Meditating With Monks: Insight 5 - Cleaning Toilets
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 5 - Cleaning Toilets
Before embarking on the 10-day meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh, I’d consulted several blogs to learn about others’ experiences. All of them repeated one message – arrive early on induction day so that you don’t have to clean toilets for 10 days!
Everyone has to perform a chore during the Vipassana retreat. Not only is it a mark of respect for our teachers and community, but it also teaches us a powerful lesson about the joy that we can derive from contributing in a positive way to our society.
Now, I’m all for contributing positively - but I did not want to clean toilets! Unfortunately, I woke up late on Induction Day and delayed my journey because of the rain. On the bus journey to Wat Suan Mokkh, I began to anticipate the very real possibility that cleaning toilets might be the only option left for me…
I winced at the thought. I don’t even like cleaning up my own shit – I really didn’t want to clean up other people’s shit as well! But a small part of me had a different idea – that because I really didn’t want to clean toilets, I must do it...
Stepping out of the comfort zone, right? All in the name of personal growth, right? That’s why I’m doing this meditation retreat, right?
I can now confirm that this part of me is an idiot…
…but I’m still grateful for it, because I arrived at the monastery to find that, sure enough, cleaning toilets was the only chore left. And I was able to accept this fate without too much resistance on the grounds that it would surely ‘build character’…
Two of us were responsible for cleaning the 9 toilets in the men’s dormitory. As well as cleaning the toilet itself, we also had to mop the floor of each cubicle. I felt that this would be inefficient, and that it would be quicker if one of us cleaned all the toilets, and the other mopped all the floors.
And I told my partner I’d be okay with cleaning all of the toilets (while we could still talk on Induction Day).
Unsurprisingly, he was very happy to go along with this!
He’d clean the floors in the morning, and I’d clean the toilets at lunch-time.
So, on Day 1, I created my ‘toilet cleaning ritual’. I would put on my special toilet-cleaning t-shirt. I’d put on my special, heavy-duty toilet-cleaning long trousers. I’d put elastic bands around my ankles to prevent them from touching the toilet floor. I’d fill a bucket with water and bleach, grab a sponge and toilet brush, and do what I had to do.
Mosquitoes sucked my blood. Ants bit the hell out of my bare feet. I’d occasionally be ambushed by giant spiders and geckos hiding behind the toilet seat. And it was evident that the food they were feeding us at the meditation retreat didn’t quite agree with all of my fellow meditators…
The first day was hell. The second day was even worse (a horde of ants in the second cubicle, not fun). The third day was slightly better...
Every day, I became quicker at cleaning toilets. Every day, I became better at cleaning them. And by Day 7, I was actually looking forward to my daily chore.
I found joy in my mindful pre-cleaning ritual. I learned to be mindful while cleaning the toilets themselves - nothing keeps you more in the present moment than the prospect of biting ants if you don’t watch your steps!
But more than anything, I loved feeling useful. I felt like a valuable part of my silent community, even though no-one else knew that cleaning toilets was my chore. I received no ‘recognition’ for the important but unpleasant task of cleaning toilets – but I didn’t want it anyway. It was satisfying simply to know that I was contributing positively to our small, silent society...
One of the monks at the monastery, Ajahn Madhi, told us during our Day 8 Dhamma Talk that true fulfilment comes from finding peace within oneself and being useful to others.
One without the other won’t lead to fulfilment.
You can search your depths for your demons, raise them to the surface, confront them and eventually make peace with them. You can accept the impermanence of existence, rid yourself of all attachments, embrace the non-self and understand the interbeing of all life. But you will always feel restless and unfulfilled, as if there is something missing…
At the same time, you can dedicate your life to the wellbeing of others. You can direct all of your energy to helping others and to contributing positively to society. But if you neglect yourself, it will only lead to exhaustion and burnout. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all clean toilets to experience this for ourselves – though it isn’t actually a bad idea (and your mother/ partner will love you for it!).
The key lesson I took from this experience is that both internal peace and external contribution are needed to find true fulfilment, satisfaction and, dare I say, enlightenment.
Peaceful within ourselves and useful to others – this is the balance that we should all strive to achieve.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.