Meditation as Ritual (or How to Meditate While Doing the Dishes)


There is this time of day that I despise.  Dinner is over, the kids have been bathed and put to bed, and the sofa is calling to me.  I just want to pour a glass of wine, sit down and mindlessly scroll through Facebook.

But the house is a mess.  Things are everywhere.  Toys are scattered about every room.  Books and puzzle pieces litter the tables.  For some reason, pillows and couch cushions have made their way into the dining room.

My mind can’t relax until it’s all put away – until the little bits and pieces of stuff get put back into their proper places.

And so, I move from room to room, up the stairs and down, out to the backyard, back into the house.  Pillows get put back in the living room, little shoes go back in the bedrooms, tiny clothes back on hangers, toys in boxes, books on shelves.  It’s just 20 minutes, from start to finish, but the whole time I’m annoyed, each item is a nuisance to me, and I think bad, bad thoughts about the little people who have created such chaos.

When it’s done, I sit down in a huff.  Wine glass in hand, computer on my knees, I finally let out a breath and think: this is it, now I can relax.  And slowly, the weight of the day comes off and my mind starts to slow a bit.

I hate it, I really do.  That 20 minutes feels like forever, and recently, the anticipation of it has started to weigh on my mind.

I find that when I’m putting Harry in the bath, I quickly pick up a few things on the way upstairs.  As I rock Eva to sleep, I’m strategizing about how to order my cleaning activities so that they are most efficient.  When I’m reading the bedtime stories, there is another part of my brain that is making a list of what needs to be done.

Yes – so call me crazy.  Seriously, what real efficiencies can be found in a 20-minute clean up session?  (Actually, don’t answer that question – I’m sure they exist, but that’s not the point.)

 *     *     *

 Erica used to hate doing the dishes.  She lived in a dishwasher-less apartment in Astoria and had to do it all by hand.  The dishes were her nemesis.

She would watch the dishes pile up over the course of the day and mentally will Evan to do them.  Dinner time would loom and she would debate whether to do them before cooking, or wait and put in a big session post-dinner.  Occasionally, against her better judgment, she would leave them soaking until morning.

And then, one day, she said she had an epiphany:

Those dishes weren’t a chore.  They were actually a meditation practice.

(I know, I know.  I’ve known Erica all her life and she has always been a “glass half full” type of person.)

While doing the dishes, she lets the distracted part of her mind focus on the mundane task of washing, and focuses the other part of her mind on breathing.  By the end of the 20 minutes at the sink, her mind is clear and present.

Once the dishes became a meditation practice, they were no longer a chore. They were a ritual.

 *     *     *

Our days are filled with things that must be done as a matter of routine.  We shower, we put on clothes, we commute.  We change diapers.  We answer all matter of “Why” questions from toddlers.  Indeed, we pick up and put away those things that are out of order.  We care for our family members.  We stand in line at the grocery store.

In South Africa, we hang our laundry out to dry – all of it!

Sometimes we find efficiencies.  Sometimes we pay someone else to do these things for us.

But, without fail, there are just some things that must be done – weekly, daily, even hourly.

Throughout history, people have come up with brilliant ways of making routine things interesting.  Cooking and eating are cultural, getting dressed is artistic.  Back in the day, building a barn was a chance to get together with neighbors and making a quilt was a chance to gossip and laugh with friends. (Watch this to see the power of ritual and the power of teamwork in action.)

Routine is an ugly word.  But ritual is beautiful.

*     *     *

One of the reasons that meditation is difficult is that our mind stays active, jumping from one thought to another.  We aim to sit still and focus our breath, but our mind doesn’t like that.

Interestingly, a lot of the activities that we perform on a routine basis don’t require the full focus of our mind.  We do them so often, and so well, that we can do them with only the repetitive part of our brain going.

And, funny enough, by using that repetitive part of our brain, the mind can sort of switch off and go into a quiet place.

This is what Erica noticed about her dishwashing meditation practice.  Her brain was busy with the repetitive task of washing the dishes, which left her mind free to focus.

 *     *     *

Today, you will probably be faced with certain things that you don’t want to do.  There will be delays, lines, chores and questions.  But how can you turn those things into a blessing rather than a curse?

What routine will you turn into a ritual today?