I'm reading a book by doctor and Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays, MD., called How to Train a Wild Elephant: & other adventures in mindfluness. She describes simple, but not always easy, exercises you can commit to doing weekly to increase mindfulness. This week, it’s “leave no trace.”
If you’re a hiker or camper, you’ve probably heard this phrase. It’s the state you want to leave a natural area you visit: as if you’ve never been there. It’s a way to enjoy natural spaces responsibly and sustainably.
As a mindfulness practice, it’s about picking 1 room or space in your house or office, maybe your desk, and committing to leaving the space in a way that you can't tell you've been there after you're done.
In other words, clean the coffee cup, wipe the counter. Or put away your files and tidy the desk.
I work from home, and because my kitchen is such a visible space in my house, this is my mindfulness practice space for this exercise. Clutter or mess on the countertops is distracting to me. It leaves me feeling vaguely anxious and like there’s more on my to-do list than I’m able to handle.
Aware of my Unawareness.
The exercise has made me oh-so-aware of how unaware I can be. Of how my mental picture of myself doesn’t match reality.
In my mind, I’m the neat one who lives here! But clearing the trail of tea cups I’ve left, the butter knife, the endless water glasses, the stack of mail on the counter, I see evidence otherwise.
In my mind, I’m a purpose-driven Entertainer-Commander CORE™ type, and lazy doesn’t match my self-image. Then I awaken to a stack of my dishes in the sink.
In my mind, I’m self-loving. Then I realize how I can be my own worst enemy as I get resentful for having to unload the dishwasher first thing in the morning, because I didn't do it the night before.
So instead, I softly repeat, "leave no trace! leave no trace!" and do the thing that needs doing. And yes, I occasionally call out loudly to my husband to clean up his stuff: "leave no trace! leave no trace!" ;) But I've also become mindful of not leaving my mess in the space he's chosen for "leave no trace."
Here's what I've found in doing this for the past week: a foundation for calmness. A steadiness. A sense of control. A visual metaphor of the serenity prayer keeping me in "what can I control" instead of "what I can't control." (This - and not being on social media - is what helped sustain me through the elections!)
Make Things Better.
The idea is that you eventually you move from "leave no trace" to "leave it better." So periodically, I not only clean up the mess I've made, I straighten/clean/mop to make it even better than I found it. I find 1) it isn't so overwhelming to make it better because I haven't allowed it to get so bad, and 2) I am motivated and want to make it better. I care...I own my responsibility to my environment.
This is different from the utterly impossible, perfectionistic anxiety I've had about keeping up with things before. It's so much easier. Much closer to the "unforced rhythms of grace" (as The Message paraphrases Matthew 11:28-30).
It gives me the space and resources to contemplate how I might make the world better in the midst of chaotic change: first, own and clean up my own mess, and then step out to change things.
This is sustainable living.