Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Cleanliness is next to godliness, but what if you’re an atheist? Cleanliness is next to a meaningless void in which you have to find your own purpose based on scientific teachings and reason.
I’m not a naturally clean person. I once trimmed my anal hair with some hairdressing scissors and then unconsciously started snipping away up my nostrils. Yet, I spend a remarkable amount of time cleaning, either at one of my two bar jobs or in a local premises as a reluctant volunteer, in an unpaid position - my flat.
I scrub sticky surfaces that within a matter of minutes will, by their very nature, become sticky again. I’m basically fighting the natural order of time. Everything is in a constant state of decay & my life is spent in the service of delaying the inevitable. There will be a time long after I’m deceased when the objects, surfaces and areas I disinfect will dissolve into the void and cease to be a part of our observable world. Just a collection of atoms. Time slips between the fibres of my scourer. Perhaps cleanliness is next to existentialism?
I was sanitising the kitchen with all the unenthusiasm required and needed a vacuum. I pulled out the red, chubby-faced, branded, person-named appliance and hiding behind him (or it, whatever) I discovered two long forgotten reminders. Reaching into the dust, I pulled from the wreckage some desperately sad and disheartening devices.
The first behind the vacuum was a supermarket brand hand-held vacuum cleaner. It was covered in thick dirt. Spots of dried up, rotting food was visible through the transparent cover. Between the layers of grime, the words ‘Dream Machine’ was written on in marker. My partner and I had bought this device in the event of any dry spillages and to quickly tackle condensed areas. If one of us cut our hair or knocked over a bowl of empty peanut shells, this would save us from having the retrieve the main vacuum. It was to revolutionise our world.
The second was an Embank Easy Sweep Carpet Sweeper. Passed on from a family member, this sweeper was to be on call whenever a small amount of crud would litter the floor but it was also perfectly suited for carpets and rugs, whereas the hand-held could tackle harder surfaces like laminate floors, vinyl sheets and work surfaces. This wouldn’t render the red branded vacuum cleaner redundant as neither rival could cope with tackling an entire flat single-handed. It was to revolutionise our world.
As I tentatively began to clean the exterior of the hand-held vacuum, I noticed that some of the grime was stuck on too tight. To aid me, I switched on the vacuum cleaner and began to suck at the hand-held vacuum. And that was it. From that moment in time, I was now a vacuum cleaner cleaner. I was outranked by one of our own vacuums.
All these dreams. All these promises. I sat there surrounded by a variety of devices and they stared back at me, dishevelled, useless, abandoned. Is this the end result of consumerism? Is this where we end up as participants of western culture? Are we driven so blindly forward by a desire to fill our lives with possessions, distracting us from the real issues that sit at the heart of our society, that we could inadvertently end up owning three variants of the same product? Perhaps cleanliness is next to materialism in a capitalist regime.
I felt this sense, something needed to change. I needed to save myself from the trap I was locked in. I needed liberation. Out of sheer desperation, I rushed out of the house, carrying the three appliances. At first, I stopped outside the local Anglican church. My mind was racing; “if Jesus did heal the sick, he’d’ve probably needed a sterile environment to carry out such procedures…” I left hastily, worried I might be roped in for a spot of maintenance. Eventually, I stumbled across the local Buddhist centre and, in too much of a state to think up a theological rebuttal, I stepped in hoping for some kind of spiritual salvation. Thirty minutes later I emerged a changed man.
Cleaning can be a form of meditation. In much the same way as mantra meditation helps mould an altered state of consciousness, the concentration of wiping and descaling offers the same repetitive structure. It gives you the same framework to start from. By having an activity by which to occupy yourself with, you can begin to draw your attention from the exterior world slowly into the interior, eventually focusing on your breath and trying to be at one with the moment, this one, right now.
Tibetan monks have a practice in which, as part of their meditation, will spend hours or days carefully and patiently sculpting geometric shapes and ancient symbols into sand. Once these patterns are complete and the meditation has ended, they will destroy the images by raking the sand into its previous state. This is done as a teaching tool and a spiritual exercise in one of Buddhism’s three marks of existence - impermanence (or Anicca) - the philosophy that everything in our observable existence, be them material or thought, is subject to decline. Our whole existence is based on the premise of its temporary nature and our acceptance of this is a step toward relinquishing suffering and, ultimately, achieving nirvana. I can relate to that concept of suffering, having tried to pick the dried oats off a housemates three-day old porridge bowl.
I felt free. Free to relinquish myself from these distractions, free to embrace the moment, free to defrost the freezer and bleed the radiators. I no longer felt shackled to the floor cleaning devices. I had practical tools I could offer people which they may need. I can be of physical help. I could heal broken Britain with my suction force.
Now, unfortunately, since writing this, some of you may have noticed that Britain is still broken, even with my generous offer being emphatically accepted. But y’know, we’re still a work in progress. There are plenty more cupboards, draws, shelves and boxes to be explored. At least now I can bleach the toilet undistracted. Maybe cleanliness is next to embracing impermanence.
The Savage Balance Podcast is a weekly podcast offering a new story, essay, interview, thought or leftover scribble from the back of a napkin.