Thoughts on Saucha (cleanliness)

This is the first draft for a chapter on Saucha (cleanliness.) If you'd like to suggest edits or comments please visit the working document here.

I love how the yamas and niyamas seem so straightforward but then they get you precisely because of their straightforwardness. They throw you back on your own assumptions. I read them and think about them, and then I find myself doing this thing where I’m like, what does that mean? What’s the deeper meaning? I like to get really meta and chew on the nuances of an idea until the original idea is pulp in my brain… Saucha, the first of the niyamas (personal observances) translates as cleanliness. But there are different ideas and cultural norms about what constitutes as cleanly, and that’s where nuance is important!

Do we all have a basic understanding of what clean means, whether or not we describe ourselves or our habits that way? And if we do have a basic understanding for ourselves, what do we mean when we use that word with someone else? I know that I have had some very different ideas about what’s clean than a number of housemates or partners, and it has gotten us into trouble to not have a shared understanding.

So I’ve been thinking about what it means to be clean. And to take the obvious first step, I ask the dictionary.

Webster gives a long answer for such a short word:

  1. a :  free from dirt or pollution <changed to clean clothes> <clean solar energy>b :  free from contamination or disease <a clean wound>c :  free or relatively free from radioactivity <a clean atomic explosion>

  2. 2a :  unadulterated, pure <the clean thrill of one's first flight>b of a precious stone :  having no interior flaws visible :  free from growth that hinders tillage <clean farmland>

  3. 3a :  free from moral corruption or sinister connections of any kind <a candidate with a clean record>; also :  free from violations <a clean driving record>b :  free from offensive treatment of sexual subjects and from the use of obscenity <a clean joke>c :  observing the rules :  fair <a clean fight>

  4. 4:  ceremonially or spiritually pure <and all who are clean may eat flesh — Leviticus 7:19 (Revised Standard Version)>

  5. 5a :  thorough, complete <a clean break with the past>b :  deftly executed :  skillful <clean ballet technique>c :  hit beyond the reach of an opponent <a clean single to center>

  6. 6a :  relatively free from error or blemish :  clear; specifically :  legible <clean copy>b :  unencumbered <clean bill of sale>

  7. 7a :  characterized by clarity and precision :  trim <a clean prose style> <architecture with clean almost austere lines>b :  even, smooth <a clean edge> <a sharp blow causing a clean break>c :  free from impedances to smooth flow (as of water or air) <a clean airplane> <a ship with a clean bottom>

  8. 8a :  empty <the ship returned with a clean hold>b :  free from drug addiction <has been clean for six months>c slang :  having no contraband (as weapons or drugs) in one's possession

  9. 9:  habitually neat

So much room for nuance right? How much of your own subjectivity can you pack into those definitions? And do you, like me, read them and immediately get thrown back on your own habits, behaviors, customs and wonder whether or not they meet Webster’s criteria?

The thing about redefining ubiquitous words and terms is that even though we may all have a pretty clear idea of what those words and terms mean, they lose their power to convey meaning because we don’t question them anymore. When we think we know what something is, we stop being curious about it, stop looking for it, and start to confuse our assumptions about something with it’s essence.

Here’s a personal story for you.

Almost 5 years ago I fell in love. It was wonderful, different than anything I’d ever felt before, (or have felt since) and completely changed my life. At first it felt like we were so compatible and that we totally understood what the other person wanted, needed, and meant. In fact, I remember having multiple conversations about how well we got along because we had mutual understanding, specifically around certain standards like cleanliness. Fast-forward a year and we move in together. Suddenly I realize that we do not mean the same thing at all with cleanliness. We have very different habits and very different timing. For me it felt important to keep counters clean and dishes washed immediately. She wasn’t as concerned and could let things go for a day or three. I wanted a place for everything and everything in its place. She could tolerate a bit more chaos.

I started to become obsessed with how different we were and began to point it out compulsively. I compared our styles of cleaning and organization and found plenty of examples of how I was better at it: I organized and tidied, I folded her laundry, I cooked and did the dishes, I wiped her crumbs off the counter, I picked up what she dropped.

And so what?

So what if I was better at organizing or cleaning up while I cook? So what if I didn’t amass piles of random stuff that I forgot about and left lying around the house? While I was busy judging her I was blind to the ways I was accumulating resentment. She let piles of stuff grow on the dining room table, but I let piles of irritation grow in the space between us. I started to see other ways that I was better, or worked harder, or took more of the burden. I let those feelings grow too. When she cleaned I didn’t notice. When she pointed out how I was also messy or how she took care of me I blew it off. The piles of resentment I was letting grow got bigger and bigger until she couldn’t do anything right at all. I had let the issue of cleanliness become a big ugly stain on my heart.

I’d like to say we figured it out and moved through, but actually we broke up. We spent the better part of a year in some really uncomfortable spaces, not knowing how close we could be and both feeling betrayed and disappointed. It’s both true and not true to say that the cause of our break up was cleanliness. It’s not true because cleanliness is a word that when said implies general, vague things, and we certainly didn’t break up because she didn’t wipe the counters. But it’s true because while the reason we broke up wasn’t actually about tidiness or organization of our possessions, it was about how much shit we let pile up in our attitudes towards each other.

When we broke up I was devastated. Taken off guard by the strength of my own feelings, I realized that I had been avoiding intimacy by collecting reasons to not be intimate. I had to look at the ways that I was compulsive and controlling (a place for everything, everything in its place!) because I was so terrified of not having control, of being hurt. I realized how judging and nitpicking at her was a tactic to avoid the discomfort of being vulnerable. If I could arrange things and keep them just so it gave me a sense of order. But loving her and trying to trust her threw my sense of order completely out of balance. When she behaved in ways that were counter to what I wanted I took it as a sign that she would, or already was, hurting me. My need to organize my surroundings was based in a state of being that inherently mistrusted the world and other people.

Without her there to blame I realized that I also left crumbs on the counter. I realized that while I didn’t miss her piles of random stuff, I did really miss her, and the piles didn’t matter so much. Most importantly I realized that my fear and mistrust were actually the things that were the problem, the things that had been making a mess. I felt so angry at myself for letting petty details overshadow my love for her, I was determined that I didn’t want that to happen again. So I started to clean…

First I started to clean by letting my apartment get messy and chaotic. I was deeply depressed and for the first time ever in my adult life didn’t care whether the dishes were done. Then I started to clean by crying. I lay in bed every night for months and let myself cry the kind of crying that is huge, messy and loud. I cleaned by being that friend who can’t stop ruminating. I cleaned by re-reading journals from the past years and seeing how I had convinced myself of my own autonomous superiority. I cleaned by apologizing to past housemates who had been victim to my neurotic cleaning and judgment. I cleaned by remembering how it was to be an only child that got caught in a horrible, decade-long custody battle in which I had no control. I cleaned by grieving my mother’s sudden death and finally, 15 years later, feeling the panic of it. I cleaned by getting way too stoned every day for an entire summer. I cleaned by screaming, shaking, and sobbing. I cleaned by acknowledging how terrified I was… And then I cleaned by forgiving myself for all of it.

Something happened in that forgiveness. For lack of a better word I’ll just say I relaxed. I started to care less if dishes piled up for a night or two. It didn’t distract and irritate me if a pile of stuff sat on the floor longer than necessary. I started to realize that the ways I had been controlling my environment (and the people in it) were tactics I had developed because early in life, and for much of my life, I had felt that the world was out of control… And the truth is that the world is out out of any of our individual control. But it’s also true that none of our neurosis will make it any more controllable, or any more pleasant.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are 196 sutras (aphorisms, but the word translates as suture – implying a stitching, or sewing together of knowledge) that in their entirety describe the path of yoga for an aspirant and give lessons on what to expect along the way. They begin like this:                                    

I.1 Atha yogānuśāsanam                    

atha = now

yoga = process of yoking; union ânuåâsanam = teaching, exposition                   

Now, the teachings of yoga.

I.2 Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ                    

yogaś= process of yoking; union

citta = consciousness

vṛtti = patterning, turnings, movements nirodhaḥ = stilling, cessation, restriction

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

It’s easy to sail past the first word, but it’s an important one to note. Now, are the teachings of yoga. Not when you go to class, not when you finally have a daily meditation practice, not when you visit India. Right now. Wherever you are. Doing whatever you are doing. Now is the moment for learning. This sutra tells us that whatever is arising is the teacher, and the time for yoking (yoga) our hearts, minds, and bodies together in a direct experience is right now. Sounds lovely yes? But what if the present moment is tense? What if you are gripped by fear and anxiety?

We are always fluctuating, riding the waves of our emotions and thoughts. Fear and anxiety, as much as excitement or pleasure, are states of being created by our innate and immediate preferences and associations to whatever is happening, internally or externally. My friend Michael Stone often defines yoga as intimacy. He says that when we are intimate with what is arising, meaning that we move directly into the sensation of the experience without getting caught in our stories about it, that’s yoga. To still the patterning of consciousness is to still our immediate reactivity enough that we can make the choice to have different responses, or maybe even none at all. So really, what better yoga teachers are there than our fear and anxiety? We can talk a lot of talk about being present and united when we are in easeful states of peace, but what about when we’re triggered? What about when we are in danger? To recognize the moment of yoga as right now is to recognize that every sensation we experience holds the opportunity for awakening to what our minds do with sensation.

When I was freaking out about whether or not my girlfriend did the dishes I was in a state of reactivity. I was reacting to my past conditioning. I was reaching for a measure of external control in order to pacify anxiety that had nothing to do with her, or the dishes. And this is what we do as humans, we associate and confuse our responses, actions, emotions, values, and meaning. Everything that we perceive in our lives comes through the filters of our bodies (health, gender, race, age, ability,) the values and meanings we have learned from family, culture, our mental state, our emotional state, and so on. The idea of yoga – the concept of having a direct experience – is basically the idea that we can practice not identifying with all of our baggage for long enough that we will notice there are other options.

We got back together. It wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. But certain things seem clearer now also. I still usually do the dishes faster, not because she won’t do them, but because I get anxious if they’re out on the counter taking up space. Yup. Still anxious. The difference now though is that I (sometimes) am able to discern what the voice of my own anxiety is, and what actually has to do with her. She’s not a messy person. In fact, she’s cleaner than I am in quite a few ways. Acknowledging that, for me, means that I have to take responsibility in the moments when I feel triggered and want to make it her fault. It means that I have to do yoga. I have to recognize that the reactivity which is arising (anxiety, anger, trying to control) is telling me something about what I do habitually. So when I remember, I pause, breathe, and just feel the sensation rather than the story. If I can do this then fairly quickly I feel a sensation that is more existential than immediate. I feel a little girl who’s scared. I feel loss and grief. I feel the instinct to do things and be in action. But none of those things are right now. All that’s happening right now is that there are some dirty dishes, and a person I love.

So, back to cleanliness.

In the most basic ways cleanliness means caring for the materials of our lives. If we’re trying to have organized experiences in our minds and emotions, it’s helpful if our bodies are internally clean and not full of junk and toxins; and if our homes and environments are uncluttered and unpolluted. To make these choices we also have to be aware of our habits. We have to deal with our addictions to junk food, drugs, alcohol, and all of our ‘stuff.’ We have to choose to spend more money on local, organic food if we can rather than big brands. We have to be mindful of the ways we treat our homes and spaces we inhabit, and we have to take the time to care for those spaces. We also have to realize when these choices become their own pathology. If we find ourselves obsessing about whether our food is clean enough or being compulsive or controlling in our spaces then we have let our thoughts become messy. The filters of our perceptions get in the way of just being present with the sensation of eating, or our enjoyment of space.

In a more complex sense, practicing clean living is both a decision and a privilege. Those of us who have access to healthy, whole foods which haven’t been sprayed or filled with toxic chemicals will find that when we consume them regularly our minds are clearer, we have more consistent energy, and generally have more readily available internal resources (immunity being an important resource.) The good fortune to live in places that have infrastructure for garbage removal, water purification, roads maintenance, and green spaces is something that many of us take for granted. If you’ve traveled to any developing countries, or even many lower income communities in the US, you know that many people in the world don’t have access to healthy fresh foods, municipal services, or green spaces.

So cleanliness can also be a choice for activism. When we remember that we have the option of making clean choices perhaps we also remember the impact of our choices. It’s one thing to throw your trash in the garbage, it’s another to remember that trash goes into a landfill or might even be shipped to another country where there are no landfills, just mountains of 1st world trash. Environmental Justice is one way to consider cleanliness. How can those of us who have the option to make choices in our consumption do so in ways that contribute to healthy options for the rest of the planet? The first part of that is again realizing that we have options, and that means getting beyond our ideas of scarcity, our neuroses, our entitlement, and spending the time, effort and money to make consumer choices which don’t trash others for our own benefit.

Finally, a general and overarching idea of cleanliness could be ‘Don’t let shit build up.’ And this means everything. It means get enough exercise if you can so that your blood and lymph aren’t stagnant. It means work on yourself through therapy, mindfulness or in whatever ways help you get beyond buildups of resentment, frustration, grief, and fear. It means don’t let shit build up in your relationships: talk about things, apologize, forgive. It means clean up the damn pile of stuff that’s been sitting in the corner. It means take out the trash. It means help people who aren’t in a position to clean up after themselves, or to deal with the messes that have been put on them. Not letting shit build up means the same thing no matter which way you’re practicing it: stop, feel the habits that are running through you in the moment, notice if you’re running on an energetic charge that isn’t appropriate to the moment (this could be anxiety/neurosis, craving, envy, etc. It might even feel good… those pleasurable habits also cloud our judgment sometimes.) Notice the truth of the moment (do you actually need that thing? Did you just toss that piece of trash in a state of haste because you were rushing?) and then ask yourself what kind of choice you want to make.

Like all the other yamas and niyamas, cleanliness is a simple idea that has profound implications. And like all the other precepts, when we practice cleanliness in our personal lives with dedication and really push ourselves to examine what it means, we practice cleanliness for our loved ones, our communities, and the world. What are some of the ways you think about and practice cleanliness?

Resources and reading:

The Yoga Sutra translated by Chip Hartranft