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Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes

Updated on October 28, 2011

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.


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    • J - R - Fr13m9n profile image

      Jane Ramona Rynkiewicz Frieman 

      4 years ago from Morris County, New Jersey

      Kudos for this hub since it captures the "Zen" of what Asian philosophy is all about. Being mindful can be applied not only to housework since it can be applied to craft work also. Mindfulness go hand in hand with keen observation.

    • angel 0 zen profile image

      angel 0 zen 

      10 years ago

      This piece is beautiful, keep it up.

      An ordinary task doing it with full attention is an example of zen experience.

      Try to make it special or do it in a rush manner & you'll miss it.

      Ordinary mind is a zen mind.

    • Coeus profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from All over the world and then some.

      MrMarmalade: Thank you for your comment!

       thooghun: Thanks for the very relevant quote! Yes - an active mind is a mind as it should be. It'll be more creative, and you'll be happier. Jefferson knew the score. :)

    • thooghun profile image

      James D. Preston 

      10 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Coeus, I came across this quote and it reminded me of the thread!

      A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe, for felicity. ~Thomas Jefferson

    • MrMarmalade profile image


      10 years ago from Sydney

      Great hub thank you for the benefit of your insight.

    • Coeus profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from All over the world and then some.

      G-Ma Johnson - thanks for the lovely feedback :)

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      10 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      this was Good. I do my dishes by hand every single for many more years then I want to say. Never have had the luxury of a amatter of fact I have cleaned houses for many years and you are so right about how it makes one feel..when I was finished cleaning them I was tired but very proud of how nice the house looked. and my clients were very happy with my work and dis-liked it when I began taking care of children once again.

      I like the way you so pleasantly say things....G-Ma :O)

    • Coeus profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from All over the world and then some.

      Thoog - thanks for being an awesome fan!

    • thooghun profile image

      James D. Preston 

      10 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Always get a kick out of your hubs,

      Keep it up.



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