In ways, we are all searching for Shangri-La in the sense of looking for a better life, or somewhere better to live it. This collection of stories recounts a few steps of Ron's path on this endless journey, and below is a sample story to whet readers' appetites. This story will occasionally change, but to read the entire collection, you'll need to buy it online at Kindle or Create Space. To listen to Ron reading this story, click on the play button on the audio player below (and switch on your speakers!).
Sweeping is a national habit for Thais
I wake most mornings in North Thailand to the sound of someone sweeping leaves in the street beside my house – a rhythmic rasping that is not unpleasant on the ear, and certainly preferable to the shock of an alarm clock piercing the silence with its clamor. The sound gets louder and then fainter as the sweeper moves nearer then further away. Finally, the distant swishing and scratching subsides, and I throw off the covers to begin another day.
In truth there is nothing unusual about my experience - beginning the day by sweeping the house and its surroundings clean is something of a national habit for Thais, as anyone familiar with the country will know. When I first arrived in Thailand many years ago, I saw this as an example of the Oriental desire for conformity, the need to be seen as the same as everyone else. Coming from the West, with its strong emphasis on individuality, I wished that people would start thinking for themselves and stop wasting time on this pointless activity. After all, sweeping up leaves does not prevent others falling, so a short while later the street and yard is once more littered with leaves. I longed to wake up one morning and see my neighbors going out for a jog or taking the dog for a walk, but it never happened.
I guess my negative attitude to sweeping leaves developed as a kid. As a household chore, it ranked somewhere with putting out the garbage – something that needed to be done occasionally, but preferably by someone else, as there seemed little intrinsic satisfaction in the activity. I would try to make myself scarce on Sundays when Dad came around allocating tasks for the day, knowing that if I didn’t get nailed with washing the car, I’d find myself wielding a broom all morning. I even joined the local church choir to get me out, though my sudden attendance in God’s house had little to do with divine revelation, and much to do with hiding.
However, an odd turn of events in my early twenties brought me back to sweeping leaves with a vengeance. It was the peak of the hippy era and I was living in a kind of commune in South London with a bunch of beautiful people. I had just graduated from college, and though I needed work, I was determined not to sell out and join the career-oriented, social-climbing rat race as a sales rep, insurance agent or bank clerk. So I took a job with the gardening department of the local council. If I have to work, I thought, why not work with Nature and learn more about its magical plants and their mysterious properties?
Of course there is a hierarchy of sorts even in the gardening department of the local council, and as the new boy I didn’t get offered the exotic jobs like labeling and tending rare orchids in the hothouse. What I got was sweeping leaves, lots of them. Not just for an hour a day either, to get warmed up, but for eight hours a day, day after day, week after week, month after month, through one of the most wretched winters I remember.
I was working in Crystal Palace Park, which covers a rambling chunk of hillside about six miles south of the center of London. The park is named for the grandiose structure that was the focal point of the 1851 International Exhibition, a showcase of British inventions and discoveries that was held when the British Empire was in its heyday under Queen Victoria. The palace itself - a huge, domed building made entirely of glass and iron - burned down in the 1930s, so there were no reminders of the Victorian era by the 1970s.
When I went to work each morning, I would put on my work jacket and pull a woolly hat over my ears, then grab my broom and set to clearing the paths that criss-crossed the park. I don’t know why they were so worried about the paths, as most people didn’t use them anyway - they just wandered where it suited them. But I remembered my Mum’s maxim, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, and I gave it my best shot.
The most common tree in Crystal Palace Park is the London plane, which can grow to a great height and is characterized by splayed, hand-shaped leaves and blotchy bark. Planes are one of my favorite trees, and I have spent many an idyllic afternoon relaxing in their dappled shade, but they have a quality I didn’t discover until my stint in the park; when wet, their leaves stick like glue to pathways. I shoved and shuffled my broom, but on rainy days I might as well have been waving a useless magic wand, as the leaves always ended up where they started.
Dry days were often even more frustrating. I’d get a good stretch of path clear, and a neatly formed, waist-high pile of leaves waiting on the corner for the truck to collect, when a sudden gust of wind would scatter them and hide the path from sight again. Needless to say, on such occasions, Lofty the foreman would pass by five minutes later and give me a roasting for having done so little. Worst of all was one morning when something looking like a giant vacuum cleaner was parked outside the gardeners’ shed. Lofty demonstrated how this neat machine could pick up more leaves in five minutes than I could in a morning, and the next day I was down the labor office looking for my next job.
After that I somehow evaded leaf-sweeping duties for the next 20 years or so, as I roamed the world trying to teach people English in places like Sudan and Venezuela. It wasn’t until I was studying insight meditation at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that I started sweeping again. We were encouraged to be mindful in everything we did, and most of the day was spent in sitting and walking meditation, but I also tried to keep my mind on what I was doing while eating and performing ablutions. With my routine reduced to a minimum, I actually enjoyed sweeping out my room each day with the light, bamboo-handled and grass-tufted brush, and found that with my mind on the task, I could clean the room well. In the same way as I had more success with walking than sitting meditation, I found ‘sweeping meditation’ an ideal way to keep the mind in the present moment, watching the movements of the body and the broom.
Since then, I’ve discovered that ‘sweeping meditation’ is also a technique of insight meditation, but has nothing to do with a broom. To quote Ajahn Sumedho, in Stillness and Response (‘The Way It Is’. 1988) “How to calm the body? One way is through 'sweeping meditation', in which you 'sweep' your attention through the body, concentrating on the sensations in the body as you do so. The body needs to be noticed and accepted for what it is. So we bring into consciousness even the tensions, unpleasant sensations and sensation-less parts of the body. By doing that, going from the top of the head to the soles of the feet and back up again, the body will feel relaxed. It's a very healthy meditation, and it will help to train the mind not to be caught up in conceptual proliferation and endless wandering.”
When I left the temple, my mind felt like it had gone through a sieve, and as I pieced my life back together, I found my routines unconsciously changing. First thing in the morning, instead of going out for a jog, I would sweep out the house with long, deliberate movements, then head outside for the stiff brush and sweep the yard and street. Somehow the simple movements and the rhythm of sweeping would center my mind, and I’d be ready for the day ahead. When my neighbors saw me out there sweeping like the rest of them, they just gave a knowing smile. And these days, when the rhythmic rasping of a broom stirs me awake, I set about sweeping the floor and end up clearing my mind.