Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes
The Ambiguity of Modern Life
Modern life - and especially work - is one constant ambiguity. We are taught to always question ourselves, and to compare ourselves with others around us. This results in a constant, synergistic, increase in our stress levels, which means that our state of mind is always in flux:
Am I performing well? Is the job going well? Am I doing a good job? Did I buy the right things? Did I spend too much money?
One simple solution to this dilemma is meditation - but who's got the time for that? The rhythm of modern life normally looks something like this: wake up, get ready (quickly), travel, job, travel, home, eat, clean up, go to bed. Time for a bit of R&R is mostly in there somewhere, but it normally takes the form of TV, which increases your tension (look at all of those successful people! What a sad situation! etc...) rather than decreasing it.
All of this can really be related back to ambiguity of existence. Unless we have definite goals and a measurable outcome (which mostly result in more stress when we don't meet them), we won't know how we're doing. Or rather, we only know how we're doing comparatively, with all the ambiguity that entails.
Modern Stress-Release Mechanisms
The paradox of today's society is that given the daily grind that we put ourselves through, our "relaxation" measures don't look any better! Going shopping is an exercise in ambiguity - should I get these shoes or those? What is everyone else getting? If I get these, will I be satisfied? (Watch the video at this point.)
These measures don't even give the mind a break! Meditation is great (I've been meditating for years now), and, if done daily, and help with some of the issues arising from this kind of life, but it's not perfect. It allows you to find your inner harmony, and increases your positive emotions. However, it does not really blend over very well with more mundane things.
One of my favorite talks: "Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice"
An Avenue of Escape
Strange as this may sound, the most effective stress-buster (by far) that I've found is manual labor. I'm not talking about building a house - that's a big job. I'm talking about the small things.
My personal favorite is doing the dishes by hand, closely followed by cleaning (cleaning whatever). The effect this can have on bad mood and depression is tremendous. If done mindfully, cleaning the dishes can give you an incredible sense of satisfaction. And the reasoning and process behind it is very simple.
Let's take doing the dishes as an example (yes, I just did them, and yes, it gave me a little kick). The important thing is not actually washing the dishes. The important thing is mindfulness.
Before you do the dishes, take a moment to observe them. Notice how dirty they are. Have a look at how stained, soiled, sullied, and unclean they are. Take a moment to reflect on how good the meal was.
Now - clean and rinse them. Take your time. Make sure you get every little spot of gravy, every little dollop of ketchup. Every grain of cooked sticking rice. Notice how the sponge (brush, cloth, hand, whatever) removes the dirt. It doesn't come back. Play around a bit with the bubbles (you can make huge soap bubbles with only your thumb and index fingers).
And now, either stack them up to dry, or towel them dry. However, keep them in plain view before clearing them away. Again, take your time. Make sure they're properly stacked, or properly dried. Take a moment to admire your handiwork.
At this point, you will feel a sense of satisfaction. There is no ambiguity in cleaning the dishes - they're either clean, or they aren't. You took dirty dishes, and cleaned them, and can feel a little pride at this achievement. You may have taken a little longer, but you did a good job
I know it's not much, and I know it may sound silly, but this is a great holiday from the world of work, where every action can be questioned to infinity. In this instance, in this little action, you did an unambiguously good job. You took dirty dishes, and you cleaned them. Period.
Now pick your own manual task, whether it be simple household stuff, or some kind of craft (as long as it can be completed relatively quickly), and do it mindfully and with your full concentration and focus. Let this, in combination with your meditation, become your zen moment.
Hope this helps you all escape a little.