A phrase from an interview with Leonard Cohen before he died has stayed with me: putting your house in order”. Here’s how he tells it to David Remnick:
“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
Cohen was putting his house in order at the end of a long life, but something might be said for following his example right now. And not necessarily on an existential level such as in making amends with those we might have wronged, or leaving those relationships we did have on an even footing. It might equally be about tidying up your desk today or giving the bathroom a good clean.
Two books which have been useful to me in this consideration are Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy and a Shoukei Matsumoto’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind. As ever, cheeky John Crace has taken the mick out of both titles in his Digested Reads series. Maybe because when books like these come along, as they do every few years, the cynical response is to surmise that decluttering and tidying are all very well for ladies-and-gents-who-lunch, people with nothing better to do than jump on whatever the next self-help bestseller that pops into their Amazon Recommendations list.
However, in the Life Skills department, I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we ignored the advice (even Crace’s digested fun-poking advice) to be found in these books.
Here are a few exerpts of the Matsumoto book which I like.
Within any object can be found the tremendous time and effort put into it – the ‘heart’ of the person who made it. It’s important to remember to feel grateful for this when cleaning or tidying, and not handle things carelessly
Cleaning should be done in the morning. Do it as your very first activity of the day. The daily routine of an unsui monk (a Zen apprentice) starts with waking up early, washing their face and dressing, in readiness to begin cleaning and conducting services for that day. Exposing your body to the cold in the pre-dawn air naturally makes you feel charged, filling you with energy for the tasks ahead. And cleaning quietly while the silence envelops you – before other people and plants awaken – refreshes and clears your mind. By the time everyone else is emerging, you’ve finished your cleaning and are all set for the day’s work. Cleaning in the morning creates a breathing space for your mind so you can have a pleasant day.
At the end of the day, make sure you tidy your surroundings before going to bed. If, like an unsui monk, all you have to do during the day is cleaning and tidying, there’ll be no need to tidy up at night. As soon as you finish using something, put it away. If you are meticulous about tidiness, there will never be anything just scattered around. This may not be easily accomplished, of course, in a regular home, which is why you should at least try to return things you have used or made a mess of to their rightful places before the day is over. It’s important that your home is tidy so you can kick off the next morning feeling refreshed, as you begin your cleaning for that day. When I was training to become a monk, my roommates and I always recited evening sutras before going to bed. Doing this in a tidy room at bedtime felt refreshing and cleared the mind, leading to a deep sleep
Cleaning and tidying are daily tasks, and what matters most is consistency. Even a short amount of time will do, so get into the habit of making a reasonable effort to clean every day. At first, it may be hard to get up early in the morning, but if you make cleaning in the morning and tidying in the evening a habit, your body and mind will feel refreshed each day.
Due its nature, we always make sure that the bathroom is scrubbed clean in a thorough and methodical manner. Areas that are particularly prone to dirt if cleaning is put off should be cleaned in a scrupulous manner. This will, in turn, keep the heart pure. If you enter a damp bathroom, your heart also becomes damp. If mould grows in a bathroom, then mould also grows in your heart. If the body is washed sloppily, then impurities of the heart cannot be removed. If you allow dirt left by the basis of life, water, to form, then impurities will accumulate within your heart as well. Conversely, if the bathroom is kept clean, then you can keep your heart clean as well. ‘The highest excellence is like water.’ These words from the Tao Te Ching convey that the ideal way of life is like water: flexible and calm. To remove impurities from your heart, be sure to keep the bathroom sparkling clean.
Once you learn how to see how your inner turmoil manifests itself through your surroundings, you can reverse engineer this, mastering yourself by mastering the space in which you live. It goes without saying that dust will accumulate in a home that is never cleaned. Just as you have finished raking the leaves, more are sure to fall. It is the same with your mind. Right when you think you have cleaned out all the cobwebs, more begin to form. Adherence to the past and misgivings about the future will fill your head, wresting your mind from the present. This is why we monks pour ourselves heart and soul into the polishing of floors
Windows Glass is the very symbol of transparency and non-attachment. If your windows are cloudy or dusty, your mind will become cloudy as well. Buddhist teachings stress the importance of shattering the blurry filter of the self, and viewing the world around you as it truly is. See and accept things the way they are. Learning to do so will help you achieve a state of enlightenment.
An ideal window will be cleaned to the point where you don’t even notice that there is glass there, and you can enjoy the view without distraction. Try your hand at cleaning your windows until they are free of any spots of dirt or cloudiness.
Cleaning doesn’t only apply to your surroundings. I would also like to talk about how to clean your body and mind. For example, you should wash your face first thing in the morning. Obviously face-washing is an everyday practice in every home, but did you know that it has a deeper meaning? There is an old Zen teaching that says that if you haven’t washed your face, everything you do throughout the day will be impolite and hasty. Don’t underestimate the good that can come from washing your face.
How to Wash Your Face: Fill a small bucket or other container with water. The main goal here is not removing dirt, and soap is not needed. Start with your forehead, then go on to the eyebrows, eyes, nose, and so on, moving downwards. Then clean from behind your ears to the tip of your chin. Clean your face and your mind will become clearer. No matter how early you get up, you will be able to feel refreshed. Your heart and soul will be revitalized before you know it.
Even at home you can show your gratitude before and after meals by putting your hands together and reciting a Buddhist prayer. Here are two of the traditional prayers. Shokuzen – before meals: ‘Many lives, and much hard work, have gone into the blessing that is this meal. I will show my appreciation by enjoying this food with a deep sense of gratitude.’ Shokugo – after meals: ‘I thank you for the wonderful meal, with deep gratitude, respect and reverence.’
Bodily Functions. This might sound strange, but every time I visit the toilet I am struck with how amazing the human body is. We eat food, and our bodies digest that food and absorb the nutrients. Our bodies then get rid of whatever is left over. Sweat and earwax are the same idea. The human body automatically cleanses itself regularly. It works tireless 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We should all feel grateful for this.
We initially learn from our parents how to use the toilet as children, but after that we are on our own. We never see what other people do in the toilet, and so I am guessing that we all have our own way of going about the task, never giving it much thought. But using the toilet in a Zen temple is done carefully and deliberately. As we have seen, in Zen Buddhism the toilet is considered a sacred place. This is why we carry out our bodily functions in such a prescribed way. Before using the toilet, we set our bucket of water in a specific spot. We face the toilet with our left hand on our hip, position our right hand in a position called tanji. Picture your index finger plucking your thumb like a guitar string. That is tanji We do this three times before and after we finish using the toilet. The proper way to clean our private areas once we finish is not with toilet paper but with the water from our bucket. We use our left hand to clean ourselves, just like the traditional method in India. A bathroom stall is a place where a monk gets a short rest, away from the rest of his peers. But it is possible to get lazy if one indulges in this privacy too much. It is especially important to stay alert and present, remembering one’s devotion to staying pure. You can create a clean and comfortable place for you and your loved ones to take care of business. Every time you step into your toilet you should appreciate how your body is expelling toxins and waste. You should feel refreshed and grateful.
Cleaning is training for staying in the now.
Remnick’s Interview with Leonard Cohen a few months before his death: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohen-a-final-interview