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Have you heard that famous quote by Thich Nhat Hanh about mindfully washing dishes?
For years, I secretly hated that quote.
The truth was—I didn’t want to try to enjoy washing the dishes. Washing the dishes was boring. And when you’re a woman with a family who creates more messy dishes than a literal army, the last thing that feels possible is to enjoy another session at the sink when there are about a million other things you would rather to be doing instead.
In The Miracle of Mindfulness Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “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 completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.”
I’ve thought about the quote a lot over the years.
It always came into my mind when I was doing something really mundane that I didn’t want to be doing. Folding laundry (my nemesis!), cleaning the bathroom, picking up the endless detritus in the living room, and putting it back where it was supposed to go.
In those moments, I’d hear a wise voice in my head telling me I could be practicing mindfulness right now. And then another voice in my head would snark back that Thich Nhat Hanh wasn’t a woman and he didn’t have any kids. He didn’t understand the relentless doing for others and the complete lack of personal time (even in the middle of the night) that was, at least for me, the experience of early motherhood.
I wanted time for meditation. But I wanted that time to be filled with a kind of quiet peacefulness that never manifested in my own house.
To be honest, what I really wanted was to go on retreat.
Somewhere quiet where I didn’t have to cook and no one interrupted me with calls for Mommy. I watched friends go on those 10-day silent meditation retreats, and I longed to feel the level of inner calm and transformation I imagined that retreat would give someone.
I wanted a retreat…but what life gave me were years of busy life raising two kids. On the days that I got sleep, I would try to get up early to meditate in the mornings. For the many days (and years) that I didn’t sleep, I would practice in other ways. Watching my mind as I pushed the stroller through the park. Trying to let my mind rest when I stood in line at the store. Noticing my thoughts when they got stuck in a negative loop while I was driving. Becoming familiar with what I always thought about.
For a lot of those years, I kept looking for the beautiful space. The quiet morning on my meditation cushion. The candles. The peaceful space around me where I could relax. You know, the way meditation was supposed to look.
I thought I was just “making do” in all those other times. Doing the best I could under the circumstances. That’s what it felt like. A third-rate meditation practice that was squeezed into the gaps in my otherwise messy-looking life.
And then one day, I found myself at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, and a sense of the present moment washed in around me. I let my mind relax into that timeless moment. I felt the quietness on the inside of me, even though the house was still full of noise. And I understood that Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t mean what I had thought he meant about those dishes.
What he meant was: let presence find you wherever you are.
You don’t need to go on retreat. You don’t need to go looking for the present moment somewhere else. You can allow an awareness of the present moment to come upon you exactly where you are.
That was when I finally realised that what we call meditation doesn’t necessarily have to take time. Weaving it into our everyday life is the point of practice. After all, none of us live in retreat centers. So learning how to reconnect to our own awareness within messy real life is the best form of practice we could ever do!
As a practitioner, I was always looking for a teacher whose life looked like mine. Who understood how to practice within the chaotic realities of working parenthood. As a meditation teacher, I now see the value of all those years of messy-looking practice.
Those years taught me that we don’t have to wait for the perfect time to practice training our mind into presence. We can take any moment in the day to just let ourselves be, let ourselves alone. To stop intervening on life with all our doing and our thinking and our judging and our controlling and literally just feel the spaciousness of the present moment that is always right there waiting for us.
So if your moments of inner practice look messy at the moment, you’re doing it exactly right just keep practicing!
And I guess Thich Nhat Hanh was right. Go figure.
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