When I do catch the mind moment, in mindful dishwashing, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty.
A few folks have asked me if I am feeling any lingering effects from my recent Covid-19 illness. Not really; but I do I find mindful dish-washing in the kitchen sink to be much more fulfilling.
I used to find myself wondering, pre-Covid-19, if washing dishes until kingdom come was getting in the way of my life. If it was a big interference in other plans I had.
That it was lost time. But now it’s different.
Mindful dish-washing, doing the dishes mindfully in the in the kitchen sink, the old-fashioned way, IS my life in the moment.
It’s all of me, sudsy and slippery, saluted by dishes and lunch containers and knives, forks, spoons, tumblers, pots, pans, all inviting me to go deeper inside this sink, to roll up my sleeves.
It’s just THIS mind moment.
One lunch container dyed red from pasta sauce.
One sticky fork.
If I don’t catch the mind moment, it seems like the sink and the dishpan and the surrounding counter spaces seem so crowded with dish things I can’t see a beginning or an end.
But when I do catch the mind moment, in mindful dishwashing, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty. I take in the look of those myriad dish things, like anxious puppies at the Humane Society, waiting to be taken home.
Mindfully doing the dishes is meditation practice
When we cultivate simple, mindful awareness as a formal sitting or walking practice, we call it meditation. When we cultivate it in our home life, we call it the dishes, the laundry, or the yard full of un-raked leaves since that last windy spell we had.
This is the heart-essence of mindfulness, noticing and engaging fully with what is right in front of us. Mindful dish-washing is paying attention to what is right in front of me.
I chose that phrase “right in front of me” because it elicits an argument scholars having been having for millennia about just what the Buddha meant when he taught his followers to meditate.
In the ancient Pali literature, the Buddha instructs the meditators of his day to follow his example (in Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation):
I collect some grass or leaves that I find there into a pile and then sit down. Having folded my legs crosswise and straightened my body, I establish mindfulness in front of me.
The disagreement centers on just what the Buddha meant by establishing mindfulness “in front of me.” Some contemporary Buddhists, choosing to elevate one technique over another, often quote this passage as validating their own views of the correct way to meditate.
One group will say “in front of me” means placing ones attention on the sensation of breath at the nostrils, another will say, no, he meant on the abdomen, and yet another will claim that the others are wrong, that the whole body is what was in front of him.
The dishes are what’s right in front of me
I would rather take a cue from Michelle Obama and take the high road: in mindful dishwashing the dishes are what’s right “in front of me.” When balancing my checkbook, my checkbook is right “in front of me.”
And I just give myself wholeheartedly, as best I can, to just these dishes, or this checkbook. When I notice I am being half-hearted, wandering off into thinking about what I will do with my tax refund, I just come back to just what’s in front of me.
I hope the Buddha would approve.
By attending to just what is in front of us with gentle good humor, openness and full engagement, the mind carries these wholesome qualities into the next thing to come before us.
The Miracle of Mindfulness
Then sixteen year old Shuku Maseda, of Kyushu, Japan wrote wrote some years ago about the deep impression he felt reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s marvelous book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He explains:
I had read the part “Washing Dishes,” and these lines swept away my dull ideas about dishwashing. “The idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them.” This first line astonished me.
The further I read on, the more deeply I thought. The author said the reason for dishwashing is not only to have clean dishes, but also just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them. If we wash dishes lazily, thinking about other things, we lose and spoil the time.
I was astonished, as this is just how I felt when I practiced his instructions!
But it’s hard for us sometimes to believe that simple mindful attention is all there is to it. We complicate the matter with our judgment, putting down the ordinary as insignificant and idealizing and pining after the spiritual.
Never fully realizing they are the same thing. Never fully realizing the consequences of my mind states and my actions.
As I scrape off the leftovers or gently place vegetable scraps in the compost bin, I wonder – what new life will sprout?
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