Martha Stewart says I should wash dishes by hand for my mental health.
The home living mogul and convicted felon has suggested that dishwashing can be a stress reliever. If done mindfully, meaning that the washer pays close attention to the task – the smell of the soap, the feel of the warm water in your hands, the sense of well-being in your home – then inspiration will increase and nervousness will decrease.
The last couple weeks or so have been what long-distance hikers would call zero miles days; staying close to home, being chill, getting comfortable in the hard days of winter.
Recently, I was standing at the sink when Martha’s words came into my head: “Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only 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, and to be truly in touch with life.”
I’m joking of course. Those words are from the great Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose life and words on mindfulness I’ve followed for many years. (It please me that Martha Stewart appears to know of him as well.)
Nhat Hanh had died the day before, and I was struggling to not become overwhelmed and sad about his passage. Faced with dreary weather and mundane tasks, I was rooting around for some inspiration to get me through, some words about life’s normalcy to hang on to.
I had the soap. I had the warm water. In a life of peaks and valleys, the valleys are longer, and deeper. You have to deal with the valleys.
But I wasn’t. Instead, I started stacking the dishes into the dishwasher, resigned. I became eager to move on to the next thing. And the next. I understood this to be the exact wrong approach – that the very act of being there washing dishes is a miracle in and of itself. My brain knew I should be deliberate. But my heart wasn’t there.
That’s when the ladies arrived.
My wife and daughter didn’t walk into the kitchen, they besieged the kitchen. They were awake, laughing, and had a plan. That plan was scones.
Incredibly, my first reaction was irritation. How dare they disrupt my foul mood. To be fair, proponents of mindfulness will tell you that there is some benefit to acknowledging and even allowing yourself to feel sad. But in this case, the ladies wanted nothing of my foolishness.
So, faced with the options of doing nothing and being annoyed or doing nothing and being neutral, I simply poured myself a cup of coffee and stepped aside. And, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, neutral – a deliberate choice – slowly began to become comfortable.
Here’s the really, deeply difficult thing about mindfulness. Nothing is not just a side effect of life. Nothing is a critical part of what we do and who we are. We are, you might say, nothing without nothing.
Want an example? Do this right now: Stop reading, find a comfortable chair, set a timer for two minutes and close your eyes and do nothing. Don’t meditate. Don’t think about lunch. Don’t nap. Don’t open your eyes until the timer goes off.
Now, take that one more step. Just be while washing the dishes. Just be while folding laundry. Just be while shoveling snow.
Most of us aren’t astronauts, or athletes, or inventors, or presidents. We’re just us, with our Toyotas and pop music on Alexa and lousy mornings. We don’t have the luxury of waiting around until moments of awe come calling.
So, I decided to do nothing differently from before but to do so deliberately. The day was still cold, the dishes still had to be done. But for that moment, at least, I was there with them. For them.
My mug was warm in my hands. The kitchen began to smell of dough. My daughter laughed. Small explosions in the air. Ripples in time and of time. An infinite cosmos stripped down to three humans in a kitchen at a table, just being.
The column is about nothing. And that is everything.