hg: Meditating with a Sponge

Ah, washing up. That old chestnut.

For those of us without dishwashers it’s a constant battle to keep those pesky dirty dishes at bay. They stack up swiftly and, if left for just a day, can mutate into a mountain of stubborn, grubby misery.

Despite this, I’ve gained the upper hand in my struggle with washing up thanks to a couple of small insights.

The first was gleaned from a book called A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto. It gives a glimpse into the daily rituals of Buddhist monks and explains why they follow such meticulous routines.

In particular, Matsumoto talks about the respect monks give to cooking and cleaning. Not only are these tasks vital in maintaining a healthy life and pleasant living space, they are also done in the service of a greater purpose. That purpose being to cultivate and calm the mind.

In order to do this one should perform them diligently and mindfully. Cleaning like a monk requires complete focus on the task at hand, whether it be scrubbing an oven dish or dusting the shelves. It’s a practise in mindfulness - an attempt to inhabit the present moment and calm the impulse to hurry along to the next thing.

I’ve tried to apply this mindset to washing up. I treat it like a sloshy, soapy meditation. I try to concentrate on each scrub of the sponge and every satisfying dunk into the bubbles.

By giving it my proper attention, washing up has been elevated to something wholesome and meditative, rather than an irritating chore to rush through. It can be done slowly. The gradual transformation from dirty, messy pile to neatly stacked draining board can be enjoyed.

It really has made the whole thing more tolerable. I take pride in doing it carefully and often volunteer to do the washing up when it’s not my turn. It’s not always a pleasure - I’m no monk - but it’s not a struggle either.

The second insight was derived from my obsession with minimalism.

During previous slogs through mountains of dirty dishes, I noticed cutlery was the most time-consuming and laborious part. There was a lot of it - we had thirty-two individual pieces of cutlery - and it’s fiddly to clean.

Something had to be done.

Naturally, I gravitated towards a solution that involved getting rid of things. My thoughts ran: cutlery is annoying to clean, especially in large quantities… we should have less cutlery.

And so, enduring valid accusations of insanity from Naomi, I took half of our cutlery from the drawer, bundled it up with elastic bands, and put it in a hard-to-reach storage box. We were left with sixteen pieces of cutlery (four knives, four forks, four spoons, and four teaspoons).

I reasoned that with less we’d never again be left with the soul-crushing job of cleaning thirty-two bits of cutlery. We’d also be forced to wash up more regularly. Little and often was the idea.

I’m pleased as punch to say it works. We now wash up once or twice a day, without fail, so it’s no longer a depressingly big undertaking. Gunk isn’t left to congeal on plates. It’s easy to stack the draining board. And the cutlery is a breeze! Another small victory in the mundanity of life. I wonder what else could be banished from the kitchen...

I never considered Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and voluntary simplicity to be applicable to such lowly routines - their rightful place being monasteries and minimalist Japanese households. Not so. By simply concentrating on my washing up and embracing the task, and by getting rid of some cutlery, I’ve found a useful way of incorporating a bit more Zen in my daily life. Namaste.