Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grip 'N Grab ego

Yesterday, at sesshin, for work practice I was assigned to clean graffiti off of the public garbage cans. When I was done with that, I was to clean up litter. I should mention that the Zen center is located in Philadelphia, so there's plenty of trash.

Okay, I told myself as I gathered the cleaning supplies, I can do this. No biggie. Stay present--become one with the task. But as I neared the garbage cans, I started to get nervous: a few feet away were a couple of loud young men, joking and kidding. It was the perfect recipe for a confrontation.

That's when anxiety came to say hello. What would I do if one of them said something sarcastic, like, "Yo , check this idiot out. He's cleaning a garbage can!" Or worse, what if they started harassing me?

I felt like an actor on stage, trying not to break character as he's getting heckled. After all, this was my work assignment; I was supposed to be a good little Zen student and remain silent. But that didn't mean I had to bear insults, or worse, risk danger. Besides, what could I say: "This is part of my work practice?" They wouldn't know what the hell that meant. I considered saying, "Community service," but was sure they would misunderstand.
Acutely, I felt the boundaries between Zen practice and "real life" blurring.

With my back to them, I scrubbed the can's dome lid with Comet and a scouring pad, waiting for the heckles to come. But they didn't.

The same scenario presented itself at another street corner, yielding the same results--trepidation, nervousness, but ultimately no confrontation.

I thanked my lucky Buddhas and returned to the Zen center for my garbage bag and Grip 'N Grab (a robotic arm-looking device with a trigger, that allows you to pick up trash without touching it) and went outside again.

I'd done trash pick-up as work practice before, so I wasn't too concerned; however, in the past I'd been partnered up with someone else. And although we weren't supposed to talk, I took comfort in my partner's company.

But now I was all alone.
Immediately I was filled with embarrassment , not because I thought that picking up trash is beneath me--I don't--but because I felt... I don't know, absurd. There I was, Grip 'N Grab in hand, filling a garbage bag with crushed Steel Reserve cans and cigarette butts, while people just strolled right past me. They probably thought I was crazy.

It doesn't take long for the ego to rear its ugly head when you're picking
up trash in the streets of Philadelphia.

It was a sunny, yet chilly day outside, so I had my hood up. As each person walked by, I literally felt like retreating deeper inside the hood.

I can't exactly say why, but it felt humiliating, like I was some kind of weirdo.

I was checking my watch for the third time, contemplating whether I should just return early to the Zen center, when I realized that this was a great opportunity to practice. My ego, my sense of self, was bristling.

What would the Buddha do?

I always talk about no-self, no ego, and here I was feeling...well, embarrassed, even ashamed. And why, because I was cleaning the streets? How dumb is that? After all, I was the one cleaning it up, while passersby turned a blind eye to the litter. They were the ones who should be ashamed, not me. And chances were that they lived in this neighborhood--I lived an hour away, in New Jersey!
But even that was just the ego rationalizing. I needed to dig into the experience. I was here to practice, not to flake out at the first sign of discomfort.

So I bit my lip and attacked the trash with new found gusto, all the while paying close attention to that wounded sense of pride that was blazing in my chest. The feeling was real, but as I stayed mindful, the embarrassed ego subsided to a dull kindle.

I was just a guy picking up litter on the streets. La la la.

When I eventually did return to the Zen center, I felt relieved. I didn't chicken out or allow myself to get sidetracked; I had taken full advantage of the work practice.
When I bowed to the Buddha in the zendo, I felt a little more humbled--not because I had cleaned up trash, but because I had witnessed the ego's instinctive appearance firsthand.
Talking about no ego is all well and good, but when the fit hits the shan, all it takes is a little nudging and that ego will rear its head like a wild rhino.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Lulu vision.


  1. What an experience! Great post!


  2. I completely understand this, I think. In certain situations I am extremely self-conscious, and one of them is taking out the garbage to the side of the road is one of them. It's both painful and ridiculous.
    The good news for me seems to be it's pretty obvious where the problem is. This presentation of the ego seems to be where the work needs to be done.