#76 - dark showers
And some notes on zen cleaning and co-living.
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I started showering in the dark a few months ago. It began as a coping strategy that later morphed into a kind of ritual that I protect. Sacrilegious is now the person who accidentally flicks the light switch on while I am inside my warm cocoon only loosely attached to the stains of the world for 20 minutes.
If you’ve ever wondered what the most challenging part of co-living with 8 people is - it is the bathroom, and it is not the bathroom. Let me explain. The bathroom situation in a co-living home is similar to the experience of a new parent being routinely peed on and pooped on: it is not pleasant, but it is way easier than actually parenting. The relational work of co-living will always upstage the physical work, but the latter is not always pleasant.
When I first moved into Clarens Commons five months ago, I decided to take on the second-floor bathroom cleaning chore, which at the time was shared by 6 people. If you know me and my gag reflexes, this was a heroic decision but I figured if I could control the cleaning then I could manage my anxiety with the situation.
The first few times I performed the chore, I spiralled like a fish on land and questioned all my life decisions. It was a straight-up ugly confrontation with my ego and what labour ‘we’ thought we were above, worthy and entitled to. In that state, I couldn’t see cleaning our shared bathroom as anything but deliriously gross. My internal discomfort turned into an entire rant and vision about how poorly and inaccessible bathrooms are designed for cleaning (um, getting behind a toilet in a small space with bad knees??) I began hatching an exit plan, which is my nervous system’s automated way of dealing with discomfort. What made matters worse was that the bathroom was always slightly dirty - not because anyone was disrespectful, but simply because there was high traffic and usage. Even when I cleaned it three times a week (this frequency did not last), it would descend in hours. My efforts felt futile. The Mr. Clean shine evaded me.
After weeks of numbing, self-soothing, and off-loading on C and my housemates, my panic started to settle. It seems that at the centre of enough panic, care, patience and reality, something alchemizes that creates space for change.
I really don’t want to be the person that claims that cleaning our shared bathroom is ‘how I found peace and enlightenment,’ but I decided at the very minimum, the chore would become my Zen practice. It’s fairly common knowledge that monks begin the day at monasteries and ashrams by cleaning the toilets. In Zen Buddhism, cleaning is not a chore, but rather a crucial practice to cultivate a mind that is equally grateful for life, but not attached to it - the thinking that launched Marie Kondo’s empire. On a similar beat, my goal was to be fully present with the cleaning and not distracted by the deluge of constructed and binary feelings, stories and frustrations about the perceived particularities of it.
Its popularity doesn’t make it any less difficult but it kind of has worked. I recall some days cleaning without a single thought and clocking the ease of the experience. The hair in the shower did not rattle me as much and I had mastered my rhythm. Sweep first. Wipe mirrors second. Scrub shower third. Empty garbage. Clean toilet and baseboards. Mop. Finishing touches.
Still, the descent of the bathroom through the week would pinch my nerves and there was no zen to be found. Every time I brushed my teeth, used the toilet or showered, my eyes would burn at the sight of the newly accumulated muck. The bathroom became the least desirable place for me, whereas, in previous homes, it had been a place of privacy, refuge, and quiet.
So, I started to shower in the dark. And then brush my teeth and go to the bathroom with the night light on. It certainly is not entirely practical to ‘clean’ yourself in the dark, but I trust that I have a decent handle on my body after 38 years, and it has its sensory benefits. At first, I processed this bizarre ritual as avoidance - not wanting to face the dirty, which wouldn’t be completely off-brand, but I’ve since decided it is a form of healthy boundaries (can we convince ourselves of anything? yes we can!).
Dark showers, as I now call them, are kind of like my DIY version of being in a sensory deprivation float tank. Though the alternative healing modality apparently has little scientific evidence, athletes have been using them for years, before they hit the wellness scene in cities. I got into float tanks for a while a few years ago and found that turning off my senses for an hour left me feeling more clear, attuned and energetic. C and I went to a few ‘partner tank’ sessions and it was an immersion in the ‘alone-together’ balance that can be really healthy in a relationship.
Even if the general act of cleaning our shared bathroom became less dramatic, going to the bathroom was still draining. I simply did not have the capacity to pay attention to it all the time. When I was in cleaning mode, I was able to be present, but otherwise, I needed space from its devolution, as someone who is still not fully evolved. In some ways, dark showers are the ‘stop gap’ solution for a much longer journey towards peace and non-attachment. It is a crutch on the way to full surrender.
A friend told me that if I ever wanted to be a parent, I would probably have to get over this neurosis, but it works for now.
For way too long I have resisted turning off from the plight of the world and organizing my life into compartments. Everything seemed urgent and looking away for a minute felt like a betrayal to the cause. Bleeding was normal. Though I don’t draw a separation between my life and artistic practice, by design and choice, I have been placing more boundaries with wage work, relationships and global affairs, and it has been really, really good for me. I feel less prone to doom scrolling, and more drawn to reading longer-form pieces, having real conversations, and scheduling time to process and work through harder things with loved ones. I hope it lasts. My nervous system depends on it. Dare I say that the zen cleaning is working on me?
Yet, even though dark showers are good for me, I suspect my housemates might have some feelings about it all. The art of well-being is truly the dance between my needs and our needs, which can then be wound up in concentric circles of feeling good and guilty, which are further wound up in deeper impressions on where to place our needs in the web of our familial and community relationships, making it all so…tricky. I know contemporary times love the maxim that 'we must take care of ourselves first, in order to care for anyone else,’ but I kind of reject this platitude as a one-dimensional and overly simplistic representation of the dynamic and unquantifiable forms of exchange that care needs and takes on for life to exist and persist AND feels all too convenient to an individualist agenda. In contrast, Zen Buddhists might say that serving and offering care in some cases actually has nothing to do with ‘you’ at all.
It’s a process.
So even though bathrooms are not the most challenging part of co-living, the internal matrix it surfaces about labour, care and service is fairly thorny. The work is worthy of my energy even if I need dark showers right now to get through the process. I mean, that’s why I am here in the first place.
I appreciate you sharing how caring for yourself allows you to care for yourself as too simplistic. While I have believed this, and sometimes still do, something about it feels more linear than relational. I also love this ritual whether it's for boundaries, avoidance, or whatever :)
Love what cleaning a shared / public space brings up for our fragile egos and ideas of what kind of labor we should do. I am dealing with this at my restaurant. Every time I clean the toilet I wonder why I don’t pay someone else to do it.