Smoke and Mirrors


As I drove up to my building, I saw that it was too late. Through the windows it looked like my apartment was stuffed with gray cotton. “No, no, no!” I begged as I fumbled with my keys. The time for a miracle had come and gone. Damage control was the best I could hope for.

The apartment was thick with smoke. I sucked a huge gulp of clean air from the hallway and plunged in, running to the kitchen in the back, where, through the haze, I saw to my relief that there were no flames engulfing the stove, no wall of fire à la “Backdraft,” just a pot steadily chugging streams of smoke from under its charred lid, the metal bottom glowing red hot on the vivid orange ring of the electric range; it had been on high for three hours. Between dashes out into the hall to gasp for air, I flung windows open, doubled oven mitts and shoved the pot out on the ledge, wet a large towel and waved it around like a crazed toreador, shooing out as much smoke as I could until it was time to leave for work.

What’s That Smell?

As I drove to the hospital for the evening shift I calmed myself and analyzed the situation for the spiritual lesson. A few weeks earlier I’d had a fender-bender. Now this. You think you’re conscious, and yet you leave a pot boiling on the stove and risk burning down your entire apartment building. You’re a sleepwalker! I chastised myself. Obviously, I concluded, this was no accident; on the spiritual path a close call is a wake-up call. Maybe I was moving too fast. I would pay more attention, be more careful, slow down and do things with greater awareness.

You think you’re conscious, and yet you leave a pot boiling on the stove and risk burning down your entire apartment building.

I slid into my seat at the nurses’ station, put on my earphones, and began to transcribe just as the nurses filed in from report. “Eew!” said Jan from across the room, “Has someone been smoking in here?” Everyone began sniffing at the air, their faces screwed up in distaste. Where was it coming from? It turned out to be me. I glanced down at the green wool sweater I had just picked up from the dry cleaners and my freshly pressed cotton skirt. I looked immaculate, but I bent my head over to my shoulder, sniffed, and realized I reeked of charcoaled black beans. I had been wearing these clothes as I ran around my apartment and was so inundated by the smoke that I didn’t smell it on myself when I left home.

I couldn’t wait for the night to be over. But when I opened the door to my apartment at midnight, the stench hit me like a wall. The fans I’d set up and the breeze from the wide-open windows had cleared the air of visible smoke, but my apartment smelled like a tire factory. It was unbearable, so I set to work. I took down the curtains, collected all the kitchen towels, and laundered the lot. I deposited the stinking pot in the dumpster, wiped down the kitchen cabinets and appliances, and waved a burning bundle of juniper through every room. Satisfied the apartment was clean, I went to bed. Next day at the hospital, the staff was sniffing the air again. “What is that SMELL?”

My apartment was polluted. The pot had burned for hours and the smoke had seeped into every crack and pore; the linens, my clothes in the drawers, even the paint on the walls was permeated. This was going to take more than a superficial wipe-down—this was more than just a wake-up call, and a deeper lesson sank in during the next few days as I handled, moved, and cleaned every single thing I owned.

Cleaning Up

If you don’t resent it, cleaning is interesting work. It is purposeful, and the repetition of rubbing and wiping leaves room to think. Looking at everything I owned made me think of my life as it was now. Three years earlier I had been an administrator, hopscotching my way up the management hierarchy, with steadily better positions and bigger salaries. When the bottom dropped out and I lost my job, it provoked a sort of early midlife crisis, during which I found that what I really wanted to do was write. So I abandoned management and became a freelance writer.

By freelance standards I was a huge success because I made a living. Though the money was a fraction of what I had been used to, I was generally content. But sometimes a little shim of a thought that I was deprived would work its way in. I needed better clothes: platform-ish shoes were in, and all my shoes had thin soles. I lacked the latest accessories like plaid leggings and a black velvet choker. I hadn’t bought new towels and sheets for years. But now as I cleaned I became conscious of exactly how much I did have. A lot. Too much.

I didn’t lack things—I lacked an awareness of what I did have, and gratitude for it.

Somehow I had convinced myself that I lived an austere life; my home was a simple ashram of one. But did St. Francis have 35 pairs of shoes lined up underneath the cot in that cell of his? Did Teresa of Avila hoard fabric, or have enough yarn to knit six sweaters? I didn’t lack things—I lacked an awareness of what I did have, and gratitude for it. I looked at that stack of turtlenecks every day, one in each color, but I never really saw them. Buried in the closet I found two blouses from Pakistan, one hand-embroidered in blue and the other in pale yellow. Those I never wore because I forgot I owned them. If yoga teaches that the outer world is a reflection of the inner self, I mused, how did this reflect me? Were there treasures within me, buried under a careless and busy mind that never takes the time to really look—and when it does look, doesn't appreciate what is there?

The First Wipe-Down

I reflected in this vein constantly for the next few days as I wiped off the furniture, took apart light fixtures to bathe the glass covers, and sprinkled baking soda into the carpet. When you decide to purify the soul, it takes more than a superficial wipe-down of the exterior self, burning a little incense and trading the necklace for the (happily fashionable) rudraksha mala. Every single part of the self needs to be deep cleaned. Read Irina Tweedie’s The Chasm of Fire and you will see just how ruthless a Master can be in the service of helping us learn this. Tweedie went to India and gave everything to her teacher, who doled very little of it back. As she sat starving, waiting to see if and when a few rupees might be tossed her way before she died of hunger, she recorded the experience of being brought down to the place where she was the owner of nothing except the vessel of her body, feeling the harshness of the experience burning her impurities away from inside out. This is spiritual practice—every part of the self must be examined. What is white light and what is filth? What must go?

My apartment was humble, but I had managed to fill it with junk. Not huge, obvious piles of trash, but bits and pieces scattered throughout. Earrings from a Masai woman in Kenya that wouldn’t fit through the holes in my own ears. My student ID card from the University of Iceland. A little evening bag made of shell from Thailand. Photographs from a commune in Denmark. I couldn’t part with these things because of my attachment to the memories and to the image of myself as a world traveler, even though they were things I didn’t need, never used, and sat in boxes I rarely touched. What did that say about my mind? Were there mental tendencies I no longer needed?

Frankly, the effort required to go through and examine everything seemed overwhelming. Perhaps, I thought, after most everything else had been cleaned, I could manage to get away without going through the boxes on the top shelf of the closet, or those in the walk-in. A visit from a friend the next day told me differently. A wrinkled nose, a reluctant look on her face in the doorway. “What’s that smell?” I still wasn’t done! Nothing could go untouched. I would have to purify my apartment, and that meant everything.

Making Room for Light

I thought of the story of Swami Chidananda’s visit to a California ashram. In the gardens he saw a rusty can lying on the ground. “What’s this doing here?!” “We use it for watering,” the devotees answered. Swami upbraided them sternly. “You need to clean this and paint it and give it its own place!” Just left lying there, the can is tamasic, he explained, and attracts lower astral entities.

Everything we own, every part of ourselves, even the soap dish or the way we file our taxes, is spiritualized if we care for it or do it consciously. As I continued to clean, I kept that in mind and worked to give everything its own place as I put it back. And as I did so, my apartment began to gleam. It began to feel holy. Everything was in a place for a reason. The unnecessary had been removed. The empty, clean spaces made room for light.

In Here to Heal, Sufi Reshad Feild tells how he keeps his house prepared to receive a Guest by washing the walls and mirrors with rose water once a week. It struck me as a simple and charming custom, so I washed my own walls with rose water that week. It was a big job. I had stuck a lot of things on the walls—postcards, sayings, draped veils—and I had to take them down. The furniture was heavy and awkwardly placed, and once I moved it, I saw the dust and was compelled to clean some more. It wasn’t such a simple custom after all.

Paramahansa Yogananda told his disciples to “Put everything away as soon as you are finished with it.”

Once my apartment was clean, perfect, gleaming, I wanted to keep it that way, but it seems impossible. I get lazy, leave things lying around; stick things in boxes and put them on the top shelf; refuse to let go of a knickknack to which I’ve attached a memory. Once we have purified ourselves, it still takes vigilance to keep from letting tendencies we have released—greed, selfishness, ambition, unwillingness—creep back in. Paramahansa Yogananda told his disciples to “Put everything away as soon as you are finished with it.” Easy, right? Makes you wonder, a great saint bothering with a topic so mundane. But if you practice it fully, Yogananda’s advice is more than a mere housekeeping tip. It’s like the yamas—if you perfect one quality, you automatically perfect them all. I understand that now. That one cooking mishap taught me a lot about my level of spiritual development. Laughable as it may sound, I know that if I could just keep my apartment perfectly clean, I could achieve liberation in this lifetime.

About the Teacher

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Jean Wenzel
Jean Wenzel lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Read more