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.