Zen and the Automatic Dishwasher
It’s the best of times and the worst of times: Visual inspiration has never been more accessible and abundant than it is today, but the rest of our senses—and our peace of mind— are being neglected.
When screen time is taking up the majority of our days, it leaves little for much else, which is why so many of us are maximizing our precious IRL time with soul-feeding activities.
The Buddhist practice of turning mundane tasks into meditation is nothing new, but "Mindfulness" seemed to reach a tipping point in the US in the early teens as smartphones and new forms of social media became mainstream.
In 2013, popular posts in Huffpo and Lifehacker extolled activities like meditative dishwashing as a therapeutic way to counteract the battering of information overload that had become part of everyday life.
Whether it’s sweeping floors, washing dishes, or waxing on and waxing off, the idea is to give a task your full attention while banishing all other thoughts and outside distractions. It’s simply about keeping your mind fixed in the present moment, whatever that is—and accepting and experiencing it, without judgment or inner dialogue.
It’s not an overstatement to say that doing this creates a feeling of profound inner peace, at least for as long as you can maintain the meditative state, which is a LOT harder than it sounds.
But if we practice correctly, we should get equal fulfillment from a task-turned-meditation regardless of the tools or technology involved. It’s about the sensation and experience of of what IS, whatever IT is.
Let's take dishwashing.
While there’s been much made about the long-lost pleasure of hand-washing dishes, let’s be honest and say that the charm of the chore tends to lose its appeal when it’s a daily requisite, as any old-timer who grew up pre-automatic dishwashers will tell you. Fond memories of Family Bonding and Learning Responsibility aside, the truth is, being faced with a stack of dirty dishes to manually wash after every meal is a drudgery most of us would not want to return to. (Not to mention that automatic dishwashers produce far better —and more sanitary—results than any human can.)
And it isn’t as if loading and emptying a beautiful state-of-the-art dishwasher can’t be as mindful and meditative as hand-scrubbing a pot or towel-drying a plate.
In other words, it's not as much about the what you're doing, as it is about the how.
So let’s not equate eschewing technology with achieving inner peace. Like dining by candlelight, washing dishes is much more romantic when it’s an occasional choice and not a necessity.
It’s our most mundane routines that offer the biggest mindfulness challenge and the most profound rewards. But laundering, ironing, cleaning, and scrubbing are things that--let's admit it-- most of us outsource as soon as we can afford it.
What housekeeping we actually do in modern life is becoming more about moving items from one place to another and letting technology--or someone else-- do the rest. We cycle through our days filling and emptying dishwashers, clothes washers, refrigerators, and closets; unpacking deliveries and re-packing returns; sorting and weeding as we go. It can be hard to stay in the present when so many of these actions require a series of tiny decisions and determinations.
But it's not impossible--the opportunities are there. Whatever you're doing, try to slow down. Observe yourself interacting with every object and take it all in. Breathe, smell, touch, listen.
I think Shunryu Suzuki says it best in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else."
Honestly? It's the best way to feel truly alive.