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.
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 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.
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.