How a Buddhist Monk Says We Should Do the Dishes

How a Buddhist Monk Says We Should Do the Dishes

For a couple of weeks now, my fiancé, Andy, and I have been reading aloud to one another excerpts from inspiring books before our morning meditation. A couple of days ago, I started reading from The Miracle of Mindfulness by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Yesterday, when I was looking ahead to see what we’d be reading today, I saw the section entitled, “Washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”

I think I’d be struck by this topic no matter what, as one of every day’s biggest challenges for me is making myself do the dishes. Beyond that, though, I was struck by this section because I thought the idea was mine. “When You’re Doing the Dishes, Do the Dishes” is a post title I came up with months ago. Or thought I did.

Though I’ve never read The Miracle of Mindfulness in its entirety, I do remember flipping through it a year or so ago and the idea must have stuck; I just forgot where it came from.

Thank goodness

At first I was just really grateful the universe or my subconscious inspired me to start reading from the book this week so I didn’t write this post without giving credit where credit was due. But maybe the universe or my subconscious just really wants me to – finally, once and for all – wash the dishes when I’m washing the dishes.

What I’m about to describe to you is how I do dishes without a dishwasher. But even if you have one, I suspect you can relate. I’ve had a dishwasher before and it never solved for me the problem of dreading, delaying, rushing, and hating the dish-doing process.

How I usually do the dishes

I usually wait until the last possible moment to do the dishes, when the sink is full and most of the surrounding counter is covered. Actually, I usually wait past that moment, washing a plate here, a fork there, just to get me through a meal or (yes, I’ll admit it) an entire day.

When I’m finally ready to do something, I dig my way through the mess in the sink, plug it up, fill it with water and soap, and let the dishes soak. Twenty minutes does the trick, but I usually give it a few hours, if not until the next day.

By that time, the water has to be refilled because it’s disgusting and the soaking has to start all over again – a soak time that is never as long as the first, but sometimes pretty close.

Finally, I get to a point where I can’t take the guilt or the smell of it anymore and I do the dishes. Always in a terrible mood (because why would I do dishes when I’m in a good mood?) and when I’m on a deadline (I’m always on a deadline, though often one unnecessarily self-imposed and impractical).

The point is, once I’m actually doing them, my goal is to do the dishes as fast as possible so I can get back to work or lay my tired, cranky ass down.

I’m not going so fast as to break things (very often) or cut myself with knives. But I am going fast enough to do a pretty terrible job of actually getting the dishes clean.

Plus, I’m not really there.

My hands are in the sink, and my eyes are on the dishes, but my feet are turned and my body is sort of pulling away as though I’m already done.

As for my mind, it’s all over the place, thinking about all the things I should be doing instead of this.

How a Buddhist monk says we should do the dishes

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation was originally a long letter written in 1974 by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to Brother Quang at the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam.1

This morning I read the section on washing dishes:

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 is precisely the point… I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions.2

In other words, treat the doing of dishes like a meditation.

How I did the dishes today

I let the dishes soak, like usual, though this time for the acceptable 20 minutes.

Before I started washing them, I set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, timing this meditation just like I do all the others. I’m a terrible judge of time when my mind is racing, so normally when I’m doing the dishes it feels like it’s taking forever, which only makes me try and go faster. Knowing the timer was keeping track for me really let me relax into the task.

I planted my feet and started washing the dishes – not slow, but not fast either, just deliberately, washing each dish as it needed to be washed.

My mind wandered, as it always does during meditation, but when I realized it, I just refocused my attention on breathing and doing the dishes.

How it turned out

1) I finished before the timer went off; it only took 10 minutes. I’ve never timed myself doing the dishes fast, but I can’t imagine it’s much faster than that. Plus, I probably spend a total of 10 minutes just thinking about how I need to do the dishes over the course of a day. So dreading them instead of just doing them is actually wasting twice as much time as it should and making me feel bad in the process.

2) I felt like I’d been meditating – relaxed, present, and empowered.

3) My dishes are very clean.

Will you try to do the dishes as a meditation? Or do you already? I’d love to hear what works for you (or doesn’t) and what you think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice.

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  1. Thich Nhat Hanh (1976) The Miracle of Mindfulness, p. vii, Beacon Press.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, pp. 3-4.

I'm a writer living in Los Angeles and founder of Plenty Woman, a website for women ready to believe we are everything anxiety says we're not: Beautiful. Lovable. Powerful. Important. Smart.



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