Voice of the Present: Thich Nhat Hahn on Doing Dishes

Photo credit: touching peace photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

My dishwasher is broken, forcing me to relive the 1980’s, when Palmolive used to advertise “I love a man dishpan hands.” That man is me this week. And like most chores, I have tried to breeze through them so I can get to what I think is more important. Yet once I arrive at that thing I thought was more important, I idle, and merely think to the next thing I must do.

At the sink, with wrinkly fingertips. my mind turns to the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. (Talk about a referral!):

“To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value.

One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl. Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.

If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.”

In a land where multi-tasking is taken to be a virtue, is it any wonder that so many people devalue the labor of others (save for their own)? If we’d only be emotionally present in each task completely, rather than thumbing on a smartphone in meetings (or talking through someone’s presentation, or any other minor “multi-tasking” offense), the work world might improve a bit. And who knows, maybe quality may prevail over quantity. Or perhaps just the dishes would get done.

Photo credit: touching peace photography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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