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FROM RETREAT #2: Cushion in the Filth

Shortly after I shook off ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, the next layer of neurosis came out of the haze, ‘filthy’.

I have often noticed that my default mode when I’m pootling about the house and garden is one of rather anxious or irritable unsettledness. There’s a running burble of unsettling agitation. Usually, it’s swamped by the other things going on – or perhaps smother in humming! – but in the increasing silence and spaciousness of retreat, I could see it more sharply.

Part of the joy of being on retreat for 2 weeks was having Millie and Floyd, our two dogs, with me all the time. They provided an excuse for all-weather dog walks up and over the South Downs (more on that later). And took the edge of the solitary space I had set up. However, in the way of large dogs in wet, wintery weather, they also created a lot of mess: muddy footprints, dog hair, poo in the garden.

The kitchen floor is so dirty, I can’t be at peace until it’s clean

I come from a very tidy family. My mother’s house is always immaculate and she can’t bear unwashed dishes or grime of any sort. I recognised that the less-good aspect of that had migrated into my head and that a lot of the unsettling undercurrent of my thinking was: oh God, the kitchen floor is so dirty, I can’t be at peace until it’s clean.

The keyword was “filthy”. It’s a word I can imagine my mother and other members of my family using and it rattled around my head like a poison judgemental pea. And on more than one occasion I found myself wiping and washing down surfaces in a very dissociated and – most importantly. Very unhappy mood.

So one day, probably about 5 days in, I noticed the burning anguish rising in me as I looked at the innocent paw prints and clustered dog hair and food spills on the lino floor and I thought: enough. I grabbed my meditation cushion from the shrine room and plonked down onto the ‘filthy’ floor and sat meditation, staring steadily at the floor, the mud, the cauliflower parings, the dog biscuit-crumbs, the dust under the washing machine. And slowly, I relaxed.

Rather than banging against a ‘filthy’ space, I saw it for what it is: mess that will take about 5 minutes to sweep and mop, and mess that in 24 hours will be there again.

The whole thing dissolved as I sat there among the morally neutral dirt.

There is a concept in neuroscience of the Default Mode Network which is the ‘idling’ state of the brain when it’s not focused on doing something. Something akin to what my niece might call the ‘resting bitch face’ of the brain.

My agitation about being filthy was a relic of an overly tidy household when I was growing up

The DMN is often filled with unhelpful anxious relics from our past that run on a loop when we’re not paying attention. My agitation about filth was probably a relic of an overly tidy household when I was growing up. It had nested in my DMN causing decades of unnecessary anguish around tidiness. It felt like a great brain blister had burst when I was able to sit with the agitation and see through it to the simple reality of the world in front of me. I got up, mopped with joy, and returned my cushion to the shrine room.

I’d love to know your thoughts about being filthy. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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