Wash The Dishes

Pensacola, FL

November 13, 2019

In the late 1980s I received as a gift an audiobook of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.  To show how long ago that was, the audiobook consisted of two cassettes. And I played them in a yellow Song Walkman.

At that time I was traveling quite a bit for work, and the tapes were a good way to pass the time sitting on planes.  Not because of the subject matter but because of the narrator’s voice.  His voice was very soothing; I don’t think I ever got past the first 15 minutes of Tape 1 without nodding off.

Such was my introduction to mindfulness.  Even though I listened to those tapes off and on for years, and I couldn’t have told you the first thing about mindfulness. “Listened to;” no, I "heard them," but I did not comprehend them. I am sure others would agree with my lack of listening skills. :(

If you had asked me in the 1990s what time period I focused on, it would have been the future. Being present, being mindful, in the moment - I was never there.  My radar was always on, patrolling for future incoming attacks to be resolved.

The late 1990s were a difficult time for me personally.  I recall being on a plane with the audiobook playing for the first time in a couple of years and the narrator saying something about washing the dishes.  I’d probably heard this part of the book two hundred times -  maybe even more - but this time I listened.  I remember I rewound the tape to listen to the whole story.

It was a story of how when Thich Nhat Hanh was a young monk, his job was to wash the dishes after each meal at the monastery.  The water was cold and there were no modern conveniences like dish soap and sponges.  He found that his mind would wander, and he would think about the cup of tea he would enjoy once he finished washing the dishes.

Sound familiar?  How many of us let our mind wander when we are doing a task, especially one that we don't enjoy?

After his story of washing the dishes at the monastery, Thich Nhat Hanh says,"when washing the dishes, wash the dishes."   AH HA!  After hearing this tape so many times, I finally listened and understood.  His point is that when you are thinking about the cup of tea you will enjoy afterward, you are not present - you are not being mindful.  You are not experiencing the "miracle of mindfulness."

And what is that miracle?  It is the miracle of being in the moment, of being present.  Of not thinking of past or of the future, but just of the now.  If you are in the now, you can bring all your energies to focus on what is right in front of you.  You can diminish, if not eliminate, anxiety caused by thinking of the future and sadness/remorse/depression caused by thinking about the past.

The miracle is not the experience of not having any thoughts.  Our mind is a thought generating machine and there is nothing we can do to stop from generating thoughts - good ones, bad ones, pleasant ones, sad ones, "truthful" ones and "false" ones.  It is the miracle of separating ourselves from our thoughts and observing them from dispassionate third-party perspective - not judging them, not reacting to them.  It is not stopping our "mental chatter;" it is stopping our reactions to our mental chatter.

If this sounds like Victor Frankl and Stephen Covey to you, I agree. "Between stimulus and response is a space and in that space is our freedom to chose our response...."  If we think of our thoughts as the "stimulus" and our reactions to those thoughts as our "response." we can chose to react to our thoughts or not.  Pretty cool how this stuff ties together!

What the heck, Lucian?  What does all this "stuff" have to do with the photo at the top of this blog post?

When Courtney was in high school, she was prone to worry.  Worry is not a "present" experience.  So I would tell her this story of washing the dishes.  Courtney knew that if I said to her "wash the dishes," what I was saying was "chill out, you're thinking of the future, stay in the present and relax." 

Apparently my frequent reminder to "wash the dishes" proved memorable to Courtney and helped her to remind herself to stay in the moment.  So helpful in fact that she got the saying tattooed on her right forearm!

If you wonder if it took me some time to get used to the idea that my daughter's first tattoo was something that I said to her, you would be right.  You would also be right that I am very proud of Courtney and if she wanted that tatoo, I am proud of it, too.

Anchors up, jump right in ... (not a Trump ellipsis) and wash the dishes!

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