Long ago, in the year 1999, I was winding along the backroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains on my way to a friend’s house. Given that there was no radio reception in the area, I decided to listen to a cassette tape loaned by a friend some weeks before. As I maneuvered through the curves I heard a soft, gentle voice begin to speak on the topic of mindfulness. The voice belonged to a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. And the topic of mindfulness, though completely foreign to me, was intriguing.
“There are two ways to wash dishes. The first is to wash the dishes to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes… If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’.” What’s this guy talking about? Washing dishes? I thought this was supposed to be a tape on spirituality. Whatever. I can’t get a good radio station anyway, so I may as well keep listening.
The next thing I know, Thay (the name used by those familiar with him) is describing the sensation of warm water and gentle soap bubbles caressing the skin on one’s hands as the dishes are being washed. His vibrant description made washing dishes sound like a ceremony…an event to be cherished…savored even. I could literally feel the enormous significance of that seemingly mundane task and my eyes welled up with tears. And, just like that a spark of knowing ran up my spine and I understood. It is being present with all of life’s ordinary little moments, and recognizing them as wondrous miracles, that is at the heart of mindfulness. While washing the dishes I am not in the future, nor am I in the past. I am in the present moment…with the dishes.
This lesson has shaped the way I view most of life’s occasions. Driving to the grocery store holds the same significance as dining with a friend, or attending a family member’s wedding. As I wait in a grocery line, I am not thinking about whether I should change lanes to be served more quickly. Instead, I’m admiring the toddler straining from his seat in the basket to reach the brightly colored candies next to the register. When I sweep the kitchen, I pay attention to the broom bristles gliding across the floor, gathering dust and kitty litter into a pile. When I listen to a friend share about her ‘man troubles’, I remind myself to focus on her words and key into her heart staying attentive to her soul. I try to bring mindfulness to every event I experience, so as to fully engage with life. As Thay says, “The practice of mindfulness is to cultivate understanding and compassion.” Every moment can be source of meditation.
In an interview with Oprah, from three years ago, Thay describes some practices that enhance a mindful life…a couple of which I use in my daily life. One is called a tea meditation, whereby a person becomes fully present to the cup of tea (coffee in my case) he is drinking. He holds the tea in his hands noticing the heat of the cup against his fingers, breathes in the aroma of the tea, and slowly sips the tea savoring its essence. Thay tells Oprah, much to her surprise, that it takes one hour to enjoy a cup of tea; “...and every moment is a moment of happiness.”
Thay also describes walking meditation (one of my favorites) whereby you walk while paying full attention to every step. “You touch the ground mindfully, and every step can bring you solidity, freedom and joy.” During times of stress or unknowing, I like to conduct this sacred practice while silently reciting The Serenity Prayer. It brings me back to center and reminds me to stay aware to what is and is not “mine to do”. Very grounding.
Recently, when Thay became quite ill (as the result of a stroke) and it was believed that he might leave this Earth, I momentarily panicked at the thought of losing this great teacher. But, then I was reminded that gifts exist even with the departure of our teachers for it is then our turn to share their wisdom with the world. Thankfully, Thay is still with us today, and, I’m grateful for the potential of more lessons. I am also mindful of the fact that my continued practice (and teaching) can start today, with my very next action.