Washing the Dishes to Wash the Dishes

About a week after my son Sage was born I was sitting in the backseat of our car holding him and waiting for my husband to come out of the house. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but in that time all I did was sit and be with my son. I rubbed his back, I kissed his head, I took him in. I don’t remember my husband arriving or where we went next or anything else about that day. But that one moment remains vivid and real in my mind.

Lately I have this panicky feeling about time passing, like I want to grab it and make it stop. It feels like I am so busy trying to keep up that I am somehow missing my life.  I recently went to the doctor for a check up and she suggested I go for a follow up test for a small nodule she found on my thyroid last winter. Back then, to rule out serious illness I had an ultrasound and eventually a biopsy involving a long thin needle being inserted into my neck. That’s a needle going into my neck. When she mentioned the follow up test a few weeks ago, I responded with a blank stare. I had forgotten all about the biopsy procedure and even that I had a nodule to be concerned about.

Why is it that I can remember that moment in the car so well, but I could barely recall the time someone stuck a needle in my neck (and I let them)?

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, the well-known Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, talks about the concept of “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup  in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

I think this gets at the problem I am having with time passing. I would like for every moment to be as real to me as the one I had with Sage in the car. I was sleep deprived and shell shocked with new parenthood. My mind was simply too tired or uninterested in spinning plans or recounting past stories. I was just there. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully in each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.” Time to wash the dishes.

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About jubuhoo

I am a writer and editor in Seattle, Washington. I live with my two children, my husband, and our surly cat. View all posts by jubuhoo

6 responses to “Washing the Dishes to Wash the Dishes

  • zengirl1

    I love the title of your piece, and the way you describe the problem of time passing. I notice when I visit the monastery how a tiny Buddha statue is everywhere — in the kitchen, in a niche in a hallway, and on a shelf in the dining hall. At first I thought this was silly until I realized it was that little reminder to refocus. Little tasks are a great way to practice. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • jubuhoo

      Thanks for visiting the site! I like the idea of little Buddha statues around to remind you to refocus. It reminds me of Pema Chodron (another well-known Buddhist teacher) who says that whenever you realize your mind is wandering, you can bring it back by saying the word “thinking.” Simple, but effective.

  • Sam

    This is something that I am (not very successfully!) working at these days. It is very disconcerting to find myself unable to remember whether I did little things (like turning off the hose spigot after watering plants) – bits of time competely lost in a haze of being mentally elsewhere.

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