Dirty Dishes and Loving-Kindness

Thoughts on mindfulness in the wake of tragedy

dirtydishesI hate washing dishes. H-A-T-E.

About two weeks ago, our dishwasher made a horrid gasping, gurgling sound and ceased to work. I cursed, begged, and prayed. I may have kicked it (read: I did kick it … mercilessly, I’m afraid … while my children looked on in silent bemusement. Parenting fail.). I sent the extraordinarily handy moral theologian to the hardware store for a star-shaped Allen wrench. He took it apart. He put it back together. It was a lost cause.

For the few days between the untimely incapacitation of our dishwasher and the next available service call from our local appliance repair guy, the dishes required hand washing. I know there are probably a billion people who do this every day. I know — in the grand scheme of all tasks domestic and menial –hand washing a few days’ worth of dishes is hardly the end of the world. I’m not sure why I find this task so utterly loathsome … but, in the interest of keeping it real, I must confess that I do. I really do.

Whilst scrubbing my umpteenth tiny plastic cup, I remembered something I had read for a class at seminary. Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned Vietnamese Zen Master and peace activist, wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness:

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order 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 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 completely 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.

At first this remembrance made me cranky. Thich Nhat Hanh does not have a gaggle of small children sticky-ing up his few earthly possessions (and themselves and each other and every conceivable surface with which they come in contact) with honey and peanut butter and yogurt and Lord knows what else. I was tempted to call France to rouse him from his peaceful meditation to come wash my dishes on account of he finds it soooo miraculous. Then I started to think. I started to think about those little plastic cups filled with milk in the small hands of my children. I started to think about the way my husband holds his favorite coffee mug with his index finger resting just above the handle. I started to think about how these simple objects are a part of our daily family life … how they convey comfort and nourishment … how throughout our many moves they have come to symbolize what is familiar and what is home. I started to think about how each dish is used to feed someone I love. I started to wash them slower. I started to take pleasure in making sure they were clean. I started to enjoy washing the dishes.

Ok, perhaps mindfulness is actually miraculous.

After the tragic bombings in Boston, I’ve been thinking a lot about how fragile — how terrifyingly fragile — our lives are. I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend going through the motions of my everyday life while my attention is completely engaged in some speculative future moment. I miss so much. I miss so many opportunities to really see and hear and serve the people I love most. I miss so many chances to be conquered by gratitude for small handfuls of dandelions and carefully traced lower case “e’s” and gentle, fluttering kicks inside my womb and the weight of my husband’s hand on my shoulder.

Jesus teaches us not to worry about tomorrow, not to spend all of our time worrying about another day we have yet to be granted. We have this day. This day is enough. We have this moment. This moment is enough. We have each other. We have a God who promises to be present with us in this moment and all moments until the very end of the age. If we are brave and gentle like Jesus, we will know that this is more than enough. It is, in fact, everything.