Clean House, Clean Mind: How Monks Use Cleanliness to Achieve Enlightenment
“A monk’s day begins with cleaning.”
“A tidy room at bedtime is refreshing and clears the mind, leading to deep sleep.”
Does starting and ending your day with cleaning sound wonderful? It’s likely that it doesn’t, but you’d be surprised at the incredible impact it can have on your mental health.
For Buddhist monks in Japan, this is a lifestyle they have embraced. As Shoukei Matsumoto, a monk at Komyoji Temple in Tokyo, Japan, says, a clean house leads to a clean mind.
We delved into Matsumoto’s practices and theories on keeping a clean house, and found he is spot on. We broke his advice down into a few clear topics, with easy steps to take to help clean your mind through a clean home.
Cleaning can heal your heart and mind.
As Matsumoto explains in his book A Monk's Guide to a Clean House and Mind, the way Buddhist monks clean helps them to achieve zen. “Daily housework,” he says, “is an opportunity to contemplate the self.” It’s a time to take stock of how you’re doing on your goals, how you’re treating other people, and how you treat yourself.
Even more than self-reflection, however, Buddhist monks believe that each act of cleaning can heal. It is possible to “master yourself by mastering the space in which you live,” they say.
For example, simply cleaning or polishing your floors is like “cleaning the earthly dirt from your soul. Grime accumulates in your body and poisons your mind.”
These monks believe that the physical act of cleaning is also a mental act of cleaning. It brings clarity and healing to your thoughts. “We do it to eliminate the suffering in our hearts,” they say. They’re not wrong.
Science is catching up to the Buddhist monks. In 2010, a study found that women living in homes they described as cluttered were more likely to experience depression and constant fatigue. They also had higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cleaning can lead to lower levels of stress, it was reported. It can literally eliminate suffering.
No wonder the first and last thing Buddhist monks do is clean.
Respect for your possessions is respect for ourselves.
“Things become garbage when they are treated as garbage.”
If you toss your things on the floor, leave them outside, or don’t clean them when they’re dirty, you will find you value your possessions less and less.
Have you ever seen a child find a stick or stone on the pathway and watch how they treat it? A rock we might see as worthless, they see as a jewel. They pocket it carefully, take it home, and wash it. They place it on a shelf or in a treasure box. It’s taken out often and looked at, then returned to its place with the other “treasures.” That rock we see as worthless has value to them, partly because of the way they treat it.
Matsumoto gives three tips on how to value your possessions:
- Remember that nothing starts out as garbage.
- Embody a spirit of gratitude towards objects.
- Handle your objects carefully.
Not only will this help your possessions last longer and retain their value, it is also a reflection on yourself. As Matsumoto observes, “People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people.” The way we treat our homes says a lot about the way we feel about ourselves and others around us, he says.
How to make cleaning a habit.
So, what is the best way to achieve this mental clarity through cleaning? Make cleanliness part of your lifestyle — not something you do, but part of who you are. There are certain practices you can adopt that will make a difference. Here are five from Matsumoto that we found poignant:
- Never leave your toilet dirty. “Since you have not left it dirty, the toilet will stay clean. When this rule is broken, the toilet immediately becomes dirty.” Adopt this in other areas of your life. Never leave dishes in the sink. Never leave crumbs on the table. By practicing immediate tidiness, you know you’ll never have to worry about it later.
- Make a schedule for the hard to reach places. Even in the temple, Matsumoto says, it’s not easy to clean the light fixtures every day. So, set up a schedule and stick to it no matter what, and you’ll “avoid overlooking them.” We recommend writing it in a planner, setting an alarm in your phone, or placing a cleaning schedule on your fridge.
- Keep your air clean and fresh smelling. “Always look for ways to improve the flow of air in your home.” Open your windows as often as you can. Have regular checks on your air conditioning or heating units. Keeping the air you breathe clean and fresh makes a big difference.
- Divide and rotate chores. Everyone in the family should participate and “work as a team, conscious of each other as they perform tasks.” But make sure you change up the chores periodically, so it doesn’t become mundane. In Buddhism, this is called Tenyaku, or “role change.”
- Tidy before bed. Don’t go to bed with dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor. Make sure your space is clean and your possessions put away. “A tidy room at bedtime is refreshing and clears the mind, leading to deep sleep.” The National Sleep Foundation found that people with a tidy room are 19 percent more likely to have a good night’s sleep.
Sweep the dust off your heart.
It’s never too late to adopt the wisdom of Matsumoto and his fellow monks. Take one of the tasks above and adopt it into your daily life. You will find a greater desire to tidy and maintain other areas of your home and, as an extension, your mind. As Matsumoto observed, a clean house leads to a clean mind.
And a clean (read: clear) mind, is one that can better harness chi, the life force energy flowing through your mind, body, and soul.