The Benefits And Limits Of Cleaning Up

Yesterday I advanced an argument in support of “cleaning up.” Today I provide a separate argument the point of which is to ensure that cleaning up is put in its proper place.

Defining Messiness

Whenever you sense contractions in the body, strong feelings arising in the body, and mental proliferations, you’re very likely in the midst of “messiness”: something has activated a pain body, which is tantamount to your taking this something personally. Notice as you take the dharma, or phenomenal arising, personally how the body contracts (there may be tightness in the chest or a block in the stomach), feelings arise (perhaps anger in the first case, fear in the second), and thoughts proliferate and then loop back on themselves.

Defining Cleaning Up

Cleaning up, then, is clearing up the bodily contractions, the unresolved feelings, and the mental proliferations. When the body and mind are clean and clear, there is just quietness, suppleness, and openness in the presence or absence of whatever phenomenal arising seemed, perhaps for many years, to activate this process. To clean up is to slowly let go of whichever ego self-views are causing you suffering–gross suffering in particular.

The Limits of Cleaning Up

Thesis #1: Cleaning up is necessary but not sufficient.

Those who reject the very necessity of cleaning up may fall prey to “spiritual bypass.” (To see a case of this, consider that of Joshu Roshi.) While going ever deeper in meditation, they may inadvertently make an end-around on whatever baggage needs exploring. Consequently, they may continue to behave in ways that are harmful to others or to themselves.

That said, the danger in modern secular culture is that one gets fixated on cleaning up to the detriment of actually realizing one’s true nature (that is, awakening) in the first place. Breathwork, Reiki, energetic practices, emotion-centered modalities, and more can be misused with a view to fulfilling the desire to feel good or feel better or to having euphoric or ecstatic experiences. Therefore, special care should be taken lest one become a spiritual materialist or a therapeuticist.

Thesis #2: Cleaning up can be in the service of waking up.

One’s spiritual practice can be inhibited by especially painful forms of ego-self. If “I am inadequate” or “I am powerless” carry through much of one’s interpretation of one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions, then finally being able to let go of “I am inadequate” or “I am powerless” can enable one to experience immense spaciousness. But then that immense spaciousness is a clue or a pointer to the full realization of one’s true nature.

Proper Place

Theses 1 and 2 help us put “cleaning up” is its proper place. On this understanding, one’s root practice would remain oriented toward enlightenment while some of one’s supportive practices would, especially when necessary and thus when the occasion warrants, aid in the process of cleaning up. When whatever needs to be cleaned up is cleaned up today or for good, one then returns to one’s root practice. Cleaning up should be regarded as no big thing.

The Incompleteness Of Something Like The Genetic Fallacy: On The Importance Of ‘Cleaning Up’

In philosophy, there is something called “the genetic fallacy.” It holds that it is illegitimate to consider the merits of an argument based partially or exclusively on the details of the arguer’s background. One should assess the argument from–to use John Rawls’ term–behind a “veil of ignorance.” To take an extreme example: to assess Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, The Industrial Society and its Future, based on the fact that he is the Unabomber is to fail to reckon with the arguments he makes against the industrial technological system.

Something like the genetic fallacy seems to me misleading or, in any case, incomplete when it comes to the claims we make in our own lives. Seeing this will bring us straightaway to what Ken Wilber calls “cleaning up.”


Recently, I was looking at the Russian sages growing around our house, and it struck me that they were spreading wildly, uncontrollably. Not one normally taken to feeling overwhelmed, I nonetheless began to feel just that. Is this property too much for my wife and me to take care of? If I paid attention to the aesthetic claim, “Russian sages growing too wildly are ugly,” I would have missed the pith. Would have overlooked what was happening inside of me.

Following an approach pioneered by the spiritual teacher Stephen Wolinksy, I began to trace back this feeling of overwhelm by asking myself, “What’s so bad about X?” So,

  • Q1: What’s so bad about feeling overwhelmed?
  • A1: Maybe taking care of this property is simply too much for us.
  • Q2: What’s so bad about its being too much for you?
  • A2: When the time comes and we want to sell this house, we won’t be able to. (NB: What should be clear by now is that this is not, strictly speaking, logical reasoning since this process of inquiry is getting us to see, and feel, what predates the birth of rationality in our lives.)
  • Q3: What’s so bad about not being able to sell the house?
  • A3: Then we’ll be stuck here, stuck in this city.
  • Q4: What’s so bad about being stuck in this place?
  • A4: I’ll be unfree and I can’t stand being unfree.
  • Q5: Is that the worst of it, or is there something worse than being unfree?
  • A5: Yes, there is. It’s the feeling of utter powerlessness. That’s the worst of it for me.

Notice that the aesthetic claim, “This is ugly,” is not untrue and so far as it goes, it’s fine. And yet, if I only paid attention to that claim and not to the perturbations or stirrings within me, I would have missed precisely what this scene is telling me. It’s telling me that I have some “baggage” related to my feeling of powerlessness, baggage that needs to be seen clearly so that it can be released.

One of the discoveries, or insights, coming from integral theory is that waking up to our true nature (that is, enlightenment) may not be enough. There needs, it’s urged, to be a parallel process that involves “cleaning up” whatever baggage we have. A number of concepts such as “pain bodies” (Eckhart Tolle), “baggage” (Culadasa), “shadows” (Jung), and our “false core” (Wolinsky) as well as a number of approaches such as the Bio-emotive Framework (Doug Tataryn) point in this direction.

Why is cleaning up important, even necessary?

1.) Because you really don’t yet see how many daily occurrences are actually reinvoking or reactivities some fairly basic pain bodies. To that extent, you’re actually being controlled by said pain bodies.

2.) Because nobody wants to suffer and because your own suffering may not come to rest without deeper, more intuitive, more felt kinds of inquiry

3.) Because those on a spiritual path may observe that the depth of their seated meditations can be quite discontinuous with the suffering of their daily experience: they’re still saying and doing foolish, hurtful things despite their commitment to spiritual practice, especially in the form of seated meditation.

4.) Not the least because being enlightened may but also may not resolve one’s pain bodies. The misconduct of certain enlightened spiritual teachers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries should give us pause. (I discuss the case of Joshu Roshu in this talk.)

In the end, we should try to hold onto two different perspectives. From one perspective, we need to continue to give weight to claims and arguments–others’ as well as our own. There would be no room for genuine intellectual discussion, and more, if this weren’t possible. Nor do we want everything to devolve to a “therapeuticized culture.” I discuss the shortcomings of the latter in the thread below:

Yet from another perspective, a more intuitive or “felt sense” one, we need to be able to “see behind” certain claims when it’s the case that there seems to be some existential struggle occurring in ourselves or in others. It feels like a new power, the power to “see through” or “see past” what one or another is saying and to begin to ascertain what might be the true source of the hurt. For an example of what I have in mind, you can listen to the opening part of my very poignant conversation with Guy Sengstock:

Isn’t Buddhism About Not Having Desires?

After a recent podcast interview, my interlocutor, with whom I was discussing the prevalence of burnout among medical residents, said, “Isn’t Buddhism about not having desires?”

“No,” I replied, “it isn’t.”

A man loves a woman and she loves him. However, circumstances are such that they can’t be together. The man wrote to me: “I can’t help but miss here.”

“Then miss her,” I said. “Missing someone you dearly love is only natural.” “However,” I went on, “fantasizing about how you and she will be together and about how you’ll have children together and all the rest: this is where the dis-ease arises.”

“Therefore,” I concluded, “Experience the missing fully while letting go of any residual fantasizing.”

This is the essence of Buddhism.