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.