Chores, Perfectionism, Procrastination, Resistance, Ritual, Spiritual Practice, Starting Over, Zen

Leave No Trace: Cleaning as Spiritual Practice

house cleaning

Cleaning: drudgery or sacred task?

When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself. – Shunryu Suzuki

Visitors to wilderness areas heed a principle called “leave no trace”. Conscientious hikers carry out used toilet paper, feminine products, food scraps, wrappers and anything else that does not belong. In certain remote places adventurers are required to pack out their excrement. Feeling squeamish? Handling one’s own “traces” is less disgusting than busting one’s lungs to arrive at a gloriously wild, pristine environment only to be greeted by someone else’s waste.

Leave no trace applies to less rarefied settings, too. Signs in airplane lavatories encourage people to wipe the sink for the next passenger. Last March, on a flight to Israel, it seemed that nary a soul saw that sign. Towards the end of the crammed Delta flight, the lavatories had become pigsties filled with dirty, crumpled paper towels and wadded toilet paper. Respect for a shared environment, whether it’s above the clouds, beneath the sea, or on solid ground means cleaning up after ourselves. Yet, many people fail to do that, either because they are oblivious, don’t feel like it, or believe it’s someone else’s job.

When I worked in Mexico City many years ago as a trade consultant, I took a cue from other expatriates and hired a woman to clean my sparsely furnished apartment, whose living room once accommodated a grand piano. Gloria, wide eyed and wide grinned, visited weekly but there was little for her to do save sweep the expanse of wood floors and my one rug, tidy the dining table, wipe down the bathroom and make my bed. Still, returning home after she’d been there for just a few hours, deep tranquility greeted me upon opening the door. She brought care to my solitary space by stacking loose papers so the corners matched, evenly spacing the chairs around the table, flawlessly smoothing the bedspread, fluffing the couch cushions and arranging dishware in the cupboard. That she offered such kindness towards my belongings, despite struggling with her own home, a quasi-legal dwelling on the city’s outskirts prone to leaking and flooding, humbled me. Gloria embodied a quality and level of love that, despite my materially privileged life, I was not able to offer myself. Indeed, cleaning and love seemed like estranged relatives who hadn’t heard each others’ voices in years.

Even though I appreciated that tidy environment, for years afterward I avoided cleaning regularly.

It takes too long, ranted resistance.

It’s no fun! asserted the adventurer, eager to be outdoors.

I’m creative. I’m supposed to make a mess! exclaimed the artist, who loved the Albert Einstein quote: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk a sign?”

It’s menial and traditional work, raged the feminist, who thought she had better things to do than scour pots and bathtubs until their gleaming surfaces reflected her dour image.

Why bother? snarled the nihilist.

With the cast of characters vetoing regular cleaning, I didn’t.  Since moving to Boulder last spring, I’ve sampled a few different shared living situations as I explore the community and consider options.  One housemate kept her home immaculate, including swabbing the stove while I was still cooking. Another was more lax, leaving traces, and I learned to check the dishes before using them. Sharing space reformed my tendency to let dishes and pots loiter in the sink, dust and grime to gang up in corners, and papers to tower into threatening piles. Living amidst disorder is like layering crud upon the soul, and makes eventual cleaning into an ordeal. And to Einstein’s point, sometimes it’s refreshing to empty the mind by decluttering the desk.

Towards the end of December I moved into a more spacious housing situation. I have my own wing of two rooms and a private full bath, sharing a kitchen large enough to accommodate further culinary adventures. I feel lucky for the last-minute, serendipitous find in a tight rental market. The previous occupant vacated unexpectedly and, in her hasty exit, left traces. My heart sank as I spied gossamer cobwebs floating from the ceiling and trapped between the screens and window panes, filmy with dirt. Stains marred the beige carpeting. Black scuff marks blighted the off white walls. A wailing chorus, with origins in my childhood role as mother’s helper, began its familiar lament: why do I have to be the one to clean? 

I noticed my energy sag, as if in defeat.  This time, I powered up my Kermit green karmic vacuum. I suctioned the screens, window wells, and the carpet, which I then soaked with stain remover. I tackled the scuff marks with elbow grease and a damp cloth and wiped dust from the bulbs in the bathroom. Despite the cold, I opened the windows and cleaned both sides as far as my arms could reach. As I prepped the space, I found myself humming one of the earliest Hebrew prayers I learned, the modeh ani, which religious Jews recite upon waking. It’s an offering of thanks for the restoration of the soul after a night’s sleep, a reminder that we return to consciousness fresh each morning. We can greet the day as if we are arriving to the world for the first time. Even in our own homes, we are the next hiker, the next passenger, worthy of the respect and possibility bestowed by an unsullied environment. Not that we should scrub fanatically, or judge ourselves by the shine of our floors. Rather, it’s about choosing to clean and tidy as practices, seamlessly incorporating them into a routine and not waiting for certain occasions. As a bonus, if a delightful new person appears in our lives, we can invite them over without breaking into a sweat or breaking out the karmic vacuum.


About ilona fried

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


7 thoughts on “Leave No Trace: Cleaning as Spiritual Practice

  1. I loved reading this! One sentence especially resonated with me: “Sometimes it’s refreshing to empty the mind by decluttering the desk.” I am a person who tends to clean only when things are really messy or dirty, because I can see the difference between before and after, and I feel like I did something worthwhile. A little cleaning every day annoys me and feels like a waste of time. (It doesn’t help that I have a strong built-in anti-routine reflex.)
    However, I recently developed an intolerance for this fluctuating but ever-present state of mess, and decided to devote the month of January to cleaning out my entire house, room by room, closet by closet. So far it’s been extremely liberating, and I am looking forward to a (literal) clean slate from which I can start new projects and unearth old ones that had been buried under the clutter. I also had never realized how much self-respect was linked to the state of my house, even though I was familiar with the positive emotions triggered by a good cleaning job.
    I once heard a lovely euphemism for cleaning, “blessing your house”. Having been raised in an anti-religious home, I cannot use this term comfortably, but I found an adequate substitute: “Loving your house”. And I find that I can love myself as well in the process.

    Posted by Laetitia Won | January 7, 2014, 12:39 pm
  2. I really appreciate this as I have that same inborn resistance to cleaning. With 3 kids, it’s not really optional but I still need to adjust my attitude. You sound like you would enjoy she is all about baby steps, routines and decluttering and making space in our lives for what we are really meant for.

    Posted by Dora | January 7, 2014, 3:52 pm
    • It’s all about baby steps and, for me, consistent application of whatever it is I am trying to change. I want to end the habit of “binge cleaning” which leaves me exhausted, and then I wonder why I allowed myself to live in a messy place for so long. My soul needs tidiness! I don’t have kids, but grew up with two brothers, and I know things can easily get out of hand.

      Posted by ilona fried | January 7, 2014, 5:56 pm


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