As it turned out “mindful dishwashing” became a “thing” when I was a student in Lesley University’s Mindfulness Studies graduate program. Several of us independently discovered that we liked mindfully doing the dishes and decided that it was quite a viable mindfulness practice. There was something about the warm water and suds as scrubbing restored a squeaky-clean shine. In fact, hand washing dishes at home could be quite soothing. But washing dishes for over 100 people at a silent retreat I attended was another thing entirely. I did not know what I was getting into when I elected “dinner dishwashing” as my volunteer task to keep costs down for those attending the retreat.
Early on the first day those who had elected to do the dishes for one of our meals crowded into a tiny stainless steel bound room that was clearly designed for one purpose. We were shown how to use the hose with hot water mixed with detergent as well as how to refill its reservoir. We watched as the professional dishwasher was taken apart and put back together again, and we learned that it was necessary to wash the silverware three times because of health regulations. We were not allowed to take any notes, and I hoped we had absorbed enough to avoid any major disasters. I considered that those doing this demonstration had considerable experience orienting new recruits. Then I noticed a list of instructions posted on the wall, and we were told we could talk as needed to coordinate our efforts with our dishwashing partner.
We definitely had an opportunity for “careful noting of a greater number of objects” (Goldstein, 2013, p. 147) which can be useful to “stay aware in the midst of sloth and torpor” (Goldstein, 2013, p. 147). The large number of dirty dishes piling up on a counter beside us certainly woke me up fast. There was much laughter as we figuring out how to avoid getting sudsy hose water on ourselves and everywhere else. As we began to keep up with the growing pile of dishes, bowls, cups and silverware, we were also adjusting to each other’s preferred way of doing things.
In the sauna-like steamy atmosphere, the exertion and our playful and sometimes hilarious efforts at coordinating with each other provided a welcome change from alternate sessions of silent sitting and walking. I realized I no longer resented having to miss an after-dinner meditation session.
As we learned by doing, we began to “act and move with awareness, clearly knowing, being embodied rather than distracted” (Goldstein, p. 65). We still laughed often and I learned that was functional – As Funes (2000) writes, “As we use laughter to release emotions, we are able to…focus on the sensory experience of the present and we become able to perceive our environment more fully. We can therefore deal more effectively with new stimuli” (p. 77).
By the third day, we had it down “clearly knowing the purpose of doing an action before doing it, and understanding…it is of benefit to self and others” (Goldstein, 2013, p. 62). In the dining room, one of the cooks struck a bell three times to indicate everything was ready. That was answered by a strike of a triangular gong to invite folks to line up to get dinner. The two of us came up with our own dishwashing completed ritual – solemnly bowing to each other after the last clean dish was put away.
At the end of the retreat, I was asked to write on a slip of paper what I wanted to leave behind. I wrote “Being afraid of being silly.” I wondered what the teachers would make of that. They would not know about the marvelous playful and laughter-filled experience we had while mindfully washing dinner dishes. Still, I realized that not being afraid of being silly at times certainly makes sense. It makes one approachable. It cuts through barriers and takes us back to the open wonder at being alive of childhood. H. H. Dalai Lama’s tendency to tickle people is mentioned in a video made at a Seeds of Compassion presentation in Seattle and the depth of his playful relationship with Demond Tutu was such a joy to witness.
Funes, M. (2000). Laughing matters, Live creatively with laughter. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
Goldstein, J. (2013). Mindfulness; A practical guide to awakening. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.