Picture this: It’s a beautiful fall day. The sky is a deep, crisp shade of blue. The fallen leaves crackle and crunch as you walk by, while the remaining yellow leaves on the trees sparkle in the sun overhead. The sun is warm on your back but the breeze is cool and gently works its way through your sweater. You’re not planning your “to do” list or worrying about what you could have said differently in that conversation with your boss. Your mind is clear and at peace. Your senses feel alive and buzzing with the joy of being completely, 100% present.
I’m sure you’ve all experienced a moment like this, though perhaps not as often as you would like. Think about the last time you felt this way. Visualize it in your mind. Where were you? In a favorite park or on a wooded trail? On a beach? Maybe at a concert or art show? What were you doing? Strolling hand in hand with your beloved? Laughing with your kids?
What about washing the dishes? Can any of you say that you’ve ever been completely absorbed and focused while scrubbing out a greasy frying pan, without wishing you were doing something else? If so, I commend you. You’re probably a much happier person than the rest of us.
I hate washing dishes. I don’t have a dishwasher and I cook a lot so they pile up fast. And I hate it. I put if off until towers of crusty plates and slimy cutlery teeter menacingly on my counter. I keep finding unique and creative ways to stack Tupperware containers from my lunches, as though I’m trying to build a sculpture out of plastic and dried food. When I do finally get around to washing the dishes, I wish I was doing ANYTHING else. I make sure that I have a whole arsenal of podcasts, audio-books and even TV shows to distract me while I take on this arduous task.
Why do I hate it so much? Because it feels like a pointless chore. You wash a dish only so you can use it again so you have to wash it again and then use it again, and on and on and on. I have a mind that likes to focus on progress, on moving forward, getting better, growing and improving. This is one of my strengths but it makes these necessary, repetitive tasks feel painful. I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere when I do the dishes. I feel like I’m wasting time that could be put towards something more productive.
Lately though, I’m learning that being so focused on the future has its pitfalls. The biggest issue I’ve noticed is that it makes it really hard for me to be conscious of what’s happening in the present. I can think of countless times when I was doing something much more interesting than doing the dishes but was still caught up in my head and not able to fully enjoy the experience.
For this reason, I’ve been learning a lot about the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Put more simply, it means paying attention to what is happening right now without thinking about something else and without judgment.
And for those of us who are used to letting our minds take the reins, galloping frantically between past memories and future plans and back again, it’s surprisingly hard. We’re not used to stopping the flood of thoughts to think about what’s happening in our bodies, or to see what our breath is doing.
In my search for information on mindfulness, I came across a book by the renowned Buddhist monk Thich Naht Han called “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” I was particularly struck by a passage that he wrote about a certain activity that I had spent so much time avoiding – washing the dishes.
Here’s what he had to say:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”
Since I had already started seeing the benefits of mindfulness in my life: decreasing anxiety, greater peace and contentment, and a more clear-headed approach to problems and difficult experiences; I figured that I should probably try doing the dishes mindfully.
The hardest part was actually getting up and starting. But once I did, I found it wasn’t actually so bad. I listened to the sound of the water as it flowed from the tap and filled the sink. I watched the bubbles rise as I poured in the soap. And I felt the warmth of the water as I placed my hands in it. Instead of constantly looking at the pile to see how much was left, I focused on each dish, carefully scrubbing and rinsing it and noticing any feelings that arose in my body.
If I felt tension and an urge to walk away, I noticed it and kept going. If I felt satisfaction with the sparkling plates, I noticed it and kept going. If I felt frustrated that a piece of melted cheese just would not come off, I noticed it and kept going. When I finished, I noticed how nice it was to have a clean kitchen and I even noticed how much better I slept when things were clean and in their place.
You can apply this “washing dishes” lesson to all kinds of seemingly unpleasant tasks, like folding laundry, shoveling snow, that boring meeting at work… What do you notice? What’s going on in your body? How do you feel? If any thoughts come up, notice them and then let them go.
When I move mindfully through my day I am able to observe the sensations, emotions and thoughts that pass through my mind and body without judgement and without struggle. This means that I find myself resisting life so much less. Instead of fighting reality – no I don’t want to get out of bed, no I don’t want to go to work, no I don’t want to wash the dishes – I’m embracing and appreciating it instead.
With mindfulness, I’m learning that any moment can be as enjoyable as a walk on a beautiful fall day. Any moment can be a miracle.