2021 Sacred Places

Why should I pick up litter?

SanghaSeva | Meditation in Action
3 min readFeb 13, 2022

By Tina Kennedy

When I come to write my bucket list, I’m pretty sure litter picking won’t be on it. I’m not really a litter-picking-type-of-person. As a casual observer of litter pickers, it seems to involve a lot of looking at the ground, bending down and touching dirty stuff. None of these things are particularly appealing to me. And, as someone who tends to enjoy The Great Outdoors with their head in the clouds, litter isn’t something which generally gets my blood boiling.

So, imagine my surprise when I agreed to join a sangha-flavoured-litter-picking-meditation-exercise-type-thing. Inspired by a member of the sangha whom I very much like and respect, against my better judgement, I half-heartedly signed up. I immediately regretted it. This wasn’t BIG NEWS to me, though, as I have a tendency to think too much about making commitments and then immediately beat myself up about it when I do persuade myself to make one. Anyway, I agreed to litter pick, and I was going to do it … and my husband was going to do it with me once I figured out how to tell him!

Cometh the hour, cometh the litter pickers … on a bright and windy morning, clad in disposable gloves and sporting appropriate litter retention receptacles, we stepped out of our front door with the steely-eyed determination appropriate to the task at hand. Within a few metres of the start line the neighbourhood echoed to the familiar litter pickers’ chorus:
“Hey, that’s my bit of plastic — stick to your own side of the road!”
“I saw it first, it goes in my bag — it’s the litter picking code.”
“There is no litter picking code — you’re stealing my litter!”
“It’s only yours when it’s in your bag … up until then it falls under common grazing rights as laid down in law in the 16th century.”

Anyway, once things settled down and the initial euphoria of ‘doing good work’ had waned, we settled into a surprisingly peaceful and rhythmic movement of sweeping down the lane: focussing on the simple and repetitive task of spotting litter; bending down to pick it up; and putting it in our bag. It was quite a revelation. For minutes at a time, everything else fell away except these simple actions. It was no longer me picking up litter, but litter picking happening.

As we continued towards the village, I felt a companionable silence with my husband and a strange togetherness with the world around us. Knowing that others were simultaneously engaged in the same simple actions around the world was strangely uplifting and grounding all at once. As we turned the corner into the centre of the village, an even more strange sight confronted us: a litter picker’s Alladin’s cave! A barrel full of grabber sticks, litter sacks, fluorescent vests … by some bizarre alignment of the stars, or something, it turned out to be the Annual Parish Litter Picking Day! Not only were we working in community with each other and the sangha, but also with the whole parish. Someone, somewhere, was trying very hard to tell me something!

I’ve often felt a reluctance to join in with community activities, holding back despite a desire to come forward; a reigning in, you could say, of all my healthy impulses! This is partly due to a fear of not being good enough, or being able to do enough, or that any commitment will create expectations which will eventually overwhelm me. But today felt different. I recalled a beautiful line from the initial prayer that is read out in the weekly jhana group I attend:

“May we hold our reactions, our self-judgements, our contractions, and our comparisons in kindness, understanding their dependence on conditions.”

There was something very special about today. I started the day thinking: why should I pick up litter? … and ended it thinking: why shouldn’t I? The trick now is to build that thinking into other areas of my life.

Tina Kennedy