Lately I have been cleaning public restrooms.
Having spent a lot of time in Asia, where the toilet-going experiences are ripe and raw, I have begun to investigate my relationship with toilets here in the US.
Recently at the movie theater, a woman in front of me in the bathroom line walked the row of seemingly open stalls slowly, shaking her head and making poo-face where there was some visible evidence of the previous user. As if trying to find the one stall that could confirm her belief that she was the first user since its cleaning, she decided to wait until a toilet, more up to her standards, opened up.
I took the stall with the ripped, wet, toilet seat cover hanging over the lid and something floating in the water, which remained empty despite a line of women doing the pee-dance and missing their movies.
I reached down, grabbed the wadded up piece of paper, flushed the toilet, cleaned up some other paper trash off the floor, got a new toilet seat liner and sat down. I very well may have touched someone else’s pee.
While washing my hands I thought about how paranoid we are of each other’s excrement in the US. Regardless of the antibacterial soap and the special seat liners, public bathrooms can bring out the inner hypochondriac in all of us, myself included. They bring to mind all that is filthy in life, our innards, essentially reminding us that everything turns to wastedies.
While traveling in Nepal, India and Tibet we regularly use pit toilets, forced to see and smell the export of the former squatters. In fact, the toilets at the sacred Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet are some of the nastiest I’ve used, thanks to Chinese tourism, as mounds of shit literally envelop the side of a hill once reserved for pilgrimage and prayer. ay down at the bottom, a herd of cows live off the bounty. Oh, and there is no paper available for wiping, simply your hands and some old brown water. You touch your own poop and then you wash…and in the end, its fine. Nothing scary happens.
Here in the US, however, we all seem to agree that cleaning up after ourselves or, god forbid, after someone else in the bathroom is someone else’s job (and usually it is). It is certainly an act that is beneath us, degrading, even if we have just made the mess. We don’t even like to clean our own bathrooms at home.
Somehow public restrooms always wake me up the existence of our grosser qualities, triggering my fundamental fear of death. I’ve been trying to embrace this small window, my time cleaning public toilets, during which life appears authentic and therefore complete. I watch myself react to the slew of emotions that arise when I stoop down to pick up after someone else, the hit my ego takes and eventually (with the out breath), the freedom I feel as I unchain myself from the fear of other people’s shit.
I’m not saying that we should be running around proclaiming the glory of our bodily fluids to all who will listen, but how can we expect to liberate ourselves from the fear of death, if we can’t even look into a toilet bowl?
Wouldn’t it be easier and saner if we just stopped being afraid of the dirty side of life and gave our stall a quick once-over before and after we left? So lately, I have been choosing the messiest stalls and forcing myself to look at and experience the crappy of life.
And when I realize that cleaning public restrooms makes me feel less afraid and more connected to humanity, I have to laugh. Because as it turns out, the answer to all that I am seeking, the fulfillment I so strongly desire, may found ameditation after all
Do you have a story about facing the stink of life head-on?
Let me hear it!
Kirsten Westby was raised in the Buddhist Shambhala Sangha in Boulder, Colorado. She has traveled the world since the age of eleven, and has been working professionally in the human rights field since 2000.
Featured in Ed and Deb Shapiro’s new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, with forewords by HH Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman.