Washing Dishes: Discover your Mindfulness Practice

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The book The Miracle of Mindfulness provides an excellent introduction to the art of meditation. It was originally written as a long letter from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to Brother Quang, a man responsible for helping run the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam during the 1970’s. The purpose of the letter was to help provide guidance for Brother Quang as he attempted to run this school during the tail end of the Vietnam War; the turmoil of war was creating problems for the monks and their ability to positively impact the students there.

Mindfulness is many things, but at its core it is the concept of being completely and fully present in whatever task you are performing at that time. When is the last time you performed a task and your mind was solely focused on that singular pursuit? This means not letting your mind wander and not thinking about the next month, week, day, hour or minute.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the metaphor of doing the dishes to describe this concept. He writes:

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we… are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.

From there, he points out that if you are only focused on what comes after washing the dishes (drinking a cup of tea in his case), then:

If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things… we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

While a seemingly silly example, this metaphor is descriptive of modern life for many people. When is the last time you sat in silence? When is the last time you have spent 5 or 10 minutes of your day with your own thoughts? When is the last time you unplugged from your phone or laptop? As the speed of the world around us increases, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to quiet the storm.

While awareness of breath and some type of breathing practice is a great first step, mindfulness requires a meditative practice to be most effective. Meditation takes many forms; most people associate meditation with sitting in a lotus position and uttering “ohms” repeatedly, but the truth is meditation can be anything that quiets your “monkey mind” and helps organize your thoughts. Thinking about nothing can be meditation; yoga can be meditation; focusing on a positive image and taking a few deep breaths can be meditation (go to your “happy place” ring a bell?).

Meditation does not need to take up a large part of your day, although over time you will likely spend more time practicing. It can be done in any setting at any time: during your morning commute, while eating, while performing mundane tasks and, yes, even while washing the dishes. Take Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach and practice being truly present during routine parts of your day. Appreciate the task for what it is, not what comes next.

For help getting started, Headspace and Calm are two apps that are targeted towards beginners and experts alike. Keep in mind that meditation is a lifelong practice; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it, and focusing your thoughts will be difficult at first. Remember that the process is the goal; simply taking time to practice will create positive changes in your life. Trust in the process and you can discover the Miracle of Mindfulness in the same way that Brother Quang did in Vietnam.

Until next time.


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