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Litter-Picking the Teacher’s Soul for Contemplative Pursuits

Litter-Picking The Teacher’s Soul For Contemplative Pursuits

A number of years ago, I abandoned a secure, well-paying high school teaching position and took up a job picking litter for the city’s Roads Department. At the time, I felt like I was on top of my game as a teacher. I was highly competent and respected for my talents and abilities; I was ensconced in a good school where I had thoughtful colleagues with whom I got along quite well; I also enjoyed considerable freedom to teach and to design learning tasks in my own experimental manner as both an English and a Philosophy teacher.  Each day, I could go confidently about my business with authenticity and professional autonomy, having grown comfortable, organized, and accustomed to my work. Generally speaking, I knew the lay of the land in education; I knew the character of my school; I knew how to fulfill my responsibilities, as well as what to expect each day, and how to plan for any workplace surprises or exigencies.

And yet, it was at the height of my so-called prowess, my security, and my proficiency that I came undone. At what appeared to be the apex of my creativity and efficacy as a teacher, I not only lost a close friend, but I almost lost everything else.

* * *

The road towards my undoing has been long. Looking back, I can see now how a complex web of circumstances and experiences have shaped my aptitudes, habits, and consciousness for both good and ill. Notably, I believe that the quiet experiences of natural beauty in my childhood and early adulthood were most conducive to making a certain kind of spiritual inquiry and yearning very important to me. However, other capacities and aptitudes that I have cultivated over the years, while they have contributed tremendously to my successes and achievements, have nonetheless served to confound my growth in self-knowledge.

Just now, I am reminded of one early morning during my twenties, sitting alone at the steering wheel of our old Massey-Harris Farmall tractor. There I was, driving out once again into the fields in order to cultivate the crops, engaged in my daily battle against the hordes of weeds intent upon strangling out our meager livelihood. How consistently careful I had been as a farmboy when uprooting all these troublesome tares and preventing their accumulation! To this day, some twenty years later, I remember going out to battle while the sun was rising across our fields like Homer’s “Rosy-Fingered Dawn.” I recall blessed pink and golden light cutting through the crisp morning air like a knife; I can still picture all the myriad drops of dew glistening and sparkling like so many radiant diamonds perched row upon row in the leaves of tomato, eggplant, pepper plants, and resting quietly among the coarse vines of ripening cantaloupe or swelling watermelons; sitting high atop my tractor perch, my eyes and spirit could feast those mornings upon the rich, voluptuous fields of fruit. Feelings of grace and transcendence poured up bountifully from within me likewise as I drove past strong, proud stalks of corn; I watched them as they strained and ached in the haze of heat, rising miraculously from their silent earthen womb to climb skyward; everything was full of life and vitality. And All was saying “Yes!” to what is. In those quiet moments of solitude, everything all at once around me embodied the Nietzschean Amor Fati; all of Nature called out its silent affirmation of what is that, in my heart of hearts, I had wanted so badly myself to be able to say, too. At such opportune times, as well as in other fleeting moments throughout my life, I have found myself intuiting and seeking after the Sublime, catching a rare glimpse of Its tracks, or a waft of its scent from a distant memory of something just beyond my grasp to see or to name. Farm life granted me initiation into these mysteries for the expansion of my consciousness and for the development of my own sensitivities towards transcendence.

Of course, apart from its potential for cultivating aesthetic appreciation and relational knowing, the other side of a farm upbringing is that it tends to harden and to accustom people from an early age for intensive work. Indeed, the farmer’s ethic has served me well throughout my various endeavors and life ambitions, but especially as a school teacher, where it has enabled me to be resilient through long hours of toil, to be independent in my thinking, and to plan ahead for mishaps or unforeseen developments. Over the long term, these underlying attitudes towards work and achievement have empowered me to become skilled in the nuts-and-bolts of teaching, to become competent and respected in my profession, as well as in meeting the sometimes grueling demands of the daily grind. Here, I am most thankful to my grandfather, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and especially to my parents for my upbringing; their hard work, sacrifices, and love has granted me so many benefits. By their examples, I have been, generally-speaking, successful in most of my endeavors. I have built up a life for myself, and I enjoy so many great goods and privileges because of the skills they taught me which have enabled me to demonstrate mastery in certain things.

However, when we become aware of our talents, when we begin to take special credit for our level of mastery or for the building-up of our knowledge, we become particularly susceptible to all the dangers of pride, for alongside accomplishment arises the edifice of the ego, and the delusions that our psycho-mental states or ego attachments create. With ego comes vanity in our achievements;  fear at the failure and fragility of our ego; desire for greater praise and success in relation to our egoic concerns; ambitions for power and acclaim that might announce and glorify our ego; anger towards any external threats that would jeopardize the status or security of our ego; wrath, violence, rage and revenge towards ourselves for the way that we have failed or not measured up to our own expectations, especially when those failures concern our attempts at humility or self-improvement; guilt and shame in recognition of our own selfishness and misdeeds; feelings of inadequacy and pain when our sense of who we are has suffered a blow; a creeping Nietzschean ressentiment, including blame or judgement, as well as castigation and punishments for ourselves and for others when we recognize our own powerlessness or inability to overcome the weaknesses we spy in our character; praise and delight in ourselves when we have identified our ego as the source for some good thing; sorrow when failures or loss overwhelms us; despair at never having overcome our vices or effected the changes we envision as needful for our personal betterment; and so many other will-o-the-wisps that lead a man astray who seeks to know himself.

The allures of the ego have been enormous for me. Ego feels most real when there is a drama or crisis unfolding, as when we experience anger, sorrow, despair, desire, guilt, or hatred. For instance, when a man congratulates himself, when he struggles with himself, or rails against himself, that is a man who is deluded by the illusion of his ego into identifying his true self with the pitch and flow of illusory psycho-mental fluctuations. Even the cries of the ego when we suffer from “low self-esteem” are nothing more than the ego-delusion crying out for affirmation as reality. Ego has always stood between me and transformative self-knowledge. Although my formal education has long alerted me about the ego, formal education cannot address the visceral hold of its illusions upon my consciousness. Something else is needful. This something is what Pierre Hadot has often referred to as daily “spiritual exercises,” or askesis.[1] Only by the addition of askesis can an education for wisdom and happiness be correctly pursued.[2]

* * *

Although it is a truism and a platitude that most of us are taught to mouth and nod at mechanically, I have learned the hard way and through much folly not only that education must be for the whole human being, but also that such an education is complex and uncertain, that it escapes the reach of our masterful planning, our meticulous 5-year plans, our fixations with outcomes, competencies, and curricular objectives, and therefore that it is distinctly beyond the scope of institutionalized schooling. Moreover, in the current environment where we are all told how education must provide students with a “safe and secure place to learn,” by any honest appraisal of life’s follies we are here confronted with the harsh truth that a genuine and deep education invariably must involve much suffering. Such an education is certainly not safe! Quite the opposite: a genuine education for happiness will demand everything of its pupils, being much akin to Plato’s description of philosophy as “the art of dying and being dead.” Education is the key to happiness. But the nature of an education for happiness is elusive; moreover, it is not easily made understandable to flat-headed policymakers or school trustees, and it is therefore probably not within the mandate of whatever we have come to call the things that we do in our institutions of learning.

Even a very good education seems but a partial thing in relation to our Highest End. Before becoming a teacher, I spent a considerable number of years in school completing a variety of degrees as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. During those extended periods of time, I learned to study, to read, and to listen to my professors. I was trained through years of persistent effort and focused yearning to cultivate my mind, my knowledge base, and my critical thinking skills, and I was fortunate during my broad-ranging studies to have found a number of gifted and inspirational teachers who started me on my path to seeking out self-knowledge; most importantly, they taught me how to read the world’s great texts written by the world’s best authors who could help me to follow that long and arduous road. I was extremely lucky to have been able to configure a liberal arts education that was tailored to the pursuit of my heart’s own deepest yearnings for truth, beauty, and a knowledge of being. Little did I understand when I began upon this road that this academic training marked my first formal taste of an education especially designed for seeking out Sophia, or the goddess better known as Wisdom.

However, at the same time as I had cultivated these intellectual interests and mental capacities through my lengthy formal education, I had never seriously undergone any toil related to the cultivation of other important constituents in my character, such as the ordering and moderation of my appetites, my fears, my hostilities, and so forth. This problem continues to vex me. And most shamefacedly, although  I had certainly read many times of such things and therefore had good intellectual familiarity with them, I had never yet considered or come to terms in a personal way with how, as St. Paul tells us, “Knowledge puffs up,” whereas “Love builds up” (1 Cor 8.1). My education up to this point had been wonderful, and I still view it as one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. However, it had been only partial; for I had approached my own learning as an intellectual and erotic ascent from darkness into light. And although I had read much about such things in Plato’s Symposium as well as in his Republic, I had not yet come to see that, as Heraclitus tells us, “The way up and the way down are one and the same.”

Essentially, I had entirely misunderstood the meaning of my own education; I did not understand the nature of the soul’s movement when it is being educated for self-knowledge. I did not see that one cannot simply ascend from darkness into light through the acquisition of intellectual knowledge. I did not understand that a true ascent must simultaneously be a descent or katabasis; otherwise, it simply results in a “puffed-up,” bloated, or pride-filled knowing that is devoid of any genuine self-knowledge at all. This is why Plato’s word in the Republic for ascent or “going-up” is anairesis. Anairesis is an old word from Homer that has to do with collecting or “gathering up” the bodies of the slain after a battle. Simply put: one cannot ascend or be collected-up from death (what Aristotle calls our “immortalization”) without also having descended into death and dissolution.

I had read all these insights many times and in many different places during my studies. Maxims like: “One must die in order to live,” or to be “reborn”; and the only way to “know oneself” is first to learn to “put oneself aside,” in order to be released from the stranglehold of one’s “ego,” and thereby to slip away from the grasp of those illusions we harbor about who we are and what we are. As intellectual statements, I knew these things to be true based on the authority of the world’s great sages and the great traditions that I had studied for so many years. I frequently reminded myself of their teachings in order to keep my own head on straight, but I had not yet felt them at my core; these insights always belonged to others, and despite my best intellectual efforts, I could not entice their teachings to inhabit me spiritually or to inform the heart of my being from the inside-out. The best I had ever been able to do was to keep their books, my studies, and my passion for learning close to me. In this regard, being an English teacher was a great boon for me, since all day long and amidst the turmoil and flurries of high school students, my constant companions were marvelous writers like Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Thoreau, Blake, and Hemingway. Using their books, as well as the teachings of the great traditions like a road map to my own inner geography, I was able to find guidance through many institutional, professional, personal, and spiritual confusions; whenever I might lose my way, or whenever my institutional and educational masters went awry in one of their grand edicts or through wrong-headed school board policies, the noble words of my own spiritual teachers would help me to recollect (anamnesis) and to redirect or turn myself around (periagoge) intellectually so that I could regain the right road. In short, by means of the intellectual capacities I had honed through my liberal arts education, I found in the contents of the world’s great traditions a manner of navigating through strange spiritual lands without any first-hand knowledge of them — much akin to the sojourner Plato describes in his Meno who asks for directions along his way, neither having ever visited his final destination before, nor having taken the road himself. In this way, I have been mostly like a blind man living by the charity of others on a pilgrimage, desirous to wander in places that I have never yet seen and that I can myself barely even intimate.

A day came, however, when the orthodoxy – literally, the “right” (orthos) “road” (doxos) – provided for me by my education couldn’t save me from myself. For what does one do when the great edifice of one’s own pride-drenched sense of importance, including all the best protective measures accumulated through one’s intellectual knowledge and achievements, proves to be an impediment for growth in self-knowledge? Put another way: How can a rich man be less able to gain access to the sights of Heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19.24)? What does one do when the ordinary, mundane, predictable, and secure qualities of life’s veneer are shattered by a sudden lightning storm of flashing grace, as when one is granted an overwhelming experience of joy, beauty, or love? What does such a one with a cultured mind but a wild, barbaric soul do when faced with an inkling of the tremendum?

* * *

Black Elk was a great holy man and shaman among the Oglala Sioux in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Black Elk’s famous account of the origins of the holy peace pipe, he tells of how one day two scouts in a hunting party spied the Sacred Buffalo Woman dressed all in white buckskin. When they saw her, their attention was immediately transfixed; she was so beautiful that they were besmitten with love for her. However, whereas the one sobre-minded scout quickly reminded himself that “This is a holy woman,” and to “throw all impure thoughts away,” the other foolish scout allowed his disordered appetites to propel him forward; he approached the Sacred Woman intending to “do whatever he wished,” whereupon a white cloud descended around him. After the cloud had dissipated, all that remained of him was a skeleton covered in worms.[3]

* * *

Black Elk’s tale is the story of human being. But it is also the story of my own undoing, and it marks the beginning of my own transformations. I too have been a scout, always on the lookout for the Sacred Buffalo Woman. Ever since I can remember, and even as a child, the Sacred Woman (Wisdom) has been my deepest yearning. Looking back, I now see that all the tracks I have laid down in my own education have been like steps towards finding her. However, I am just like that foolish scout, for on the occasion of having caught a glimpse (theoria) of her in another, I did not do as I should have done. My thoughts were impure, and unlike the noble scout, I did not throw them away, but I attempted to approach my Beloved with all the barbaric licence in my soul. Overwhelmed by unfolding events, unprepared for the emotional power of my egoic reactions to what I saw, surprised by goodness and beauty, shaken by love and yearning, wholly overtaken and spiritually untrained for such sights, having been schooled in my mind but barbarous in my heart, I could not cope with what had befallen me. And so I lost a very good friend in the process.

But despite my losses, that Sacred Woman whom I have always intimated and sought after did not leave me forlorn in my predicament. I see now that her white cloud enveloped me during and after these events. And I see that over time, with much pause and contrition, through my fumbling attempts at meditative contemplation and the humiliation of my ego, I have slowly been learning to become a like a stripped-down corpse. Indeed, my failed encounter with the Sacred Woman, including all of its pain, loss, and humiliation has turned out to be the greatest boon for me in the long run; for bearing witness to my own dissolution seems to be a prerequisite for realizing any hopes I may harbor for transformation and for someday finding my place with White Buffalo Woman. It is noteworthy that, in Black Elk’s tale, even the noble scout — perhaps a psychological representation of what Abraham Lincoln once called “the better angels of our nature” — cannot receive his people’s vision of the sacred pipe until after the flesh of his companion — perhaps his own mortal brother self! — has completely rotted away. Anairesis must always be accompanied by katabasis.

* * *

Occasionally in life, we are granted guides who help us to understand ourselves in the long run. Many times, my good friend and guide warned me about my propensities when she saw them looming up as dangers for me. Much like the foolish scout’s noble companion and brother-self – for a true friend is, as Gilgamesh the King tells us in his own Epic, just like a “second self” – she chastised me for my pride (hybris) whenever it flared up; she announced harshly to me how pride had blinded me, and that it was strangulating my spiritual growth; my friend and spiritual teacher spoke to me of how, despite my intellectual intelligence, I had yet to develop any “emotional intelligence” at all, and when I acted like the foolish scout to do “whatever I wished,” my friend-protector reprimanded me, announcing that I had behaved like a “dickless pig.” It was under these conditions and in this spiritual duress that I lost my friendship, and that I also left teaching like a thief in the night. But in truth, I left teaching in order to seek understanding, transformation, and forgiveness.

At the time, although I considered myself a master teacher, I really had no understanding at all. Raw as I was from exposure to the overpowering events that had erupted and unfolded in my life, and having been swept away by their force as by a mighty river, I pondered the “dickless pig” epithet that I had earned. Whatever could she have meant by that? Only some time later, after I had left the teaching profession to engage in soul-searching, daily prayer (something new to me at the time), and more conscientious, more consistent contemplative practices did I come to understand her meaning.

I recall one afternoon being drawn to re-read some passages about the cardinal virtues from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.[4] I had not encountered these passages since my early twenties, and even at that time I had merely glossed over them as part of my introduction to Thomas. Like so much that I had read in the Summa at the beginning of my studies, Thomas’ categorizations and rankings of the moral virtues struck me back then rather like a laundry list of abstracted traits arbitrarily ordered in a way typical of academics or education policy makers who are wont to display their learning or to make their mandated objectives known to the public.

However, drawn back by my memory of having read the Summa some twenty years before, and in light of my recent undoing, I revisited Thomas’ words, attending to them more carefully on this occasion. In his discussion, for the first time, I found some self-understanding, and I was able at last to see its psychological and spiritual truth. For here it was: I had endeavored for so long to cultivate the intellectual virtues without any parallel development of the moral virtues. Moral virtues are excellences in the lower, appetitive reaches of the soul; they involve hitting a kind of “mean” between excess and deficiency with regard to the appetites and emotions, whereas intellectual virtues are not concerned to hit such a mean, but rather with developing excellences in the intellect. Among the moral virtues are numbered prudence (prudentia), justice (iutitia), fortitude or bravery (fortitudo), and temperance (temperantia). These four attributes are named the “cardinal” or “principle” virtues inasmuch as they are “concerned with rectitude of appetite.” The cardinal virtues are themselves ranked according to the “nobility” of their object.

Among the cardinal excellences, prudentia surpasses the other moral virtues by the nobility of its object in perfecting the practical reasoning as opposed to perfecting merely the appetitive power. So too does iustitia surpass the other moral virtues by reason of its object, which concerns the will and the ordering of the rational appetite, whereas all the other moral virtues are focused upon the ordering of the passions, or lower appetites. Among the remaining cardinal virtues, fortitudo ranks next, centered as it is in the irascible part of the passionate or appetitive soul; it is this virtue that subjects the “appetitive movement” to reason in matters of life and death, and it is for this reason that courage holds “first place” among those moral virtues that are about the passions, “but is subordinate to justice.” Finally, temperantia, being in the concupiscible part of the passionate or appetitive soul, ranks last among the principle virtues, concerned as it is with lower matters of food and sex.[5]

Here in this medieval text was the key to understanding my own folly, for as a “dickless pig,” I had demonstrated a noticeable lack of both bravery (being “dickless”) and temperance (being pig-like). The difficulty of my piggishness, my self-indulgence, or my inability to show restraint in the presence of delights and pleasures, is antecedent to the problem of my dicklessness, cowardice, or lack of courage in the face of fear. Without temperantia, I was unable to hit the mark in relation to the lowest matters of the passionate or appetitive aspects of my soul; hence, it is no small wonder that I failed to demonstrate the fortitudo necessary to guide the appetitive movements of my psyche in relation to the reason that I had cultivated throughout my studies; and without either of these basic moral virtues, how could I ever hope to hit the mark of iutitia in relation to my friends and family, ordering my will and rational appetite in a manner that might assist in the cultivation of prudentia, or making the best choices in any given set of circumstances? Thomas’ ordering of the soul now made perfect sense to me. It was like looking into a mirror and truly seeing myself for the first time in a manner that explained all my follies in “missing the mark” (hamartia) — and all this in the space of a few scholastic sentences in dusty, neglected pages that recorded the observations of a medieval monk endearingly referred to by his brethren as “the Dumb Ox.” How appropriate.

So although my education was wonderful, I had taken it up in the wrong sequence. There is an ordering of the soul and a natural progression for its development that, when it is overstepped either from carelessness or out of haste to reach our Beloved, creates certain consequences. Regardless of how careful we are at ordering the contents and the abilities of the intellect, when the lower, passionate soul is not carefully ordered or tended to, no amount of meticulous concern for learning about justice, prudence, or the world’s great wisdom traditions can save us from ourselves. We require an askesis that runs deep into our appetitive, lower soul and that can help to establish an order within ourselves from the bottom up. This too – it seems so clear to me now! – is what Plato meant when he referred to philosophy, or the genuine “love of wisdom,” as “soul care.”

* * *

And so I left teaching in order to practice some badly-needed and long-overdue soul-care. I had spent so much time honing my intellectual prowess and educating the students in my care, but I had entirely neglected the unkempt state of my appetitive nature in relation to my volition or will. It was time to make some changes! Having stepped away from the teaching profession at a time when there was a downturn in the local economy, the best job that I could find was working for the city’s Roads Department as a litter picker. I was very thankful for this daily work; it turned out to be just what I needed. On the most basic level, my municipal employer was good to me, and being a unionized position, my job gave me access to reasonable benefits and decent pay that enabled me to help out with our family’s bills and living expenses.

But this job was also very precious to me on a deeper level. For litter-picking the streets, gathering up trash, sweeping butts, dispensing with stray needles, and scraping vomit, brought me to down-to-earth once more. I worked alongside others in a humble, honest job. Each day, we few – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers!” – donned our clown costumes, and I do call them clown costumes because they were foolish regalia given the nature of our work. For starters, apart from our steel-toed work boots and cowhide gloves, each of us wore brightly-colored orange and blue coveralls with 3-inch wide silver reflective safety strips that traversed the entire front and back torso of our uniforms. These coveralls were, of course, welcome elements to our attire as they protected us from splashes of mud and wastewater, as well as from any leaks or holes in the industrial strength, super-sized garbage bags that we lugged with us, which regularly sprayed the juices of decaying and fermented food items up and down our arms and legs, along with other less-savoury liquids and partial solids. But we were also expected to wear brilliant white hard hats as we patrolled the city’s streets and avenues with our pick sticks and garbage bags in hand. Ostensibly, these great +5 Helms of Brilliance protected us from massive headwound injuries – perhaps due to rocks flung by speeding tires as projectiles kicked up along the roadways, or maybe from wayward meteorites hurled at us by the gods themselves from the prairie skies just above our city. At any rate, we were clown-like in our apparel and appearance.

Having received our morning marching orders in the barks shouted by our gruff foremen, we congregated into groups of four or five before setting off in City trucks each day to remove all the litter and filth spewed out by careless citizens on their way to and from their homes, their places of work or recreation, and commuting in relation to their other daily liaisons. Every day, we would be dropped off by the Lead Hand; our motley crew would disband, each independently on the hunt with bag and pick-stick in glove, first to walk tens of kilometers; then hundreds; and finally, over the course of time and with great repetition, our footsteps would ambulate into the thousands or even tens of thousands of kilometers. Indeed, I fondly remember my own laughter and surprise one day when, sitting down to rest my feet from my walking, I lifted up my boot to realize that I had completely worn away all its treads. I was becoming a man without a sole!

Step by step, we traversed the city’s downtown core – what is often called in the newspapers “its beating heart,” but perhaps being more akin to its fetid bowels. One day we would clean its avenues, first walking east-to-west, then rounding-about, we would walk from west-to-east following a methodical grid. And if that weren’t complex enough a procedure, on the day after this, we would next clean its streets, this time walking north-to-south, and then (you guessed it!) spin around to move from south-to-north. After that, on the following day just for giggles and to switch things up a bit – for as you know, “Variety is the spice of life!” – we’d go back to cleaning the avenues once more. All day long, all week long, all month long, all year long, we would perform these selfsame civil duties, picking litter and filth from every nook and cranny, here sweeping butts, there scraping vomit or perhaps excrement, but everywhere removing unwanted and unsightly nasty items both large and small — all the refuse and decay that had been thrown haphazardly and recklessly to the ground, and which threatened to plug the city’s sewers or its drains. We kept the city beautiful. We picked it up (anairesis).

* * *

I speak with much humor and fondness about this time in my life. For indeed, what could possibly be better or more appropriate than humor or laughter for pulling down the errant knight from his high horse of pride? Who exposes the hollow foolishness and the great hybris of the central actor on a stage better than the clowning fool? Was not ancient Greek comedy itself dedicated to the “twice-born” god Dionysus? Does not comedy tear down every sacred cow and every oh-so-precious ego in order to prepare its audience for a guffaw that gives rise to the god’s great epiphany? Of course it does! I, however, had yet to learn these things when I began to walk my city’s garbage-strewn streets. But as one “puffed up with knowledge” and pride in my own accomplishments, as one so blocked in the midst of my own bowels, crammed full and constipated with garbage and unaddressed disorders in my appetitive soul, unable to do the good I wished for want of temperantia and fortitudo, what better position could I have landed than as a vomit scraping, butt-picking, helmet-wearing clown? What better, more unencumbering thing is there than to learn a little humility? And besides: how difficult or absurd it would be to take oneself oh-so-seriously in such a vocation!

So I donned a clown costume to pick litter. Each day, I walked my city’s streets and avenues in quiet solitude. With every step I took, I pronounced a simple mantra I had learned from reading the works of John Main: ma-ra-na-tha. Each day, as I walked, and following the rhythm of my breath, I recited my mantra. When negativity, fear, self-loathing, guilt, anger, or despair swelled up within me, my walking and my footsteps kept me grounded; I gently re-directed my attention to the task-at-hand, all the while chanting my mantra just beneath my respirations. In a profound way, my world was turned inside-out on those streets and in that clown costume. For yes, on the outside of things I most certainly was picking litter into my industrial-strength garbage bag. But truth be told, I learned that this external activity and this comic daily ritual was really a metaphor for the deeper, inward activity in which I had become involved. I was not just cleaning my city, after all: I was litter-picking my own soul.

Since performing that job over those many months, I have often wondered what would become of the downtown core should its ragtag street cleaning crews ever disappear, are contracted-out, or go on strike. How unsightly, how visibly filthy and ugly our city would quickly become! But if a city is, as Plato invites us imagine in his Republic, akin to “a human being writ large,” then how much more unkempt is my own invisible, inner landscape and my own spiritual geography, especially given that I have for so long neglected its care, and rarely ever taken up the daily – no, hourly! – task of litter-picking?

While cleaning the city streets, I was pleasantly surprised at how many Calgarians would stop me from day to day in order to say, “Thank you.” In my own busy life prior to taking up this position as a behelmeted clown butt-picker extraordinaire, I’d never noticed the street cleaning crews. I’d never thought to say “Thank you.” And yet, here were so many strangers — usually at least one per day — saying a kind, “Thank you” to me! How much I had overlooked this small, simplest of routine, daily tasks. And then it dawned on me that if complete strangers were able to be thankful to a bald fool in a great +5 Helm of Brilliance, how much more should I give thanks for working towards the maintenance of a clean set of spiritual bowels? How much more should I cease to loathe myself, to blame myself, or to condemn myself with violent words and admonishment for the litany of mistakes I’ve made in the past? These were, after all, made out of deep ignorance by a “highly educated person”! My inner landscape has been filthy for sure. But now, and since that precious time litter-picking, I am slowly cleaning it. Someday, I hope to prepare it to receive the Sacred Woman’s vision. But within that white cloud I must be patient and perform my spiritual askesis of dying and being dead. One must die in order to live. Our mortal, corruptible nature must be thrown down in order next to be “taken up” (anairesis). And now, amidst these spiritual processes and rituals I must walk my own inward, spiritual streets. It is the time to be grateful.



Aquinas, Thomas. “Virtue.” Summa Theologica. Vol. 23. Ed. W. D. Hughes. London: Blackfriars, 1969.

Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks. Trans. John G. Neihardt. LIncoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Verse rendition by Danny P. Jackson. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1992.

Heraclitus. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Trans. Brooks Haxton. New York: Viking, 2001.

Homer, The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Main, John. Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Penguin, 1976.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Bollingen Series LXXI. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Steel, Sean. Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.

___. The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness: Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.



[1] Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002; also Philosophy as a Way of Life, Trans. Michael Chase, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

[2] For those interested, I have elsewhere written about and designed a program of work for teachers and teachers-in-training that has the practice of askesis in wisdom-seeking at its core. See Sean Steel, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses (New York: Peter Lang, 2018).

[3] Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks. Trans. John G. Neihardt. LIncoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. pp. 3-5.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. 1a.2ae.61.1-5.

[5] See Sean Steel, The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness: Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices (New York: SUNY Press, 2014) 98-99.

Sean SteelSean Steel

Sean Steel

Sean Steel is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary and a public school teacher. He is author of The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education (SUNY, 2015) and Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Peter Lang, 2017).

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