Washing the Dishes to Wash the Dishes: An Exercise in Mindfulness
How often in life do you feel like you’re 100% in control? Like things are going in the wrong direction, but you don’t have the power to correct yourself? I hate that feeling. It feels like you’re drowning, like you’re fighting to keep your head above the water, but no matter how hard you kick and push back up to the surface, that breath of air is just out of reach.
One way I’ve found to help fight that feeling of helplessness is mindfulness meditation. The practice of mindfulness allows me to feel like things are back in my control, like the world isn’t speeding past me, and I have no ability to keep up. When I’m living my life mindfully, I’m able to experience things in and around me in the moment they’re happening. I’m able to feel my feet on the ground. I’m able to take a deep breath and exhale it calmly. I don’t feel like I’m lagging behind, but I’m exactly in the moment in which I need to be. I love that feeling, that feeling of being present, grounded, and fully alive.
I’m halfway through reading The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s an amazing book originally written as a correspondence between Hanh and a fellow Vietnamese Buddhist Monk explaining the ways in which one can practice mindfulness in daily life. Hanh brilliantly yet simply explains how accessible and easy it is to wake up to your true self through mindfulness practices. He explains that all you need to do is wake up to your breath:
In those moments when you are upset or dispersed and find it difficult to practice mindfulness, return to your breath: Taking hold of your breath is itself mindfulness. Your breath is the wondrous method of taking hold of your consciousness. Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible one-ness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool with can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.
Hanh gives detailed instructions for a meditation designed to connect with your breath. It couldn’t be a simpler, more accessible method:
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with a straight back either kneeling, in lotus, or cross-legged.
2. Relax your body and mind by breathing deeply and mindfully, paying attention as your stomach and chest expand and contract.
3. Count your breaths as they come in and out. Inhale and think 1, exhale and think 1. Inhale and think 2, exhale and think 2. Continue all the way to 10 and then start over.
This simple technique will allow you to connect with your breath and relax your body and mind. The counting will help prevent you from being lost in the thoughts and problems that will inevitably race through your mind. As thoughts and feelings of stress, sadness, happiness and joy come in and out, acknowledge them but don’t attach to them. Try not to view yourself in opposition to your thoughts but instead realize you and your thoughts are one. Don’t see your thoughts as a problem to be solved. Accept them as part of your consciousness and return to counting your inhalations and exhalations.
Meditation is considered a practice, so don’t be discouraged if you struggle to find relaxation on your first or second try. Like anything, the more you practice the easier it will become. Try not to attach to any kind of outcome from your meditation either. Try to observe yourself in a detached way, and it won’t be long before you notice how much more relaxed and at peace you feel.
Hanh is quick to point out that mindfulness meditation does not end at the end of meditation practice. Meditation as a means to gain mindfulness is something you can practice in every moment of your life. You are always able to focus on our breath. No matter what is happening in your life, whenever you notice yourself focusing on the past or the future, your breath is your vehicle for grounding you in the present moment. Your breath only ever happens in the present moment. You can’t breathe in the past, and you can’t breathe in the future. You can only breathe here now in the present.
Taking that concept one step further, Hanh challenges us to do everything in the present moment. He uses washing dishes as an example:
While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
While washing dishes, you might be thinking about the tea you’re going to drink afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means that you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life.
Hanh adamantly stresses the importance of living each task with mindfulness, turning everything you do into a meditation. If you wash the dishes with the intention of making them clean as soon as possible, you are not living for those moments when you wash the dishes. If you wash the dishes with the intention of being present, conscious, and alive during the moments you wash the dishes, then you are truly living for those moments.
Living with mindfulness, that connection to your breath which connects you to the present moment and allows you to become more fully alive and present in the world in which you live, is the answer to that feeling of helplessness. Feelings of stress, pain, and anxiety will be sure to come in your life, but knowing how to detach from them and reconnect to the grounding presence of your breath will help you regain control.
One should not lose oneself in mind-dispersion or in one’s surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in order to regain control of body and mind, to practice mindfulness, and to develop concentration and wisdom.