(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) I've practiced Zen for close to 20 years. Though the primary practice is seated meditation (Zazen), there is a lot more to it, even for a layperson like me. In the past I've traveled several times to a Zen monastery for special week-long formal trainings known as Sesshin. There I would practice Zazen, walking meditation, chanting, formal meals, strict etiquette, and cleaning. Yes, cleaning.
I was actually fond of the twice-daily cleaning periods during Sesshin because it let me move my body out of the sitting position I was in for so many hours of the day. Probably because I was among the younger and fitter, the monks usually assigned me to floor cleaning duty. In the common Japanese way this involved mopping the floor by hand using a zokin (cleaning rag). To clean the long monastery hallways I'd run in a crouch, pushing the zokin out in front of me in the traditional fashion. The faster, the better-- it was invigorating, and if I'll be honest my martial arts buddies and I were probably showing off to see who could finish their floor section first. Plus, if I finished my chores early, I could have a longer break before the next sit!
One evening I was cleaning the tile stairs that led up to the old head priest's quarters when I saw him coming up the stairs. I respectfully stepped aside but to my surprise he took the zokin right out of my hand and demonstrated how to properly clean the corners of the stairwell. In my haste I was being too sloppy, apparently, and he saw me missing the corners. "Clean even where no one can see it," he said to me.
My felt sense realized in that moment the difference between "practice" for the sake of getting through a chore or obligation, and "practice" for the sake of self-realization. Cleaning the floor, just as much as sitting Zazen for long hours on the cushion or chanting the holy sutras, could be a practice for subduing the falseness of ego and penetrating to the truth of existence. This might sound odd but seated meditation is merely one tool among many, one practice among infinite.
Any practice can become a tool for greater awareness. Lately my thoughts have been going over the various "practices" involved in caring for my own health. On a given day I might intentionally do any or all of the following practices: fresh and whole food-based shopping and cooking, various types of exercise, stretching and mobility work, walking, breathing practices, intentional social contact, time in nature, meditation, and different kinds of circadian discipline concerning light and temperature exposure. If you factor in the need to work it can sound like a lot to fit in one day and like a list of things to "get through." Especially considering I'm as healthy as a horse, it may seem like a lot.
However, I see the practices that go into maintaining health as similar to cleaning the corners of the stairwell. It may look "clean enough," and as though doing something like cooking a nutrient-dense meal from scratch would be overkill when I could just pick up some take-out.
Perhaps you have once heard the Biblically derived phrase "your body is a temple." I like this phrase as a way of envisioning the body as your practice hall for getting through this life. Caring for it allows you to dive deep into understanding your true self, your holiness, your higher purpose-- however you like to find meaning. If you can truly believe this, then it can only make sense, every day, to stretch and move, eat natural food, get light and air and time in nature during the day, then darkness and regenerative sleep at night-- the things that human beings require to be healthy and whole. And these things then become no longer a "chore" but a "practice" that creates peace and connection with the rest of existence.
Yes, your body is a temple. But can you truly believe it?
To know that one's body is a temple requires abandoning the ego. In this case it's an ego that might say your efforts are a waste of time, that there are other more important things to do, or that you are too broken, hopeless, separate from the rest of nature, or otherwise don't deserve these efforts. Let that voice go and return to the moment. Take a deep belly breath and reconnect with the knowledge that you are a manifestation of the endless intelligence of nature. Then go clean the corners of your temple.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.