Chores, Language, Resistance, Spiritual Practice

Trashing Clichés

Does taking out the trash make you grouchy?

I took out the trash today.

“So what?” you say.  And that, to any spiritual gurus who might be reading, is exactly my point.

Not long ago I was listening to a recorded interview of a seeker/guru/author who said something like, “Even if you have an enlightenment experience (on retreat), once you’re home you still have to take out the garbage.”   It’s become a bit of a cliché to contrast blissful and transcendent states with this and other households chores, as if they are opposite experiences.  If anyone actually believes that achieving a state of enlightenment means you no longer have to do things that, on the surface, are not appealing, well….

There is a Zen saying that addresses this misconception:  “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”  The difference, of course, is how you perform the task.  Do you moan and groan about it?  Do you bang the bucket against your shins and spill the water because you’re fantasizing about a great meal you’ll prepare for a date? Or do you simply focus on the task and do it?  Perhaps one chops and carries with a wide grin and great cheer.

While I’m not advocating that people strive to become one with their household detritus, I do wonder why so many people revile and complain about this task, especially in an era of advanced garbage disposal technology.  It’s not as if most of us are schlepping buckets of stinky slop long distances.  And, thankfully, most of us do not live in communities where garbage is piled on street corners.  These days, we have double or even triple reinforced plastic bags with built in ties.  We have heavy duty trash barrels with handles, wheels and attached lids (so you don’t have to chase after them).   These are practically garbage nirvana (or luxury condos for Oscar)!  Yet, I keep reading that taking out the trash is one of those things couples fight over.  I wonder, is it worth it? (If you’ve had a righteous trash fight, do share)

In my household of one, if I don’t take out the garbage, no one will.  All I can do is choose my attitude.  The actual mechanics of garbage removal are simple:  I lift the bag out of the can, tie it shut, shake it a bit to make sure there are no leaks or rips, and carry it out to a dumpster in back.  Maybe it smells, maybe it doesn’t.  If the odor is strong, I might walk faster or hold it further away from my body.  There is no reason to complain or be a drama queen, especially as my bag of trash weighs considerably less than the hiking gear I carry to my car on a regular basis.  Sometimes, if I’m throwing out ancient socks I’ve worn to shreds or other damaged items, it’s satisfying to finally say au revoir!   Am I enlightened? No, because I probably wouldn’t be patient with someone who made a huge stink about taking out the trash.

And so I wish these seeker/guru/author types would stop referencing trash removal in contrast to bliss.  Not only is it misleading (what if someone has a life changing insight while driving to the dump? what if someone meets their soul mate at the recycling center?), it’s a tired phrase that deserves to be tossed in the garbage.


About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.


7 thoughts on “Trashing Clichés

  1. What a funny and profound post. My favorite part is: “Am I enlightened? No, because I probably wouldn’t be patient with someone who made a huge stink about taking out the trash.”

    I also like the caption under the photo of Oscar.

    Posted by Shira Richman | April 3, 2012, 9:49 pm
  2. Though I have a dishwasher, I prefer to wash dishes. Why? Because one can complete the task from start to finish, and if you’re lucky, not think about anything but the task at hand in the moment. Plus you play in water, how fun is that! There’s a lot to be said for clearing away your garbage.

    Posted by Kate | April 4, 2012, 6:36 am
  3. Great reading and excellent commentary! In our household “trash” is part of life…from our daughter pulling out prize pieces from the neighbors bin when she was too young to realize it wasn’t polite, to my husband dumpster diving behind the strip malls, to my own fascination with collecting stuff at salvage yards, we rather enjoy trash with all it’s history and all it’s possibilities. We have sometimes noticed that in our society it seems people who have intimate relationships with trash, such as those collecting cans and bottles along roadways or digging in the dumps, are often marginalized, especially since we like to keep trash “out sight and out of mind”, and, as you point out, seems like no one wants to take the trash out… But if you accept your trash as resources and energy in / resources and energy out, then all those veggie scraps that are so good for the garden, that cardboard and paper that starts the fires that keep us warm in winter, all those ashes that nourish the soil, so many shapes of glass for reuse and the problem plastics that go to the recycling center — where there is all kinds of “new” cool trash to find — then trash really does become a visible and embraceable part of life.

    Posted by Fresca | April 4, 2012, 7:23 am


  1. Pingback: Cleaning up a Creek, Cleaning up Karma « à la carte spirit - September 5, 2012

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