My yoga teacher sat at the front of the class and told us a story about a deep-fried artichoke.
He and his family had been traveling, and they landed at an event that only had one food truck. One look at the options, and they decided on the artichoke.
Some of us in the class groaned: Fried food? Ugh.
Then he said these three words: Dirty, mostly clean.
The Yoga Sutras are a sacred and ancient text outlining eight limbs of yoga according to the sage Patanjali. One of the limbs is a set of practices called niyama, which translates to personal care. Saucha, one of the niyamas, usually translates as cleanliness or purity.
In The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman says, “Because the physical body is never completely sanitary and requires regular care to keep functioning, it can never be pure. [It] is inherently impure, especially compared to our pure inner light of awareness.” This idea of cleanliness can be applied to our diet, surroundings, thoughts, words, and all aspects of living as a human being.
What he is getting at is that life itself is dirty. To be human is a messy business. At the base of it all, our bodies are a collection of various fluids and goo. And, of course, everyone poops. As a species, we make messes wherever we go: our houses and places of work, our beaches and parks, the entire planet, and even space.
That’s just the physical part. Our mental and emotional selves are a mess, too.
We’re at a time when more and more humans have some kind of mental or emotional challenges, and less than half of them seek help. On some level, we are all struggling, all mired in this humanity, wearing a meat sack, contributing on some level to pollution and the slow death of our planet. It sounds dark, doesn’t it? That is the dirty part too: thinking that this is permanent and there is no solution.
Now, read it again: Dirty, mostly clean. No matter what our circumstances are, we can make conscious choices. The sutras state that our pure inner awareness is ultimately in charge, once we can tap into it. If we can act from that place, we find the cleanliness, or saucha. We can practice making the best out of situations with our attitude and our choices. The many limbs of the yoga sutras prescribe other ways to purify, clarify, and better ourselves and the world around us. Many wisdom traditions have some version of these limbs, steps, or even commandments.
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz lists agreement number four as, “Always do your best.” This also refers to the fact that our intention fuels our choices and our experiences. When we find the best in each moment, like the artichoke, it goes down well. When we do our very best in every situation, that is the clean part of the equation. There is nothing to ruminate over or second guess about after the fact. When we choose mostly clean, we ask to see the highest good in everything—all people, all places, all situations.
This also gives space for the idea that our best varies from moment to moment. Our best today is not the same as our best tomorrow or next week. We have a chance here to be soft and forgiving around the pressure of perfection. This is the “mostly” part of the equation. We do our best, and, most of the time, it’s mostly clean.
As I sat down to contemplate these ideas, a thought occurred to me: this simple statement is reminding us that all things are connected. Like yin and yang, these seeming opposites are an integral part of one another and need one another to exist. In my experience, things that seem to be polar opposites actually live on a continuum. So rather than existing separately, they are part of one another. Because life is dirty, we have all these practices and ideas about cleanliness. As we approach clean, we realize how dirty it all is. Nothing is all one or the other.
How does this translate to real-life choices? In my teacher’s example, it had to do with the diet. Although his family typically follows a certain regimen, in that situation they chose the best they could from the available options. They decided in that moment to let the artichoke be what they needed, and so it was. It was delicious. No one got sick or had any adverse reaction.
Recently, I’ve been traveling a bit myself. Nowhere particularly exotic, unless you count rural, central California as such. As I go back and forth across the state, there are not many places to get healthy, fresh foods, even in the middle of all that agriculture. Inexplicable, yet true. I find myself stopping at gas stations and strange convenience stores in search of something to sustain me.
When I do this, I remember my teacher’s story and his words of wisdom: Dirty, mostly clean. Comforted, I make my choice.