Zen and the Art of Dishwashing

How long does it take you to wash dishes? Not long enough.

In an early session, prior to being diagnosed with OCD, my psychologist suggested that it likely drives my wife crazy when I re-arrange the dishes in the dishwasher.

This caught me by surprise because I’d disclosed nothing about this, and she mentioned it without prompting. However it also gave me hope because clearly this is a thing people do—I’m not the only one, and furthermore there are therapies for OCD once it’s been diagnosed. Personally, I prefer knowing about, and having a definition for, my behaviour—especially when it’s less-than-optimal.

With respect to OCD, you can do a self-test: “Would {insert person I respect} do (or think) this?”

If you repeat that query for a number of people you respect and still cannot come up with an example of someone who would “go there”, then there is a decent chance the behaviour is excessive.

Once you know, you can choose to do something about it. There are a number of established therapeutic practices, which I don’t pretend to know enough about to try to elucidate here, however the following has worked for me and my dishwasher-arrangement obsession.

It’s related to a realization borne out of the pandemic. One of the mantras I learned to repeat to myself is, “I may not have control over when or how I ultimately perish, whether it’s COVID or anything else, but what I can control, is to make today—this moment—the very best it can be. I get to choose that, now.”

So what does all this have to do with the dishes?

If you’re like me, you’re familiar with the “dish race”, in which you rush through the chore, trying to get it over with as quickly as possible, so you can go back to doing whatever it is that seems more important or enjoyable.

In Tai Chi (and some other movement systems) there is this concept of slow walking. That’s a topic for another post but what I’m getting at is “slow dishwashing”.

Challenge yourself to take what would seem to be an excruciatingly long time to do the dishes. Really take the time to pay attention to each dish. Who used it? Where did it come from? Did you buy it, or your spouse, or was it something one of you owned before you lived together? Where was it made? Who, do you imagine, made it? What sound does it make as you slip it into place in the rack (if you use a dishwasher) or what does the water sound like dripping off it? How heavy does it feel in your hand?

There is no shortage of things you can notice about the current moment if you choose to pay attention to the details.

On several occasions now, while practicing “slow dishwashing”, I found my self enjoying a positively elevated state of mind; a sense of contentment or equanimity that normally eludes me.

A side benefit is that while this is happening I find myself more free from the fixation about the arrangement of dishes, and the whole process is a better experience as a result.

The cost might be 5 or 10 minutes a day, but the return can be priceless.