Picking up Trash

by Thea Iberall



It started because of the poodles. We had three small poodles, a red one, a white one, and a black one. We called them the Neapolitan pod of poodles. And they needed a walk every morning and we needed exercise. A mutually beneficial process. But we were living in Long Beach, the 5th largest city in California. And there was trash along the sidewalks. Discarded plastic bottles, cigarette packs, Cheeto wrappers, cans from Red Bull and beer.


I started picking some of it up as we walked. I'd bring a bag with me and fill it up. Shirley started bringing a bag as well and we both were picking up the trash. There was usually a trash bin or recycling bin on someone’s driveway that we could throw it away in before we got home. These actions became a regular part of the morning walks. It wasn't hard to do and we managed to clean up about ten blocks out of the city’s 50 square miles each morning.


What was harder to do was to pick up the trash without judgment. To do this work as a spiritual practice, I believed it important to do it without anger and without reproach. Because to truly accept someone else's behavior, one I did not condone, I needed to maintain a loving attitude during it. However, I was acting in direct opposition to their behavior. That's a judgment. Where's the acceptance in that?


I think it's in separating their actions from my actions. I think it’s about me living in my values.


A surgeon patches up an ailing body without being angry at the person’s behavior or predicament. A good teacher patiently corrects a student's mistakes as they learn without expecting the student to not make the mistakes. They are basing their work on their values of doing service and helping others to improve their quality of life.


My values are acceptance, service, and living in serenity. If I couldn’t maintain a loving attitude through my actions, I would not be living in serenity. And it would negatively affect me because I believe our attitude affects our health. And if I focused on how small my action was compared to the larger problem, I would be forgetting the point of my spiritual practice It’s about walking the talk. Words without deeds are like postage stamps on envelopes. And if I did my actions in anger, I wouldn’t really be much of a role model.


I think the key was that I was able to separate my actions from other people’s actions. I did my actions based on my love of the Earth and my desire for a clean environment. I was taking forgiveness to a level of acceptance of people who abandon their own light. I was not condoning someone’s actions that do harm. I was not holding them in contempt. I was holding onto my love of the planet. The same attitude I have when I hold onto my love with a difficult family member or onto my love of a friend with a warped attitude. That person may have abandoned their light but that doesn’t mean I have to abandon mine. It’s about my being able to say “You’re okay just the way you are and I need to take care of myself around you.” Not only say it, but believe it.


I think, in the end, I was a role model. Sometimes, on our walks, I’d see someone else picking up some trash. And when I saw that, I knew I was succeeding.


Participants’ Reflections:

  • That one really hit home. I do a lot of trash collection on my hiking route. I must admit that I have tended to be judgmental at times. It’s funny, I’m walking and meditating and I should be on the top of my game of being non-judgmental, but I was judgmental. Duly noted.

  • I also pick up trash in a national park. I want to keep it beautiful and I’ve noticed that transition in myself, from shock at what people carelessly discard in a national park to the attitude that I am making it more beautiful. I love the park, it’s a wonderful place. I took it further to my UU congregation where we are working on anti-racism. There is also a movement towards beloved community. I’m thinking that I’d much rather work for beloved community than against racism. Because it is judgmental. Beloved community is living in my value of love and that is where I want the world to be, where everyone gets along and we get rid of the white supremist structures that we don’t think about. That’s where I went with that this morning. I knew it but never put it all together.

  • Anti-trash, anti-racism. It’s about where your values are and living them.

  • Thank you so much. The reading took me back to a time in my life when my high school daughter announced she was pregnant. It led to a whole shift in our lives. That summer, I couldn’t change that event but I could pick up trash. I picked it up wherever I was and it was like something I could do for the world as we lived through this change. Now with Covid, I walk past trash rather than pick it up. It’s a tug of war, I want to pick it up but I don’t have rubber gloves on me. That’s been uncomfortable for me. This reading has told me to bring gloves with me so I can do my part for the world. Thank you.

  • I am puzzling over the fact that when I hold to my light, I can sometimes be saying that the other person has lost their light. That is judgmental. It’s a conundrum. It’s as if they are not living up to my light when I say that they are not living up to their light. I don’t know if that is true.

  • Thea says: I’m glad you saw that. In the short time I had to write this reading, I did not have enough time to address that. That’s the crux of the topic. It’s not really about trash. It’s about how we interact with other people and our judgment of them. If we want a family member to be different, how do we actually accept them? That’s why I like the line, “You’re okay exactly the way you are. I need to take care of myself around you.” I will have time to expand on that tomorrow.

  • Thank you for that. I have a friend who walks everywhere with a grabber and a bag and constantly picks up trash. I’m going to talk to her about it. I’m sure she’s let go of her anger. It made me think that most people who do things have to lose their anger; otherwise, it would eat them up. It’s good to think about.

  • Thank you. I appreciated the comments. During the meditation, I went to personal relationships. It’s wherever you bump into judgment about and it’s important to you, and making a difference there. I went to thinking about my impatience, my dislike of slowing down in response to my diminishing spouse’s needs. I start out feeling okay about doing things, and then I start feeling we’re going to be late and I lose my center. It’s such a challenge for me to really let go so that I can be where I want to be. And my irritation with someone else comes up. And what is empathy? It layers into all the things we want to be but what interferes with really being there? I believe for me it’s being as present as I can be in whatever the higher need is.

  • That’s very true. It’s about being aware of my values and really sticking to them.

  • Thank you. That’s such a vivid example of how we can be the change we want to see in the world. It’s informative when we look at the trash. What are they throwing away? When I collect shells on the beach, I pick up trash as well. We don’t have a lot of choices in our packaging, and stuff just winds up places because it blows out of bins or away from landfills. I’m part of the problem too because I use plastic and I drive a car using fossil fuel. I can judge myself and correct my own habits.

  • I’m trying to undo being such a harsh judge of myself. It makes me upset when I see trash, especially things deliberately thrown on the ground. One of the national parks banned plastic bottles because of all the trash being thrown into the canyons. I don’t mind what animals do. I’m sympathetic to hoarders or immigrants. So many things I can be accepting of and compassionate with, but the trash thing makes me angry. It’s so disrespectful of the land and harmful to the animals. Picking it up and being non-judgmental is hard for me right now.

  • Thank you all. I loved this conversation where we talked both about the metaphor and also about what it stands for. It’s a good place to start, with an actual action and how it can extend into our whole lives and how we can treat other people. Thank you for joining me today on this journey exploring our authentic selves and learning how to truly walk the talk and be true to ourselves and being loving people. I hope you have a wonderful, blessed, joyous day. Thank you.


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