunity to merely enjoy what is beautiful and glamorous. Rather, it is an invitation to transformation, an invitation to see unseen possibilities, to see hope in hopelessness and bring your inner vision to outer manifestation.

If your job, your industry, your situation is undesirable, congratulations. You have the golden opportunity to be a Cleaner and love it into beauty. And if you can’t love it, maybe you should go love something else, something ugly, that wants to be beautified or enhanced. This is what made me stay with Cleaning. I have the opportunity to transform something ugly, shameful and stigmatized into something beautiful, dignified and celebrated.

It’s a long road but life is too short to not love what we do. Life is too short to not experience the joy of transforming waste into value again and again, the way nature converts waste to food.

At the Social Enterprise Alliance conference in Nashville last April where I was opening speaker with Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms, I shared this statement at a session titled, “Building an Economy based on Love.”

Love creates new markets.

Because love is infinitely generative and transformative. Self Interest tends to lead to market collapse again and again because it is about appropriating and competing with others for existing value. And diminishing returns sets in as a matter of course.

At the conference, when asked what I was learning from Becca, I responded, “I am learning how to clean.” Thistle Farms found an opportunity to make a difference in a wasteland, where most would not dare to tread. Their tagline is Love Heals. Of course.

Clean your space!

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A fundamental quality of a Cleaner is the ability to see beauty when ugliness stares you in the face and the willingness and readiness to get your hands dirty in order to uncover the beauty that is presently unseen. In some contexts, this is called faith, hope, love.

The idea of seeing the beauty on the other side of ugliness applies not just to floors and physical spaces but also to non-physical spaces and intangible things. We are multi-dimensional beings with multi-dimensional capabilities. Someone who cleans windows can help bring clarity to organizational vision and the person who mops the floor can help to improve organizational culture.

A CEO can take on the role of a cleaner periodically just as he or she can work out or volunteer periodically without diminishing his or her CEOness. Taking on the role of a cleaner does not stain, it cleans. In reality, you become better equiped because of wider perspective and greater awareness. You become more, not less esteemed because human beings have this weird tendency to love and admire humble people. Humility does not diminish, it elevates. However, you cannot afford humility if you are unaware of your inherent greatness. Ironically, only people who have a lot to be proud of can be humble. Humility is more than a moral requirement, it is a matter of wisdom and a prerequisite for creativity and innovation.

If we can make a floor shine, we can improve team dynamics, we can improve our educational system, we can improve our environment, we can improve the well being of people, we can reverse decadence in any context. If we can transform an organization from dying to thriving, we can make a messy workspace or a filthy bathroom clean again. It takes willingness to see the beauty beyond the ugliness and willingness to get one’s hands dirty to uncover inherent beauty. Every change we seek is a question of willingness, not ability.

Transformational leadership and cleaning are great cross training for each other. There are mental and spiritual skills transferable from the act of mopping a floor to leading a team, an organization or a country. Cleaning a space is an easily accessible entry point into the mentality of removing dirt and unveiling beauty, potential, truth and inherent value.

Like the Karate Kid, you are not likely to “get it” in one day anymore than you get the essence of Karate or any other discipline in one day but “get it” you will if you persist in the effort. Cleaning then shifts from a mere act to a practice and paradigm. With practice, you move from the act of cleaning to the spirit of cleaning. Cleaning as Practice may be magical but it is not magic, it takes discipline, it takes the willingness to relate with nothing but dirt until you touch beauty. It takes dedication and unyielding persistence when you see no progress, because a Cleaner knows that dirt is not the truth, beauty is. The layers of dry grease covering a stove top are a transient reality, not the truth. The true nature of the stove top which may have become hidden under layers of grease and grime, is the truth.

Just like physical cleaning is a primordial, intuitive and often effortless activity when you get into the zone, removing intangible dirt and clutter is even more intuitive and effortless when you are in that zone of uncovering latent potential. We do not need PhDs to identify and remove soil and trash on a floor neither do we need PhDs to identify and remove the intangible soil and trash that block potential in every context.

If your space is filthy, dull or unattractive, clean it, because you can. Underneath the ugliness there is beauty and you have the privilege of uncovering it. You will need to collaborate with others and may encounter opposition in attempting to clean shared spaces – an abusive relationship, a depletive organizational culture, an oppressive industry or a corrupt society. But one space you need no external permission to clean is your internal space which determines your state, your disposition and ability to create change and to see beauty and truth.

You cannot begin to transform your job, your organization, your industry or your society without transforming your relationship with it or your perception of it. The best way to clean a shared space is to clean your own space. A a dust cloth’s ability to clean effectively depends on its own cleanliness. Keep in mind though, when you clean your space today, it will need cleaning again tomorrow because dirt is natural. Tomorrow, your dust cloth will need cleaning again. See cleaning not as a burden to quickly get over with but as an opportunity to remove dirt and unveil beauty and the privilege of enjoying the rewards of doing so again and again, till kingdom come.

The absurdity and the value of stigma

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Although becoming a cleaner was intentional, I struggled with stigma and shame at the onset. I internalized the stigma of being the one who cleaned up after others. As a result, I often preferred to display my “better” credentials than the fact that I am a Nigerian immigrant in Canada who cleans homes and offices. Which MBA grad and Banker in his “right senses” chooses to be associated with broom and mop when he could easily be an Investment Banker, a Consultant or a higher profile Entrepreneur especially when named “most likely to make a mark in the world” by classmates?

It seemed shameful for a Nigerian Canadian Banker McGill MBA grad or any human being to be a Cleaner. Privately I loved cleaning. Publicly I battled shame.

I once went to clean a short-term rental apartment where I met two visiting Nigerian schoolmates. I was super quick to point out I was the owner of the company, studying at the prestigious McGill, which were true but I knew I was hiding the fact that I was a cleaner. I failed to see that:

cleaning only enhances, and does not diminish any object or subject it touches.

Clarity, a by-product of cleaning, destroys the power of shame and turns stigma on its head. Clarity takes us to the richness on the other side of stigma and shame, which are products of fear. It took years (yes, years because I needed a lot of cleansing and still do) of immersion in cleaning and reflection on what it truly means to be a Cleaner rather than how society defined a cleaner, to realize that:

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

It was an epiphany and when I saw the beauty of cleaning, I could not help but embrace it. Clarity made it difficult to be ashamed. Cleaning became larger than a chore or an occupation for untouchables but a practice, paradigm and privilege that transcends and applies to every human being, job, profession and industry.

While it can be very lonely, it is necessary at times to be the only one seeing what you are seeing. The majority is often wrong and since we mostly use 10% of our brains, our judgements are probably wrong 90% of the time and more when you consider how limited our brains are even if we used a 100%.

We can often find our way by going in the direction everyone is not going.

By becoming a Cleaner, I seemed to be stepping into a box but in reality, I was stepping outside, into freedom. Taking on the cleaner garb stripped me of my reputation, my career prospects and my flashier titles allowing me to act from my humanity and not from a label. By becoming a “failure”, I crossed the fear threshold into freedom to play, experiment and do crazy things like invite CEOs to clean toilets!

I decided to use the “Cleaner” label instead of flashier labels because of the vastness and universality of the cleaning metaphor and also because I had nothing to lose anymore. What better label to embrace when you are stigmatized than the word, Cleaner? Ironically, I found my calling after I lost my “career”. I am creating an outside-the-box career that integrates my uniqueness: my personality, my gifts, failures, experiences and “stigmas” rather than settle for what the “market” offered.

Your job or career is highly unlikely to be available in an imperfect market driven by imperfect humans who use 10% or less of our imperfect brains. More often than not, whether you are an employee or entrepreneur, you will have to create your job, starting often with what is available on the market. Thankfully,

the universe unfolds when we throw caution to the Spirit, step out of the box, defy shame and ridicule and follow the road less travelled.

Stigma and shame are however not uncalled for. They are effective deterrents belonging to dishonesty, abuse, dehumanization, avarice and malfeasance not with honesty, generosity, humility, empathy and service, which cleaning trains us for. Why would we deter cleaning in a world that reeks of all kinds of mess? Why would we stigmatize the act of cleaning up any kind of mess? Why should any human being be ashamed of uncovering beauty? Why else are we here? We should stigmatize and be ashamed of the act of maliciously creating and spreading tangible and intangible dirt not the act of removing dirt we generated. Cleaning the tangible and the intangible needs to be honored and dignified not stigmatized because we are in desperate need of Cleaners in every area of human endeavor.

I am a Cleaner. Aren’t you?

Thinking outside the stigma box

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When you know you are in a box, you can step out of it and you can come in and out at will. But there is a catch-22 because it is hard to know you are in a box until you step out of it by doing something you wouldn’t normally do or connecting with those outside your team, company, industry, class, rank, religion, worldview, political party and every other barrier. We need boxes, because they serve as containers, protectors and identifiers. The problem arises when human beings who are infinitely bigger than any box we may function in, restrict ourselves to or define ourselves by the box in which we function.

One prevalent box is the stigma box. Stigma is often in the eye of the beholder. Stigma cannot exist without some basis in reality but it is held in the mind of the observer not in the object or subject being observed. The stigma box is a box we effectively put ourselves in even when we are knowingly or unknowingly stigmatizing others. Stigma can be as limiting and oppressive to self as it is to others. But when you step outside the box, you become an outsider and you won’t have a choice but to think outside the box. You will also be relieved of the burden of stigma while giving others permission to follow.

By default and by choice, I get to deal with and study stigmas and I delight in playing with and shattering them because I realize I don’t fit neatly in a box. In truth, each one us is too big to be contained in a box or fully defined by a label. As my friendWilliam Walker saId, “every box is too tight.” Being human makes stigma a laughable absurdity if not sometimes painful.

  • I studied Computer Engineering and I worked in Systems Management and E-banking. As an IT professional, I am supposed to be analytical and immersed in hardware and software, not poetry, not art, not history, not human behavior, not subjective reality.
  • I was a banker and we are “known” to be thieves. Empathy and banker don’t usually go together.
  • I am a business person and we are supposed to be capitalists, exploiters and opportunists who do not care about people or the environment.
  • I am proudly Nigerian and that is almost synonymous with financial scam, fraud, corruption, aggressiveness in business and the like. The phrase, “Nigerian businessman” sometimes makes people run for cover and for good reason.
  • I am an immigrant and that in addition to the positives, also has its stigmas: we do the menial and blue collar jobs.
  • I am proudly Canadian and we are supposed to be pacifist bordering on passively laid back.
  • My skin color which I love, is what many will refer to as black and that evokes a multitude of images depending on who you are or where you are from.
  • I am a McGill MBA grad. MBAs especially those from the more recognized institutions are “known” to be without heart, capitalists who care only about money and we are responsible for all the world’s problems.
  • I belong in social enterprise circles and we are considered in some quarters tree huggers, liberal, socialists and anti-capitalists whose hidden agenda is to reverse progress or introduce a new world order.
  • I have friends and belong to networks that promote everyday spirituality and we are considered new agey.
  • To add insult to injury, I chose to enter a heavily stigmatized domain, cleaning.
  • To add further insult to injury, Zenith Cleaning does not seem to fit neatly into an existing box. To resolve the problem, we call ourselves a Cleaning company since all we do is remove dirt and reveal beauty, potential and truth on many levels. Metaphors are very helpfully in taking us outside the box and Cleaning is a very apt metaphor at least for a cleaning company.

Many stigmas intersect in me so I don’t know any better than to color outside the lines. This is why I am naive enough to invite fellow CEOs outside their comfort zones to do cleaning as a servant leadership and mindfulness practice. What if students step outside the box by regularly cleaning their classrooms together as a practice of responsibility, empathy and mindfulness? What if organizations step outside the box by using cleaning as a transformational innovation and team building practice?

Cleaning seems a great practice and paradigm and an apt metaphor for transformation and stigmatizing it as with many stigmas, seems absurd at least. Perhaps because I am an outsider, I think none of us is too small to be involved in a practice of making things better. Anything. Whether a desk, a toilet bowl, dishes, team dynamics or organizational culture.

The greatest leaders are the greatest servants. True leaders truly serve. We may look down on the lowliest and magnify celebrities but we are mostly moved and inspired by people who are as present with the lowliest and seemingly mundane as with the highest and lofty perhaps because they remind us that we are bigger than our titles, functions and whatever divides us and that shame and conceit are uncalled for.

Coming Clean with Creativity

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Creativity is that seemingly elusive and desirable quality associated with the ability to think and act outside the box and bring into existence something new and beneficial. The new thing could be a product, a service, a solution, a work of art or a way of being. We do not necessarily need a survey to tell us we need creativity given the challenges and constraints we are confronted with today. It is obvious we need the ability to adapt, to come up with new ways of being and acting, because our significant challenges are not going away and intuitively, we know nothing is impossible. As Einstein said, we need new thinking to address the significant challenges we face. Organizations and institutions need to be innovative and that requires individuals to be creative.

Unveiling Creativity

The good news about creativity is that it is not a quality we need to create but a quality inherent in each of us, which we are either nurturing or starving. Cleaners go into spaces not to introduce anything new, but to expose inherent beauty by removing dirt.

At Zenith Cleaning, we defined cleaning as “the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject thereby revealing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.”

The cleaning mindset works on the premise that the beauty we desire is already here, where we need it. Our task is to unveil it. Creativity already exists in organizations because it already exists in individuals. Our task is to allow it to thrive, to allow it to flourish by removing what blocks it. Every human being is naturally creative when they have the freedom to express their true selves.

Nurturing creativity within organizations requires identifying and removing whatever impedes creativity in individuals. One impediment to creativity is lack of space-time “oasis” where our minds have the freedom to wander outside of our routine, to observe and ponder, as the actor/comedian John Cleese observed. Organizations like Google provide employees free time and mindfulness training in order to remove this impediment. Another impediment is our tendency to confine ourselves to or define ourselves by our titles, roles and functions, which we need as they provide stability in organizations. Trading places again and again can help to nurture creativity because breaking your regular pattern forces you in a good way to think new thoughts and awaken dormant potentialities. Trading places allows you to experience the beginner’s mind as Deb Nelson, SVN‘s Executive Director experienced when she flew down to Montreal to spend 3 days cleaning in our Cleaning as Practice program.

Cleaning as Practice

At Zenith Cleaning, we decided to step out of the box and introduce light duty cleaning to individuals and organizations as a way to break our regular patterns and step outside of our titles, roles and functions again and again. The idea is simple: invite people far removed from the world of cleaning to participate in cleaning individually or as a team, guided by those who do cleaning more regularly and get everyone from Janitor to CEO reflecting on and sharing their experience. This can be tried in any organization but should be entirely voluntary and can be tried with a few people before making it an ongoing or organization-wide practice.

This approach invites everyone to step out of their comfort zones and set aside their titles, roles and functions which only help to starve creativity and keep us in the box, away from the magic. The Janitor’s role and function changes for a while and the employees’ and managers’ roles are also flipped so everyone has to “think originally” as CEO Julian Giacomelli of Crudessence observed when he participated in our program.

Reflection and sharing are allowed to happen formally or informally before, during and after the experience. Everyone returns to their normal routines but are likely to wear their titles differently. However, just like cleaning needs to happen again and again because dust and dirt do not need our invitation to settle, we need to step out of our roles and set aside our titles again and again to remind ourselves that we are bigger than our titles, roles and functions.

The beauty of this approach is that creativity becomes not an end result but a by-product of a different way of being and functioning. The aim is that cleaning becomes the idea of unveiling beauty and potential in individuals and relationships. Cleaning becomes a mindset and deep metaphor for transformation and not just a chore around which we have created stigmas and put ourselves in boxes that limit our potential as individuals and organizations.

Talk to us

If you would like to try this out or need guidance, feel free to talk to us at Zenith Cleaning. We have been practicing and studying cleaning and its relationship to creativity, mindfulness, culture and many universal principles and subjects for many years. We have invited consultants, lawyers, students, executives and teams to clean and have observed the positive effect, We are also privileged to work with a number of outside-the-box consultants and coaches in mindfulness, applied improvisation and organizational culture.

Cleaning at Columbia University

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I had a great first session at the new Spirituality Mind Body Institute of the Counselling and Clinical Psychology department of Columbia University Teacher’s College as a Visiting Scholar. I had the privilege of co-presenting with Gadhadara Pandit Dasa, an urban Hindu Monk and chaplain at Columbia and NYU whose book is a great read. Having two very different presenters at the same time allows richer learning through the juxtaposition of two seemingly different perspectives. I learnt from Pandit who also speaks at corporations around the world and whose mindful vegetarian cooking classes for students has strong parallels with our Cleaning as Practice program and philosophy. The SMBI program is largely student-focused allowing scholars to be true scholars – exploring with the students. The school decided to invite scholars who were practitioners and not just academics in order to ground the program in the real world.

I think the program represents the kind of learning that needs to be happening in our world today. In my mind, spirituality is the answer to Albert Einstein’s statement: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them.” We think and act from our paradigms and our paradigms cannot be changed without our hearts anymore than our bodies can be washed without mind.

The first thing I requested before the start of my session was to arrange the class in a circle, so that the spirit of the session can manifest in the form. The tangible reflects the intangible, the visible reflects the invisible. In addition, I am a cleaner and I transform space. I know there is a strong relationship between the external, visible space and the internal, invisible space especially in a learning environment. I also thought learning and contribution would be much easier when we are all in a circle than if the “teacher” was standing in front of the class teaching. In a circle, we can all be teachers and we can all be learners. In any case, none of us can be experts in spirituality or anything in the universe for that matter. If we are teachers, it is only because we never stop learning. Like cleaning, teaching is incomplete unless you experience the other side, which is learning. You can only be a great cleaner if you never stop being cleaned.

I started by introducing myself as a Cleaner. I explained that my session is a cleaning session and I invited everyone to clean with me. I gave this definition of spirit, a written by Blake Healy, “spirit is raw identity; the genetic code that tells everything else how to exist.” Spirituality is not a fad or a movement or a religious matter but deals with our very essence, the raw identity of a human being, an organization, a neighborhood a city, a country or any entity. In my view we are not really cleaning if our cleaning does not touch “raw identity.”

One insight among several that became clearer was that spirituality is about wholeness and therefore cannot be opposed to profit and abundance. Often, it leads to more efficiency and this was made clear through real life examples.

One of the students spoke about how hearing from Pandit and I altered her relationship with cleaning and with cooking which are two things she had rebelliously avoided from childhood. For me, this was a measure of how deep and transformational the session was. What is the point of education if our relationships with the most basic of human activities are not fundamentally altered? And if we can transform our relationships with the most mundane and primordial, perhaps we can transform our relationships with each other too, which is a form of cleaning.

Having said this, cleaning is humbling because when a space, surface, object or subject is cleaned, it will get dirty again and you will need to clean again. Transformation is not a one-time event.  I explained that cleaning our intangible spaces needs to happen again and again because we pick up dirt just like physical spaces accumulate dirt. This calls for commitment to an ongoing program for cleaning the intangible as we have to clean the tangible. And the intangible requires much more commitment than the tangible. Compared to intangible dirt, physical dirt is relatively benign in the grand scheme.

Another of many questions that were explored was the challenges of being spiritual in a world that seems opposed to the spiritual. We are spirits and living in a world opposed to the spiritual has a tendency to make us conform rather than transform. I explained that every dust cloth picks up dirt while cleaning and it needs to be washed more regularly than the surfaces it cleans, otherwise it will end up being a transmitter of the dirt it is meant to clean. The challenges of being spiritual create the need for cleaning again and again and not just have a set place to “clean” but like the mystic, Brother Lawrence, be able to do your “yoga off the yoga mat”, while doing the most seemingly non-spiritual things like balancing financial accounts. And even that is deeply spiritual because anything done by a human being is spiritual since human beings are spirits.

Another idea was violence and how hard it is to divorce ourselves from it even when we go completely vegan or organic. But perhaps we can transmute or “clean” the energy of violence which may be expressed in how an animal’s life was extinguished as how a vegetable was grown. Can we sanctify (clean) or bless the food we eat when it contains violence in form of exploitation of workers for example, even if it is organically grown and purely vegan? This is consistent with the practice in the biblical scriptures where praying and expressing gratitude to God for food sanctifies the food. Violence also expresses itself in cleaning through sterilization as well as through the use of products that do not embody cleaning because they harm the cleaners, the users of the space and other forms of life.

Some of the contributions came out amidst tears because the session as one would expect, touched on the deepest layer of one’s being. There was synchronicity including the fact that the theme of the poem I decided to read at the last minute was the theme of the yoga session the students had earlier in the day. I left thinking this is a uniquely rich Masters Programme, both in spirit and in form and one I am grateful to participate in.

Being a scholar for me is about bringing awareness to everything around me so as to draw wisdom from them. I have chosen cleaning as my primary way of expressing myself in the world so I want to observe and study it with my spirit, soul and body. But what is the point of observing, studying and learning anything if it will not lead to cleaning, to transformation, to the change we seek? In order to clean from the inside out, we need to observe and see beneath the obvious, see the truth, beauty and essence of the dirt, the tools, the space and the human beings in the space.

Being a scholar and being a cleaner are indispensable to each other although they may seem worlds apart. Many of the significant challenges we face in our world, in our lives and in organizations can be seen in a completely different light if we wear new lenses and take on roles that seem far removed from what we do. Nature shows us that the places of greatest fertility are where two ecosystems meet. Our Cleaning as Practice program aims partly to foster this meeting of ecosystems. Executives and members of organizations become immersed in cleaning in their own spaces or elsewhere accompanied with reflection sessions to harvest the insights and allow hidden patterns and possibilities to emerge. You are very likely to see things in a completely different light when you observe them from the bottom than when you observe from the top. When a CEO chooses to be a cleaner for a short period of time periodically, it can be deeply transformational for everyone. Central to our invitation is for participants to learn to view their organization with a “cleaner” lens and become “cleaners” who remove the invisible clutter, choke points and impediments that block potential and dilute essence in their own lives, relationships and organizations. It will require them to be scholars and deep observers, so that wisdom, insights, possibilities can emerge. This is what cleaning is.

I will continue to reflect on my calling as a cleaner, my role as a scholar and my work with Columbia University. I think we need to do more cleaning in the world than talk or write but then speaking and communicating can be cleaning. The practice of cleaning is the practice of transformation, the practice of making a difference, the practice of caring. It seems to me that we need all these in the world at every level of our society. At the same time, how can we possibly clean without observing, without bringing awareness to even the most seemingly mundane and problematic ways in which the universe is presented to our senses including the dirtiness, corruption, messes and clutter we tend to avoid.

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

Cleaning is my objective in being a scholar and I am glad for the opportunity presented by the cutting edge Spirituality Mind Body program at Columbia University, to be a cleaner who sometimes wears a scholar’s garb.

Qualities of Great Cleaners

Great cleaning has more to do with “soft skills” than technical skills, because cleaning is more an art than a science. A great cleaner,

Embodies cleaning. A true cleaner does cleaning as a practice that goes beyond physically cleaning someone else’s space but includes periodically cleaning their own interior space while cleaning the exterior.

Thinks big and thinks small. Great cleaners understand that their task is realigning an object, being or space with the default state of the universe – shalom, peace, wholeness, love – as well as with the purpose and mission of those for whom they clean. Great cleaners are also immersed in the details. Cleaning is in the details.

Sees beauty. Great cleaners have the courage to look beyond the internal and external dirt again and again and see beauty, understanding that dirt is an invitation to unveil beauty within and without.

Loves people. The focus of the cleaner is the human beings who use, work or live in the space being cleaned and not just the physical space. The best cleaners for a space are the people who care most about the beings in that space because cleaning is an expression of love.

Seeks feedback. Great cleaners cannot do without feedback. However, they are attuned to the fact that feedback reveals a lot about the client and their state when the feedback was being given.

Is a custodian. A great cleaner takes responsibility for ensuring security and wellbeing of the space being cleaned. They use their personal judgement and know when to go outside the task list because they are custodians.

Understands and plays with energy. A great cleaner understands that cleaning involves an intermingling and transference of energies, from the inside out.

Embraces invisibility. It feels good to be visible, to be seen and acknowledged but a great cleaner embraces invisibility. Being invisible allows us to process thoughts unhindered and experience the truth about people and organizations.

Is humble. A great cleaner is there to serve, to wait on someone else who can tell you they are totally dissatisfied with your work or they are extremely delighted. A true cleaner is comfortable being wrong and open to learning. The humility of the cleaner is the humility required for wisdom, creativity and innovation.

Uses healthy products and tools. A great cleaner realizes that she is not truly cleaning if the cleaning agents she is using are toxic to any thing but dirt. A true cleaner uses products that embody the spirit of cleaning.

Is present. A true cleaner brings their whole spirit, soul and body to the moment of cleaning. Their souls are as awake and attentive as their eyes and hands. They are attentive to what the situation demands and do not compromise the quality of care for those for whom they clean.

Cleans the cleaner. Like dust cloths, great cleaners have practices that clean them internally and externally and restores them to wholeness, again and again, to avoid being transmitters of dirt.

A Clean Sweep

The act of sweeping is not just the cleaning of dirt and dust

It shows the willingness of the broom to become dirty and it’s ability to clean itself to fulfill it’s next task…again and again

Forgiveness is the act of clean sweeping, clearing bias, prejudice and hatred and making visible the inner layer of love and warmth

We too can and should sweep our minds and hearts with the simple and valuable sweep of forgiveness…again and again

So pick up your broom…with such sweeping thoughts we humbly ask for forgiveness.

This poem was given to me by Stephanie Childs, a Zenith Cleaners member who spent some time with Safai Vidyalaya in Gujurat, India. I thought it beautifully expresses the Zenith Cleaners philosophy. I shared it at the opening session of the Social Enterprise Alliance Conference, titled “Building an Economy Based on Love”. I also shared it during Wasan Dialogues and at many other places and will continue to. I have found no other statement that so simply and beautifully expresses the essence of cleaning.

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Evoking “Feels Great’

clean-happy-tipsThe CEO of a Zenith Cleaning client went to the office manager and said, “I don’t know what those cleaning guys did to the place but it feels great!”

“Feels great” goes beyond what an office looks or smells like. Obviously, if there was garbage strewn all over the floor or the smell of rotten food saturated the air, it could not possibly feel great. “Feels great” includes and transcends the physical attributes of the physical space in question and speaks to an intangible quality within an individual’s interior, invisible space.

This can only happen when cleaning is done holistically. When the cleaner comes to cleaning as a whole person she cannot help but clean the intangible. A very humble cleaner who insists on wholeness can easily create significant intrinsic and extrinsic value. What can a CEO or anyone for that matter do with a great feeling? What if a consultant, a lawyer, a physician, a coach, a teacher, a parent, a waitress, a politician, a CEO learns how to create a great feeling in others? How can a cleaner consistently produce “feels great?”

If cleaners who are considered “last of all” can produce “feels great,” obviously anyone else in our societal or organizational “hierarchies” can. And perhaps, the cleaners can show how.

Our Cleaning as Practice program for leaders, schools and organizations teaches simply, profoundly and as unobtrusively as possible, how to create a feeling of greatness. The greatest lessons are not forced upon us but dawn on us as quietly as the dawn. Cleaning because of it’s meditative nature, it’s invisibility and humility and because it is way down in our societal hierarchy, away from the noise, lends itself easily to truths and insights dawning on us.

Cleaning as Practice is even more powerful when done by people who are higher up in our societal and organizational hierarchy or even those of us who have chosen to be lower, but approach cleaning holistically and with the humility and unknowing of the beginner.

By evoking “feels great” we had cleaned the intangible and that made us feel great and like cleaning the tangible, yesterday’s cleaning is only good enough for yesterday and that keeps you humble because the next time in that space, you are a beginner.

What if we all regardless of our vocations consistently work towards evoking “feels great” unsought? Does it not create a great feeling in the giver and the recepient? Could that be one of the ways we can begin to clean the world?