This entry was first published in The Gallup Independent on August 5, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
When I taught in an alternative middle school classroom, my high-risk students attended for half a day. My afternoons included supervising after-lunch detention, home visits, consultation with my supervisor and community resources, and planning. My classroom stood away from the main campus, across several fields, so the janitors almost never came to clean. Most days, when detention was over, and before I went out into the community, I cleaned the chalkboard and swept the floor. One afternoon, my supervisor called, and I told him I'd been sweeping the floor, so it had taken me a minute to get to the phone.
"Why are you sweeping the floor?" he asked. "Aren't the janitors coming out to clean your classroom?"
"Hardly ever. Maybe twice last semester. But I don't mind, really. It's quiet, and while I sweep, thoughts come to me about the morning and about what different students might need."
"Oh, you're collecting your thoughts while you collect the dirt." He laughed.
"Yes, and sometimes I'm collecting my internal dirt, too."
In Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, a character explains some of the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who is considered the 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism, saying, "He taught them that the purpose of man is to make his life holy––every aspect of life: eating, drinking, praying, sleeping." I would add to that, "working."
Making a conscious connection with the Holy One is what spiritual practice is about. As I understand it, the Ba'al Shem Tov was saying that we can seek conscious contact with the Presence through every action in our daily lives. In the yoga school where I have taken courses, the work we did––in the kitchen, in the gardens, cleaning toilets, digging ditches to repair plumbing––was called "karma yoga." In Zen monasteries monks chop wood and carry water. And sweep floors.
My teacher taught that karma yoga is work done for the sake of the work itself. Not for someone's approval, not because it earns us money, not to get through it as quickly as possible. To do work for its own sake, it is necessary to be aware of what we're doing, to be present, to do it as well as possible, also knowing that it is a task we may have to do again the next day, and the next.
Another teacher at the yoga school also said that karma yoga is work done with love. To me that means love of the work itself, as well as love for the people who will benefit. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Work is love made visible."
I can't say that I always swept my classroom with complete awareness of what I was doing, and as I told my supervisor, it also became a time of reflection, of problem solving. But those are things that often happen when we make contact with the Holy One through the work we are doing or through prayer or meditation. Our awareness of the work itself may shift, as we are led to answers we need.
As I swept the floor, I can't say, either, that I was thinking loving thoughts or feeling love for my students. But the act itself was love made visible, especially if we think of love as action, rather than feeling. In creating a clean and orderly space for my students, I was loving them––making love visible.
A spiritual practice is something that is done regularly. Work, whether done at home, whether done out in the world voluntarily or for pay, can form a spiritual practice when it is done with consciousness. Today, I live in a place far from my homeland so I can be close to family, but I long so often for New Mexico. There are certain tasks, and they are often more physical than mental, that remind me that I am doing karma yoga. Watering plants is one of them. I check the needs of the plants, remove leaves that have died and thus sap energy from the plant, note if a plant might need a larger pot. I feel gratitude for the pleasure the plants' beauty brings me. In those moments of conscious work, I discover that I am content to be where I am, maybe because I'm fully present then––the essence of spiritual practice.