Zen and the Art of Doing Dishes

I hate doing the dishes. I have always hated doing the dishes. I will forever – until the day I die – hate doing the dishes. When I pass by my kitchen and see that pile of plates, pots, and silverware staring at me, I keep going and going until I am gone. The worst part of my dish issue – and I’m only admitting this out of guilt – is the fact that, yes, I have a dishwasher. I have always had a dishwasher. If I am forced, by some freak of nature (i.e. company), to, uh, tidy up, my first task is to collect all dishes from the surrounding rooms and various counters and pile them neatly into the sink. Now mind you, each dish gets a quick rinse from the hot water, which runs continuously throughout this entire process, as it goes into the pile. Why, you ask, can’t the dishes go from the rinse to the dishwasher? Well, your guess is as good as mine. For my second and final task, which is no problem, I scrub the microwave, stove top, and even the perimeter of the sink until it absolutely sparkles. And, if I’m feeling really good that day, I might even get on my hands and knees with a sponge and scrub the little dirty spots off the kitchen floor. Then, with a quick and satisfied glance around my masterpiece, off goes the light and I’m done. Go figure.

Now, what does my issue with dirty dishes have to do with Zen? Actually, it has everything to do with it. Of course, I didn’t realize this until I had devoured ten books on Zen Philosophy and discovered a connection. Having always been a rather high-strung emotional person but, thankfully, an avid reader, I find comfort in the simple, poetic, and calming Buddhist philosophy of Zen. Zen is not a religion, as some would believe. It is simply a way of life that is neither strange, cultish, nor money-hungry. The books are written not for the purpose of convincing anyone of anything and that is what draws me to them again and again. These books are written so simply and offer such logical solutions to the problems of our chaotic lives that it is nearly impossible to find fault. So why doesn’t everyone just tap into the Zen-mind and travel through life peacefully? Because, and this is the irony that so fascinates me, while the philosophy itself it so simple, logical, and practical, putting it into practice at the precise moment its needed often seems impossible. To be simple, logical, and practical goes against our very nature as humans. We might all say how much we hate it, but we actually love the drama in our lives. It makes us the center of our own attention. We hate drama but we love to gossip about it, read about it, watch it happen, and, ultimately, when we get bored with being the spectator, we do our best to create our own – which is centered around us, of course. Strangely enough, while this creates the excitement we think we want and need, it almost always makes us sad. And so the vicious cycle continues until, little by little, we begin to feel depressed, overwhelmed, tired, sad, unfulfilled, impatient, anxious, angry, guilty, stressed-out, and finally just crushed beneath a ton of emotions that we can’t crawl out from under.

Again, what does this all have to do with my hatred of doing the silly dishes? I’ll get to that. I promise. But let me first talk about Mindful Awareness, perhaps the most important two words in the world of Zen. This mind-state is achieved, ideally, through the daily practice of meditation. Meditation is the foundation of the Buddhist philosophy and the hardest for us chaotic humans to practice. We would love to meditate but, hey, who has the time? We can always start tomorrow, right? Or the next day. Or the day after. I reconciled myself to the fact that as much as I need to meditate according to the simple practices in my books, it will definitely be awhile before I get right down to it. However, one of the wonderful things about Zen is that I do not ever have to feel guilty about this or feel I shouldn’t continue to read until I can commit to meditation. In Zen there is no guilt. To the Zen philosopher guilt is just another unnecessary emotion that we create in our minds out of mere thoughts for the sole purpose of stressing ourselves out. The Zen belief is that whatever we are doing or not doing at this very moment, and wherever we happen to be while we are doing or not doing it makes the moment exactly as it is supposed to be. In simpler terms: We are fine just as we are. Worrying and stressing over what you should have done, shouldn’t be doing, or should be doing is not being mindfully aware of this very moment that you are alive and standing in. And if you are not aware of this very moment, then how can the simple daily tasks of life that lead you into the next moment, whether they be at work or at home, possibly ever get done?

The essence of Zen is to “be” what you are doing right now. If your awareness is totally on the present moment, then you will just know what needs to be done next. Without feeling overwhelmed, the right moves will instinctively emerge. The thoughts that create anxiety will always pop up in our mischievous minds. This is just another part of human nature. If you practice being mindfully aware, however, you will learn to recognize them as merely thoughts – a Zen practice called “labeling”- and let them go, releasing them while remaining calmly focused on the moment. Lama Surya Das, in his wonderful book “Awaking the Buddha Within” explains it like this, “Pure mindfulness is relaxed, open, lucid, moment-to-moment awareness. It is clear seeing. Do not live in the past or the future, but be conscious and wake up to the present moment. In the simplest definition: Things are just as they are.” Everyone has heard the saying, “Stop and smell the roses.” After reading a few Zen books, the meaning of this age-old quote became larger than life to me. For all of us, if we practiced feeling gratitude for our present moments through Mindful Awareness instead of creating unimportant chaos, our lives would slowly begin to change. Although meditation is the ultimate way to train your mind to be consistent in this manner, we certainly do not have to start with that. In fact, we can start right now from wherever we are.

Okay, I am ready now to connect all this to my dishes. This chore, even this very morning as I sit at this computer, is trying, through my thoughts, to cause me feelings of guilt. I certainly feel like I can’t leave the house and go about my day without first cleaning that mess but, in reality, it is not important. If I practice mindful awareness, as I am trying so hard to do in this moment, then I will focus only on this keyboard until I am finished, then, ever-so-calmly, move to the kitchen, rinse my dishes, place them in the dishwasher, turn the little knob to “on” and continue out the door to work. In “Awakening The Buddha Within”, Lama Suurya Das refers to a beautiful quote by meditator master Thich Nhat Hahn. It goes something like this:

“I must confess it takes a little longer to do the dishes in mindfulness, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Each second of life is a miracle; the dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Every conscious step we make, a flower blooms under our feet. We can do this only if we linger not in the past or future, but know that life can be found only in the present moment.”

Finding peace in the present moment, even as we move through our many daily chores, can change our lives. I know first-hand that this is so hard to do but well worth the effort. If you have read this article, I hope I have sent a little sparkle to your day, a little food for your thought. Trying our best is all we can do. And that is okay.

Now, into the kitchen I go.

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