I had been at Amritapuri, the ashram of my spiritual teacher, Mata Amritanandamayi (known in the west as Ammachi, or Amma – “Mother” – as her devotees call her) about a week and a half, and one of my sevas – the “selfless service” done for the ashram daily, such as cleaning or chopping veggies – was coming to an end. I decided that I would like to sign up for another one, so I ambled over to the Seva desk after breakfast.
Sweep the temple
“We need someone to sweep the temple at night after dinner,” the coordinator said. Wow. “Sweep the temple?” I had these mixed feelings of “what an honor”, “that’s really important”, and “I’ll be too tired after dinner,” as well as “you should be willing to do this, even if you’re too tired”. Ignoring my inner voices, I agreed to take this on, as he briefly explained how to unlock the closet where the brooms were kept, which brooms where used for this task, and that was that.
I didn’t give it much thought until dinner rolled around, and I started to become a little anxious. The whole temple floor, by myself. How long will that take? He didn’t give me any ideas or guidance as to the best way to do it, where to start – nothing. As was my experience with most things at Amritapuri, you just had to figure it out by yourself. This quality of the ashram gave me no end of opportunities for personal growth, as I was desperate to figure it all out, do it right, and have control over the process. Again and again, I was met with not knowing what to do, accepting that I made mistakes, letting go, and surrendering to the process.
Dinner was over, and I headed over to the temple. I was forewarned that there would still be small groups of people on the floor at that time for discussion of the day’s Satsang, so I’d have to wait until they finished before I could get started. I gazed across the expanse of the sacred space – four gradually tiered levels of tiled floor, leading down to the main stage where the inner temple was, with the special sanctum that had a beautiful statue of Kali encased inside. Kali was put to bed for the evening, the carved wooden doors of her chamber closed, and the inner temple was empty, so I figured I could begin there, hoping everyone would be gone soon.
The drama begins
After finally figuring out which broom, dust pan, little hand broom, and bucket were the ones I was to use, I went up to the inner temple floor, just a few steps up from the main floor. The outer doors to the main floor were closed, so it was all dark, and I noticed a large circuit board to my left. Which switches controlled the lights to this chamber? I felt silly fumbling in the dark, flipping lights on and off who knows where in the main hall until I finally found one of the correct ones, and then I could see where the others were indicated, fortunately in English, not Malayalam, the local language!
Already, I was sweating. Evenings were warm in the Southern-most part of India, and inside the temple, the humid air was quite close. But I’m going to make the best of it, I declared. This was an important seva, and I want to do it well. My intention was to clean as good as I possibly could (perhaps better than anyone else has!), with a positive attitude, and to remember to chant my mantra. I wanted to imagine doing this for my spiritual teacher.
I began sweeping, trying to figure out the most efficient way to cover the territory. Things were going along OK, and then I found the feathers. Just a few feathers here and there, no big deal. I swept them up into a pile, and was about to get the pan and wisk broom to scoop them up, when just a little draft, probably caused by my movement, made some of the feathers fly away. This became a little dance of the feathers and me – chasing after the feathers which drift off just a bit ahead of me. Should I just stop and pick them up one at a time? Arrgh, no! I will sweep them up. After a few more tries, I finally gathered them up and got them into the bucket. On to the next section, the main floor.
I was dripping sweat. Running the broom back and forth, chasing after more feathers, was working up the perspiration. What is it with these feathers? Did a bird die in here or something?
Then, I put the hand broom in the bucket with all the dust, dirt, and feathers. When I pulled it out again to scrape up the latest pile, out came all the feathers again! AAARRGGGHH!! How could I be so stupid? I hadn’t realized yet that my attitude was getting to be less than happy. I had to sweep around and under chairs, finding corners filled with sand and other debris – hadn’t anyone cleaned this properly before? Or did all this stuff really show up here in just one day? I started to wonder how the next few nights would be, doing this over and over. Anxiety and frustration were building. I had completely forgotten about my mantra.
There’s a word in Sanskrit – Leela. It roughly translates as a “Divine Play”, the drama (comedy or tragedy!) that spirit plays within the manifest world. And what a Leela my sweeping was – a drama in my own head! Feelings of self-importance quickly dissolved into the realization that all I was doing was sweeping. Nothing special about it, anyone can do it – I’m just sweeping, and I’m awful at it!
I felt that my body was dragging, incredibly slow. The overwhelm consumed me as I looked at the rest of the temple, and at my watch, and back at the territory to be covered again. I felt so alone, and miserable, soaked with sweat now, unappreciated. No one cares that I’m sweeping the temple! Well, that’s sure an opportunity to be humble. Can I do a job that no one cares about, and still do it with love? I pulled myself together and refocused on the job. Don’t think about the time, just try to do the job right.
Several asanas, or sitting-mats, were left on the floor by Amma’s seat, in hopes that she would come out to spend time with her devotees before she left the next day on the North India Tour. I carefully picked them up and moved them to the side, mostly with the help of some Indian female renunciates, or Brahmacharinis. They must think I’m quite the sight, a ragged-looking western woman with sweat dripping from her face. I smiled my appreciation, feeling quite meager, and continued my work.
Now, more emotions washed over me – look at these Brahmacharinis. They are so devoted, and stay up all hours to help, and they seem so effortless, kind, and full of energy (my perception, certainly, was a bit distorted, as most of them usually look quite tired from their long hours of work). To me, they looked like embodiments of perfection, and here I was, pathetic. I can’t even handle the simple job of sweeping the temple without feeling exhausted and inept. I should be doing more than this – why can’t I? As I always say, comparison is the root of all depression. I slipped into feeling sad and helpless, at the mercy of these self-degrading thoughts.
Wake up! Another Leela was playing out in my head, and I needed to snap out of it. I’m not a better or worse devotee – I’m just sweeping. Refocused on the task, I went back to chanting my mantra and trying to stay above the maelstrom of reactions that were so easily stirred by the motions of the broom. The dust that kicked up served to agitate my insecurities, bringing them out for me to see clearly.
The new mantra
Just Sweeping became my mantra. Whenever I’d start to play out the drama in my head – this is too big of a task for one person, I must look like a wreck, Amma would be proud of me for doing such a good job, I’ll bet I can do this better than anyone else, who are you kidding, you’re taking forever! – I’d remind myself, “Just Sweeping”. That’s the only thing that’s going on here, and anything else is just something I’m making up in my head. It’s not important, it’s not unimportant, right or wrong, good or bad – it’s Just Sweeping.
I came upon a sad, young woman who would not get up from the place right by Amma’s chair, she was so forlorn that Amma was leaving tomorrow. I instantly felt compassion for her, understanding her sadness at losing the closeness of her spiritual Mother for a few months. She saw me coming close and started to get up, but I motioned for her to stay. Let her be where she needs to be. I felt like a good person for letting her remain there and sweeping around her – aren’t I considerate and compassionate? Oh no, there’s the self-importance again. Just Sweeping. I’m Just Sweeping, and that is all that’s really going on.
The Leelas were not going to end. As I moved up to the third level, there were three devotees sitting on chairs and benches (oh great, obstacles to sweep around), working on folding up the quarterly magazine the ashram produces. Naturally, because of the heat, they had the ceiling fan going above them. And, of course, there just had to be feathers nearby. Feather Leela! What to do? Every time I tried to sweep up the feathers, they ran off in other directions, almost laughing at me as I scuttled after them, desperately trying to chase them down. The fan would blow them here and there, and my emotions would flip flop between detached amusement at the absurdity of the moment to total frustration. Somehow, turning the fan off didn’t even occur to me!
My energy was dissipating fast – it’s getting late! I’ve already been at it two hours, and I have two more levels to finish! Why didn’t anyone show me how to do this – there must be an easier way! I tried to redouble my efforts, and struggled over and over with Just Sweeping. My mind wanted to make it so much more than what it was – the attachment to emotional drama was apparent.
Ready to quit
After two and a half hours, and my clothes stuck to my skin, I finally finished. I was clearly the last one there. Hobbling back to the flats to take the elevator up to my room on the 14th floor, I felt dejected – I am so tired! How will I ever do this every night after dinner? My skin was boiling and my feet were burning. I clearly hadn’t drunk enough water that day. Am I making more of this than I needed to? No, this was too much for one person to do! I was determined to quit the job the next day, and find an easier seva. I don’t care if I’m a whimp, I can’t do this!
Upon waking the next morning, I was confused. What to do? If I quit this, will anything else be that much easier, or will my mind yet again find the problems, the drama, and get frustrated with the difficulties of whatever new task it may be? Perhaps the opportunity here was to overcome my mind. I don’t have to do this job forever, but while I am doing it, maybe I can learn something more about myself. I had an opportunity to do something for the ashram that was helpful – without needing it to be something really important. Perhaps this seva was given to me so in order to help me overcome my ego (you betcha!), my thoughts, and also to help me see that I’m capable of doing more than I believe I can.
I set out the next night even more determined – this time, to do just a good enough job (not perfection), be as efficient and quick as possible, and to experience Just Sweeping. Focus on the dust, sand, broom, floor. Let go of the drama of the mind as the Leelas unfold. I wanted to shave off about an hour of the time it took the night before. Of course I can do this. Half of the difficulty is in my mind itself.
As the thoughts and emotions arose, I reminded myself that I’m “Just Sweeping”. Every obstacle turned into Just Sweeping. I was hit with the stark realization of how often I’m not in the moment and not seeing things for how they are, but so caught up in the inner drama that I’m no longer Just Sweeping. I could see it happening in every facet of my life.
A useful tool (besides a broom)
Just Sweeping became Just Doing My Laundry, Just Singing, Just Doing My Yoga Practice, Just Waiting for the Bus. It became a wonderful tool to handle my out of control mind, especially when the circumstances were out of my control. In India, just about everything seems out of your control! Just Sweeping allowed me to cultivate humbleness and patience while developing my inner focus and ability to be present.
That second night went much smoother, and I shaved an hour off of my time. I was elatedly-exhausted going off to sleep. Physically, with increased heat and exhaustion, I only lasted 2 more nights on the job. But those four evenings of the simple, physical chore of sweeping the temple gave me a lasting awareness that I was grateful for.
copyright © 2003 by Constance L. Habash