Mindfulness and the Art of Washing Dishes
A New Study Reinforces An Ancient Story
Have you been depriving yourself of free therapy? If you avoid washing the dishes you have—at least according to a new study from Florida State University and published in the journal Mindfulness. They found that study participants experienced a 27% reduction in nervousness and a 25% increase in feelings of inspiration by washing dishes. There is one important thing to consider: the subjects were instructed to focus on the experience of washing dishes. They focused on the feel of the warm water and the smell of the dish soap. In short, they were mindful and present in the moment and that produced very positive, therapeutic benefits.
As I read about this study, I was reminded of a very old Zen koan about a monk who had joined a monastery. He approached the Zen master and the following conversation ensued:
Disciple: I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me the first Zen lesson.
Master: Have you finished eating your rice porridge?
Disciple: Yes, master.
Master: Then you had better wash your bowl.
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
While this study (and the ancient story) was, on the surface, about washing dishes, it was really about how to wake up and live.
Do You Tie Your Shoes In Your Sleep?
When you were a child everything was new to you. You were awake and aware of the smallest details around you because you had never encountered many of them before. As you grew, you started creating automatic response to your surrounding world.
For instance, when you learned to tie your shoelaces, you were very attentive to every detail of the process. Now you do it “mindlessly” because it is an automatic, subconscious process. You’ve stopped noticing the texture and feel of the laces; you’ve stopped marveling at how a single strand can bind your shoes to your feet. What’s really happened? YOU HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP. Or, more aptly, you are dreaming. You are not doing what you’re doing—that’s happening automatically and unconsciously—you are dreaming about something; whatever it is you’re thinking about beyond the act of tying your shoes. This automatic functioning is often at the root of many problems you encounter. In fact, much of the work we do in N.L.P. and hypnosis is about altering the automated responses one has to situations that arise in life.
There is nothing complex about washing dishes and as you do this chore it’s very easy to think about your bills, a fight with your co-worker, etc., etc. Generally, however, your awareness is focused on things that you CAN’T do anything about because you’re busy washing the dishes.
You are living in the fantasy of the future (and whatever you think about the “future,” it is always a fantasy because it doesn’t exist. In fact it never will exist… but that’s a different topic.) Maybe, as you wash the dishes, you are ruminating on some wrong that was done to you. Again, you are living in a dream, a fantasy that is happening right now in your consciousness. What are you NOT doing? You are not washing the dishes with awareness. And if you were to move your attention to the feel of the soapy water or the texture of the sponge, your mind couldn’t create all of those bad feelings by thinking about your bills or your disagreements with others. Subsequently, you feel more peace because your are present with the dishes.
This isn’t really about washing dishes at all. It’s about being where you are and doing what you’re doing. If you’re feeling stressed out and nervous, I’ll bet that you are busy fighting some battle in your mind; or worrying about some future event like funding your retirement; or just going over your endless to-do list.
Ready to stop dreaming—or nightmare-ing? If you are reading this at your computer, take a minute to put your hand on your mouse and just try to determine what temperature it is. Focus on its temperature for a while. Now, start feeling the texture of the mouse. Really observe it. Notice that, while your mind will try to run off and do what it always does—dream—you can just bring it back to the subject at hand. Before long you might notice that you are feeling calmer. You are forcing yourself to experience “this” moment; not some fantastical future moment. There is great peace in this moment. You might even discover that if you can just be in this moment, you can find a kind of bliss. Who knows, do it right and like the neophyte monk in the Zen koan above, you might just find enlightenment.
A Mindfulness Exercise
Here’s an exercise I give my clients at The Meridian Center who want to start being more present in the moment. I ask them to close their eyes, lean their heads back and slowly breath in through their noses for five seconds. Then hold that breath for five seconds. Then breathe it out for five seconds. Just count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.” Try to stay focused on the breath. You’ll probably notice that after about four or five breaths you’re feeling calmer and more peaceful. Again, this is akin to washing the dishes “mindfully” because you are just doing what you’re doing and not doing what you’re not doing.
The world is full of distractions that can disturb your peace. If you take a moment and acknowledge that you might just be running off into a waking dream and losing touch with what is happening right now, you can start to live mindfully and enjoy the profound peace that each moment holds for you.
You can read a synopsis of the research study here.