Recently, about five people from our meditation community and I set out on the roadside near the Meditation Center to pick up garbage.
An hour and a half later, the back of my old car was full of garbage bags, an old tire, and other items ready for disposal. We parted ways with a smile, glad to have purified the natural scene in the area.
The very next day, I was out for a walk in the same neighborhood. At first, I simply appreciated the newly cleaned roadside. I felt gratitude for our little band of volunteer cleaners and the work we did, and a bit of pride at doing my part to help the environment in this small way that others could appreciate.
Very soon, though, my emotions changed. I began to notice where I had missed picking up a cigarette butt here, a can top there. I also began to notice new garbage that had already begun to accumulate; a garbage bag, a disposable coffee cup.
I blamed both myself for not being thorough and others for their apparent disrespect for the environment! I felt tense and disappointed.
Then, I remembered a teaching I had read in a book from Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, with whom I had meditated many years ago when I was a monk in Thailand. It goes like this:
“Every day or two, the open grounds and walkways of the monastery must be swept clear of the leaves that fall in every Asian season. For the large open areas, the monks will team up and, with long-handled bamboo brooms extended, sweep like a dust storm, clearing all the leaves in their path. Sweeping is so satisfying. All the while, the forest continues to give its teachings. The leaves fall, the monks sweep, and yet, even while the sweeping continues and the near end of a long path is being cleared, the monks can look back to the far end they have already swept and see a new scattering of leaves already starting to cover their work.
“Our lives are like the breath, like the growing and falling leaves,” says Ajahn Chah. “When we can really understand about falling leaves, we can sweep the paths every day and have great happiness in our lives on this changing earth.” ("A Still Forest Pool," Page 104)
This sweeping applies not just to the outer environment, it applies to our minds and hearts as well.
If we have repetitive thoughts and feelings that seem to block our path in life, we may want to get rid of them for once and for all. This idea is like the misconception the monks would have if they thought sweeping once would keep the forest paths clean indefinitely.
The monks needed to change their attitude to be happy, to embrace change. Perhaps, we can learn to do the same.
What would happen if we learned to sweep clean our tendency to blindly cling to thoughts and emotions? What happens when we can see them for what they are: changing ephemeral experiences, based on causes and conditions, like leaves falling in the forest.
How can we live happily on this earth, and keep picking up garbage, our own and others, knowing more will come?
From the perspective of insight meditation, the answer can be found in learning to live with awareness that is fresh, clean and resilient.
One that is committed to living as wisely as possible with the conditions just as they are and with conditions as they change.
If you would like to learn more about insight meditation, please come and join us at IMCN in a supportive practice community. We offer programs online and at the center.
Matthew Daniell is a co-founder and guiding teacher of The Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport. He is also a member of the religious services department at Phillips Exeter Academy.