The mundane chores of daily life have occasioned many recent at-home spirituality titles. Most recently, in "Bread Upon the Waters: A Pilgrimage Toward Self-Discovery and Spiritual Truth" an Eastern Orthodox lay brother and renowned bread chef uses the 12 steps of breadmaking to mirror the stages of the spiritual journey (To read a review, click here.) Last year, JoAnna Lund's "Make a Joyful Table: 200 Recipes, Menus, and Inspiration to Make Every Day a Celebration" made preparing healthy meals a means to spiritual fulfillment, while Donald Altman's "The Art of the Inner Meal: Eating as a Spiritual Path" highlighted food rituals in many religious traditions.
The joy of cleaning, too, has hardly seemed more pronounced since the infamous 1950s. The best of these well-scrubbed spirituality titles is undoubtedly "Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks" (Walker & Company, 176 pages). Author Gary Thorp is a married, home-owning lay monk in California, ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi ("Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"). He's also a terrific writer and a sensitive soul. He doesn't expect us to have perfectly clean houses, but wants us to perfect our minds as we clean.
Thorp wants readers to attend to their own spirits while tending hearth and home. Scrubbing an oven, an act he reserves for "a leap year and the like," offers the opportunity to "consider the real meaning of the word self-cleaning." Keeping house also promotes "a connectedness to things"--the water that flows to and from our homes connects us with living streams, while glistening windows open us to the rustic outdoors. The grass we mow and the hedges we trim teach us that despite our best efforts to control nature, "most things will get along superbly without our editing, fussing, and intervention."
Thorp insists that simple acts, done with mindful intent, can unite creation. "When you wash and dry a single spoon and give it your full attention," he says, "you are expressing care for the entire universe. When you enter fully into this single activity, there is nothing anywhere that is not being washed." Housekeeping, he advises, provides constant reminders of the transience of life. Everything changes: Seasons pass, dishes break, leaves fall, old clothes go to Goodwill. "All things are nonabiding," cautions Thorp sagely. And finally, many chores, like leaf raking and mending, offer opportunities to cultivate awareness of life's fleeting nature.
One of the most striking features of Thorp's book is its tenacious, hyper-Californian sense of populism. Monasteries and formal meditation are all very well, he claims, but there is nothing so mysterious about Zen that ordinary beginners can't discover while mindfully emptying out the Diaper Genie. Thorp notes that even buddhas are imperfect, "not much different from ourselves." It's a subversive approach--a spirituality for anyone with a mop and a dream.
Perhaps this is why Thorp's book works better than any of the other recent titles on spiritual cooking and cleaning. Such daily activities are simply organic to Zen. Thorp explains that Zen has always stressed "the value of your own engagement in your own experience," more than most Western, revealed-from-above religious traditions that place heavy value on revelation, scripture, and the experiences of others.
So sweep that floor, do those dishes, and, above all, pay attention.