Trash Therapy: Cleaning the Shore and the Mind
(Published in Tattoos For Men magazine, number 71, December 2007)
I’ve always had an eye for detail and a tirelessly meticulous nature, so it’s probably no surprise that I also have a knack for cleaning. It’s somewhat amusing to notice time and again that if there’s a stress or an issue in my life, I’ll probably end up the butt of my own OCD jokes and be found scrubbing, organizing, perfecting one thing or another. Combine this trait, however, with a cause I truly care about and good things can happen—like thankfully, my artistic pursuits in painting and tattooing. Or like when I volunteered recently to help pick up trash in the coastal city of Bridgeport, CT as part of the Save The Sound organization’s effort to clean up our shorelines and waterways.
The cleanup event gave me plenty of time to ponder the nature of what I was doing—the nature of trying to save Mother Nature, if you will. So I thought about why I was there, at 10 a.m. on a cool rainy morning, trudging around with my friend picking up the byproducts of our toxic culture and its accompanying lazy attitudes of instant consumption and “someone else will take care of it” disposal. I thought about trying to defeat my own cynical attitudes, ingrained so deeply from a life of first-world comforts and a comfortable suburban upbringing, a life lived at such speeds that sometimes it seems the only thing one can do is consume, throw away, and never look back. So it felt good to take even one small step to help my own internal conflicts and counteract the problems in the world that my existence contributes to.
For example, I know how fortunate I am to be able to spread my artistic vision through tattooing—yet how unfortunate it is that the process creates so much paper and plastic waste, day after day, tattoo after tattoo. The least I can do is dedicate a day to being a small part of the solution, when so many of the rest of my days are spent being a small part of the problem. I know there are aspects of existence that are intrinsically selfish, and we can’t avoid that. But consciously doing unselfish things with good intent can help to balance the scales. Even this one microscopic, insignificant drop in the bucket is still a drop in the bucket, not outside of it, in the downstream current of apathy and aversion.
This experience gave me the perfect opportunity to think about my deep appreciation for this crazy, inexplicable coincidence (or miracle?) called Earth: a spinning ball of matter hurtling through emptiness, able to create and sustain my own and all other lives, with every last organism and process accounted for, a cycle of birth and death so intuitively perfect that it sometimes hurts to try to fathom it. How truly generous this planet is! And how empowering to try to respect that by performing this one menial yet somehow magnificent chore: simply cleaning up.
And we sure did clean. We gloved up for safety and struggled to haul around trash bags stuffed to the ripping point, convinced the nearby zoo’s maintenance workers to lend us a rake to corral the piles of garbage clinging to the shoreline, and in essence “made a difference,” at least for one day. A day, not surprisingly, that I was supposed to be tattooing in a comfortable climate-controlled room with all the accoutrements of convenience. Yet there we were, elbows deep in rancid liquor bottles, mounds of dirty fast food packaging, discarded weed bags and blunt wrappers, rotting shit-filled diapers and webs of tangled fishing line, plastic bags and shards of glass, spent condoms (Trojan magnums, of course) and lonely six-pack holders.
Needless to say, at the start of the cleanup it was easy to get discouraged or angry about what I was doing, and why it needed doing in the first place. Staring at the scattered patchwork of filthy junk and my own small hands, it was not hard to resent the people who’d left it all there, the sick culture that helped create those people’s laziness, or the profit hungry corporations that produced all that needless stuff and promoted the culture that makes it seem desirable. After all, if we consumed less to begin with and worked within our minds to investigate our habits of consumption, there’d be less junk to litter with in the first place. But I know from life experience that through action, thoughts can change, so I tried not to dwell on it and just got to work. And sure enough, the more I set my selfish ego-driven judgments aside, no matter how valid some of them seemed, and worked with my own two hands to rectify the situation in front of me, the less negative I felt about the whole thing. I tried to use the mindfulness techniques I’ve been learning lately in regular meditation practice to focus my attention on the moment, on the process of retrieving the trash from the bed of wet leaves and grass, on the concept of simply caring enough to help out, on the sensations of the cool morning air on my skin and the wet branches against my arms and legs. I tried to experience deeply each and every passing moment, and then move on.
As I worked I felt completely humbled by the process—its utter simplicity, the dirt and grime, the loneliness and sadness of the unremarkable items discarded by people with mundane lives. It became more evident than usual how we are all pretty insignificant creatures, interacting with this one corner of neglected waterfront, in one corner of a dirty New England city in one corner of a huge continent in an even larger world, in an infinite universe. And to think of all the time I spend in my comfortable routine, propped up by pride and the pursuits of the ego, so incredibly fortunate that I can have the luxury of tattooing people, of getting paid and recognized for doing something fun that comes naturally to me. There are people who do this kind of thankless work nearly every day of their lives, and without some of the altruistic motivations that make it bearable and even enjoyable. So I spent some time that day in silent appreciation for all of the people who do the undesirable, unglamorous, unrecognized tasks in society. I also recognized my respect for the people in that group who I’ve had the good fortune of tattooing—the ambulance drivers, the factory and construction workers, the kitchen cooks and dishwashers, my “working class” friends who struggle just to make ends meet and yet go out of their way to be able to wear or own my artwork.
I felt gratitude for all the other people in my life who’ve helped me along, who’ve made it possible for me to even be at this point. Because there’s no denying how much I’ve needed their help in my own long-running mental struggles and quest for healing. It was empowering to think back on how far I’ve come in that regard, to be able to get to the point where I’m confronting some of my apathy and fear by volunteering to pick up other people’s trash. It made all the work and personal challenges I know I still have ahead of me perhaps a little less daunting, too, at least for right then. Being in tune with my full experience of a moment or situation was a relief from the constant self-applied pressure of trying to grow and change as a person—an oasis in a desert of habitual thoughts and neuroses.
In a way, by experiencing all of these powerful thoughts and feelings, this was quite literally trash removal as spiritual practice, and it felt good. It felt good to connect with the Earth and do something about my strong sense of environmentalism. It felt good to connect with my friend picking up trash with me, to the entire intertwined web of life, the good and the bad, the positive motivations for happiness and the ugly destructive side effects of modern existence. It felt good to recognize and experience that the goal of doing anything in life is also in the process itself. But it was made poignantly clear on this day that “the journey is the destination” concept is especially relevant and necessary in activism of any kind, because of the huge problems and powerful forces we’re up against. More garbage will soon cover the ground we’ve cleaned; ignorance and suffering will still be universal, but that’s okay as long as we’re doing what we can and enjoying it. Our efforts, our entire lives may only add up to a single drop of water in the bucket, but we are better off for having contributed that one droplet than to have never tried at all. And if we somehow also obtained meaning and intrinsic value from the process itself, we’ve created that much more benefit for ourselves. We have all the suffering in the world around us to prove these points.
One afternoon spent helping out is better than no afternoons spent doing that, I reason. There is freedom in surrendering the utopian vision of the final goal of a world at peace with itself, of letting go the burden of trying to save the world, and simply opening up to the process of getting there, one tiny action, one singular choice at a time. Being mindfully aware of every experience, every moment, and trying to make the most of it.
There is also a kind of soul-cleansing power in doing the dirty work and in using my capabilities towards the advancement of all, in the service of a world that keeps me alive, somehow. This is sometimes most profoundly experienced in the simple act of cleaning up, of giving a fuck, of trying to help make right the wrongs, in very direct and concrete ways, with my own two hands. I think this is why I love creating art so much. It’s a direct and intimate process, with very tangible results. Through activities like this we can cultivate a sense of appreciation for who we are, where we are, and why we’re here.
How can I help make the experience of living better for all, including myself? How can I enjoy it, so it will be worth doing? Better yet—how can I integrate it into my normal routines so that it becomes a seamless, natural part of my life? These are important questions to ask ourselves. We can apply them to any situation, and I’ve learned that the opportunities for answers and experimentation are abundant; in fact they’re practically omniscient. One need just step into that mode of thinking, into an open, supple mind and a “soft belly” ready for experience. That’s what makes positive change happen—in our own lives and in the world outside our front doors.
We can’t live vicariously through those who’ve made an impact with their lives, we have to live it and experience it ourselves to gain the truest rewards. We don’t need to wait for a Save The Sound cleanup day to happen to get a friend and go outside to pick up some trash. We don’t even need to pick up trash to feel useful, empowered, and appreciative—this is but one small example shared merely to inspire and educate. There are so many opportunities for simple, direct, effective choices in so many areas of our lives. Whatever issues or concerns resonate deeply inside of you, you can probably find a way, no matter how small, to take action on them for your own and others’ benefit. That positive and sincere effort is worthwhile independent of its result, and the action taken is both beautiful and necessary.