Zen and the Art of Car Cleaning

My classic old Mercedes coupe, the 300CE, on a country outing.

My classic old Mercedes coupe, the 300CE, on a country outing.

I’ve always enjoyed cleaning cars, especially nice ones. As a kid I used to love presenting my Grandmother’s old rust-red Mercedes all shiny after a loving polish, and in the first few months after leaving high school I even started my own little business where I would travel to people’s homes to clean their cars – for a small fee of course. The funny thing was, I didn’t know how to drive, and luckily I mostly didn’t have to either. I used to just ride on my bicycle with my bag of gear. I was only 17. I had a great list of clients with some beautiful cars including a Rolls Royce, a Bentley Turbo, an old Ferrari, and numerous Mercedes, among others. My clients were as loyal as I was reliable. Rain, hail or shine I would arrive. I remember the first time I was due to start with a new client (who ended up being one of my favourites) and the crank on my old Cecil Walker broke half way up a big hill. I had to drag myself with my gear and a broken bike a couple of km to get there. I was late but they appreciated my effort. They were perfect clients for years, and 17 years later we are still in contact.

The experience of washing the car was a kind of meditation and ritual. As many would empathise with, I had a system which worked and I followed that system for each and every car, regardless of whether it was a worth as much as a house, or it was just an average set of wheels. Because I had a system, I was present at each stage of the process – when I was cleaning the wheels that was where my attention was, rather than thinking 1 or 2 steps ahead. This meant that I always did a thorough job, and because I was concentrating I was also able to pay attention to small details which many miss or just don’t care about. I treated each one as if it was my own pride and joy and it showed

Oh, there was one other thing. I never nicked any of the change left in the car, regardless of where I found it!

For a time I was happy doing this. It was making me a bit of money and I was doing something I enjoyed and I was keeping very fit in the process of doing so. I didn’t enjoy the freezing 5am starts, riding into icy rain with blue fingers and nose, but that too, was something I chose and was part of the overall experience.

During this period, my activities were noticed by a friend of one of my clients who nominated me for a Rotary award for being a young entrepreneur or something like that. It was quite funny actually. I was invited to a special award luncheon and a leadership camp was due to follow. But a week after the lunch, I got a call saying I was too young to receive the award as I was not yet 18. I sort of thought that should have entitled me to some sort of bonus!

OK, now jump 17 years to the present day…

Here in Melbourne, we have strict water restrictions in place in response to the drought. A nightmare for a guy like me who enjoys cleaning the car on  the weekends. I prefer instead to take it to one of those self-serve places, then at least I can do it myself. Now, this week, I happened to clean the car late one night after a long day. That was all fine. After half an hour or so I headed home in my lovely clean car. As much as I can learn to appreciate the ‘lived in’ look every now and then, my lovely old black-blue Mercedes-Benz 300CE looks so elegant when it’s all cleaned up. Anyway, this morning I went outside to vacuum the car and I was amazed at how dirty it still was. The equipment at the car wash misses a lot of the fine grime.

But here’s the point. It was only in the clear light of the sun that I was able to see the true state of the car. In the  shade, or the artificial light, I thought I could see everything but I couldn’t. It struck me how this works generally in life also. Rather than dealing with the true state of affairs, in a ‘warts & all’ way, and casting the full light of conscious awareness on our lives, we are living in a form of delusional. Once exposed to the light – once we have awareness, it is impossible to deny the way things are. We are called to accept this state and to choose which action to take – ‘to clean or not to clean’.

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