Want to Change the World? Meditate and Wash the Dishes
“I am stressed out!” I let out a long sigh next to Phil1 – whom I took the liberty to regard as my teacher – as the waitress were putting down fresh rolls and mango salad on the table. We were about to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Rotterdam, where the ambient was elegant – lanterns hanging on the ceiling; a cherry tree placed in the middle of the room, stretching out the thin branches to show off its white buds; sunken late afternoon light illuminating in the room and the view of the old cathedral’s stone wall through big glass windows. Phil seemed not surprised, he turned to look at me for a moment and asked “Do you have a choice?”. I said I did. “Then breathe”, he smiled.
Phil always has the shortest best advices. Another time when I fretted about having reverse culture shock after coming back to Vietnam, he suggested: “Meditate.” I listened to him. Breathe in. Breathe out. Om.
After a few months practicing meditation, I began to understand and started giving the same advice to others. Your boy friend doesn’t care about you any more? Meditate. Your mother cares about you too much? Meditate. Your work has become a pressure cooker? Meditate. You cannot stand the idea of meditation? That’s exactly why you should meditate. When I did this, people would either raise their eye brows up a knot or pretend they didn't hear what I’d just uttered. In their heads, they probably imagine floating in the air while sitting cross-legged in a robe, bold head or wearing a turban, the Buddha chanting played in the background.
Meditation is, in fact, very simple. You don’t need to climb to the temple on top of a mountain in Tibet or India – though please go if you can – you can do it here and now, in your kitchen, in the bathroom, in the subway, in your office. True teaching is what accessible for everyone, even – and especially – those who have nothing.
Thich Nhat Hanh is the Zen Buddhist monk who is considered to be the Calmest Man In The World, whom Martin Luther King Jr. respectfully called “an apostle of peace and nonviolence”, and whose teaching encourage the practice of mindfulness in even the smallest acts. From sit with “spine upright, but not rigid” and relax all the muscles in our body; to drink tea “slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves”; to wash dishes with “movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha”. That in itself is meditation. We can bring mindfulness and meditation to the most mundane acts. Next time when you are in front of the sink after dinner, try meditative dish-washing.
Push the off button of your mind, shut down its incessant noises that tell you how boring of a chore washing dishes is. Notice your breaths. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe with your belly. Your belly should rise when you breathe in so the air can reach your center. And your belly should fall when you breathe out to expel all the stain inside you. My yogi told me to have a round belly when I breathe, like a new born baby. Watch babies, their belly rise as they breathe in and fall as they breathe out. We grow up and forget how to breathe.
If it’s your first try, I bet your mind has wandered off some where, like a monkey hopping around. You will probably be thinking about the evening show or the email you need to send tonight. Observe your monkey mind and realize that you haven’t able to mastered it. And put it to sleep again. Breathe in and breathe out. Rise and fall.
Now back to the dishes, feel grateful for this task because used dishes means there was food on the table. Feel the soft white foam of the soap; notice its lemon fragrance. Sense the warmth or freshness of the water running through your fingers. Listen to its sound as it flows from the tap like a small stream in the forest. There is a Vietnamese ancient poem that compares bowls and dishes in the sink as white flamingos, bathing themselves to get ready for sleep after an abundant meal.
You are in the forest, knee-deep in the clear shimmering lake water, bathing white flamingos so be gentle. Make as little noise as possible when you put each white flamingo to their nest on the dish rack so as not to startle the sleeping ones. Suddenly the fifteen minutes doing dishes were fifteen minutes worth living.
Thich Nhat Hanh said: “At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.”
You may think “I have a mission and ambitions. I don’t have time to sit. And why waste my time with such mundane act?” I know. I used to think the same. Until I realized that, in the words of the Nobel Peace Prize Nominee – Thich Nhat Hanh, “Meditation is not to avoid society; it is to look deep to have the kind of insight you need to take action. To think that it is just to sit down and enjoy the calm and peace, is wrong.” It is from a place of mindfulness and stillness that all else spring. No one can truly fulfill the outer purposes when that person hasn’t learnt the path of the inner journey. So one step at a time, take the first one, today, after dinner.