I’ve been having a well-earned rest from blogging after completing our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, during which time I managed to contribute a blog post every day, despite also, for the last month, having an intensive schedule of teaching and family responsibilities.
But practice goes on.
Week 2’s exercise is as follows:
Leave No Trace
Choose one room of your house and for one week try leaving no trace that you’ve used that space. The bathroom or kitchen works best for most people. If you’ve been doing something in that room, cooking a meal or taking a shower, clean up in such a way that you leave no signs that you’ve been there, except perhaps the odor or food or fragrance of soap.
(In Zen paintings turtles symbolize this practice of leaving no traces, because they sweep the sand with their tails as they creep along wiping out their footprints.)
So this has been very interesting for me, because I like to get things done, but I’m often so keen to move onto the next thing that I don’t finish off earlier tasks properly, and end up leaving paper and other objects lying around. There’s a sense of urgency and even anxiety about moving on to the next thing. There’s an anxiety to “get on with things.” When I’m doing one thing I’m already thinking about the next. And I don’t even finish that first task! I’m always leaning into the future, and away from the present.
The exercise is not necessarily about leaving no trace, though! When we tidy up a mess we’ve created in the past we are obviously leaving a trace, but we’re still doing the exercise, because “leave no trace” is really about bringing to completion tasks we’re working on now — for example putting the toothbrush away, the top back on the toothpaste tube, rinsing out and drying the sink — before moving (not rushing!) on to the next thing. The exercise is more about bringing task to completion, and about taking care of the present moment.
But when you start doing this exercise you realize how many tasks you currently have that are unfinished. So I ended up putting away laundry, putting away a bag I’d unpacked and left lying on the bedroom floor, tidying my desk, etc. In one sense I’m “leaving a trace” of tidiness, but on a deeper level I’m catching unfinished tasks that have left traces, and bringing the tasks home. And in so doing, the traces vanish.
The problem is that we live surrounded by the traces of half-finished tasks, and we take these traces for granted. So tidying up is, in fact, “leaving no trace.”
So I’ve been focusing on finishing tasks, whether I’m starting them now or whether I started them months ago and then left them incomplete.
I feel like I’m becoming more “upright” — standing in the present moment — as I leave no trace. There’s less leaning forward into the future, and more just being in the present. There’s less of that anxiety about getting on to the next thing. There’s more care and love. Something as simple as wiping down the sink after I’ve used it is like taking care of the present moment. Through doing this exercise I realize that I often see the present moment as an inconvenient obstacle that I have to rush through as quickly as possible in order to get onto more interesting future events. Now I’m finding that I like the present moment just fine!
You might want to take up the practice of leaving no trace, even just for a week, just to see how it goes.