Dancing between immersion and observation


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?

3 thoughts on “Dancing between immersion and observation

  1. pezro njengah

    When the (mess) of entire world disturbed a solitary mind,(Jesus) HE LEFT HIS THRONE to bear a shameful death for us to be clean. Cleaning is a sacrifice with a deeper meaning than just being clean. I believe no matter which faith you confess, cleaning is an ingredient you cant practice without.
    Keep it up Tolu

    1. Tolu

      Thank you for this Pezro. I too agree that Jesus came to clean. And I think every faith, tradition and culture has the practice and metaphor of cleaning integral to it in some way.


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