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The Cynic and Meditation

A friend of mine who is recently retired talked to me about the benefits of meditation. We had just finished dinner for four people at my house. My spouse had done all the cooking for the dinner party, so I was in charge of the cleanup. Franco, ever the polite guest, offered to help me with the dishes. I never turn down assistance. The dishwasher filled up quickly, so the pots and pans had to be cleaned by hand. As he plunged his elbows into the soapy water, Franco told me he took pleasure in washing dishes by creating little stories; for example, by pretending as he wiped clean a dish, he was bathing the behind of a baby Buddha. He meditates as he does the drudgery of cleanup.

I had heard this “clean the Buddha’s butt” meditation analogy before, so I had a ready-made response for Franco. “I think your meditation nugget was invented by an exploitative restaurant owner to convince his workers to wash dishes in exchange for very little money.”

Franco was silent when I said this, but I could tell from his raised eyebrow and slightly gaping mouth that he thought I was a cynic. I am, after all, a lawyer. He dried his hands with a dishtowel, put a washed pot in the drying rack, and turning to me said: “I guess that’s one way to see it, Ernesto. Pero (but) what it really means is that you don’t have to do anything special to meditate. You can meditate even during the mundane.”

Upon reflection, I think Franco was right. Not about washing dishes (Maytag has very good dishwashers for that), but about the peacefulness and calming effect of routine and otherwise tedious tasks.

I am now retired but, like many other professionals, when I was working all my days were full of back-to-back meetings. This meant that the donkey work – reading and responding to emails, organizing my notes, attending to HR matters – was left to the early hours of the day (before the meetings start) and the darkened hours of the late afternoon after most people have gone home or have locked themselves in their offices to likewise finish their tasks.

I found it strangely calming to sit in my office in the morning, with coffee in hand, before the buzz of the business day, reading the mountain of emails that had accumulated from the day before. I sorted them into baskets – this basket I can respond to immediately, this basket I will save for later, this basket I can delete and ignore, this basket I can file away for prosperity (sometimes known as the auditors). There was a rhythm to this “sort and delete” methodology. It was mechanical and tedious, but not overwhelming. It cleared my mind believing that the email backlog would be cleaned. It gave me peace of mind. It was as if I were bathing the behind of the baby Buddha.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the realities of work. It was stressful to get though the emails in the morning. It was even more stressful to continue working at the end of the day, trying to complete tasks that were (frankly) incompletable. My anxiety rushed, thinking I would not get thorough the grind, I would not be back home in time for dinner and relaxation. I would mess it up. But after allowing myself a few minutes of panic, I would calm myself down by getting into the hypnotic rhythm of solving problems and creating order. Slowly, patiently, thoughtfully and likewise meditative. The toil of work meant facing the emergencies and fires that needed to be put out every day. The joyful and relaxing aspect of work was to ignore the panic and steadily bring light to a cloud of darkness.

Now that I am retired, the toil and chores are different. They consist of balancing the checkbook, attending to the snow or garden, shopping and figuring out how to cook, exercising on my bike. I did all of these same things when I was working, and sometimes I have no idea how I had time to do all of that plus my office work. I realize that the “all of that” was not getting my meditative attention when I was employed full time. It was being done thoughtlessly and without pleasure. Now I can do it with mindfulness, with meditative pleasure, with a smirky-cynical-thoughtful half-smile as I chant: “I am organizing, I am deciphering, I am creating calm and order in my life.”

Wash the dishes relaxingly, as though each bowl is an object of contemplation. Consider each bowl as sacred. Follow your breath to prevent your mind from straying. Do not try to hurry to get the job over with. Consider washing the dishes the most important thing in life. Washing the dishes is meditation. If you cannot wash the dishes in mindfulness, neither can you meditate while sitting in silence. Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness.


(c) 2022 Ernesto Beckford

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