Meditation on Washing Dishes.

I used to hate washing dishes.

I’ve never owned a dishwasher, so I have always had to do the dishes by hand. I would typically leave to pile up for days until there was no further room in the sink and then reluctantly clean everything up because there was no other choice. When I was living with my brother, this was perhaps the one thing he hated most about me.

I used to take on this task in a grumpy mood, and it just felt like a chore — something I had to do that I did not want to do.

And as one grows up, you realize that there are a lot of tasks like this in life.

Necessary, but unpleasant.

As a child, I naively thought reaching adulthood meant freedom from dull chores. Now I see the mundane responsibilities that comprise daily living never disappear. Like dishwashing, these tasks are unavoidable, repetitive and unglamorous.

Scrubbing toilets, sorting laundry, pumping gas – it’s tempting to rush through these with frustration, eager to be done. But when infected with resistance, even simple jobs become more painful.

In the last year or so, something changed.

I have realized that anything that we have to do in life is worth doing well, and the following quote has really sunk in:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2)

And so it is with doing the dishes. This is something that I have to do, and so I might as well enjoy it and do it to the best of my ability.

I began to pay attention.

The sensation of the warm, soapy water on my hands, the way the ceramic goes from dirty to clean over subsequent motions with the sponge.

Washing dishes provides clear and tangible feedback on my progress. As each plate gets scrubbed, rinsed, and stacked to dry, I can visually track my advancement towards the end goal of a sparkling, ordered kitchen.

I’ve learned when I bring full attention and care to any task, perception shifts from obligation to opportunity.

Washing dishes mindfully revolutionized my experience of a commonplace chore, revealing hidden blessings. Approaching other mundane duties with same patience and presence uncovers their own lessons. Paying bills reminds me of how fortunate I am to have necessities like shelter and utilities. Keeping my home clean protects my family’s health, however tedious the process. Shoveling snow on a brisk morning gets me outdoors breathing fresh air.

Repetition becomes meditation. Necessity turns to connection. Chores transform from meaningless annoyance into true expressions of care. Adulthood offers many such opportunities to cultivate mindfulness and gratitude through humble tasks. Just as dirty dishes signify bodies nourished, messy gutters and mounting laundry reveal lives being lived with purpose.

Each time I engage fully, the mundane becomes meaningful.

And the sense of progress that these simple tasks generate helps to activate my brain’s reward system, releasing spurts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Neuroscientists have found that dopamine surges when we progress towards goals, giving us a little high of achievement and motivation to continue. No wonder tasks like checking off items on a to-do list feel so satisfying.

Unlike big, abstract goals which can feel overwhelming, washing dishes provides frequent dopamine boosts – each cleaned dish a little accomplishment. The visible results keep me anchored in the present moment, focused on the incremental steps rather than the end destination.

By breaking large goals down into small wins, we can activate this same intrinsic motivation cycle. Dopamine drives us forward, seeking that next hit of progress. While too much dopamine can become addictive, in moderation it helps provide the focus and energy to persist at tasks.

So, in the simple act of washing dishes, we can find insights about the mechanics of motivation. By celebrating small accomplishments, we build the momentum to tackle more meaningful goals.

Because if we cannot do the small things right, we are unlikely to be able to do the big things right.

If you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world? My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start with yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way. I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized.

Jordan Peterson

A clean kitchen reminds me that, as Lao Tzu put it,

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

This gives me satisfaction, and I have taken some chaos and turned it into order. I have made a slight dent in the entropy of the universe. This act connected me to the deeper rhythms of the universe. Physicists see order and disorder as a cosmic dance, with entropy always rising. Yet, in the microcosm of my kitchen, focused effort could reverse entropy’s arrow, if only for a moment. Perhaps by mindfully doing small tasks, we make ripples that counter the inexorable pull towards disorder.

I notice a strong correlation between the days when I do the dishes this way and when I let things pile up.

The state of my kitchen became a barometer for my mental state — and a vehicle to cultivate presence. When I am on top of things and feel confident that I have a handle on this thing called “life”, I do the dishes well, but I have also noticed that there is a dual feedback mechanism.

Not only do I do the dishes when I am feeling good, but doing the dishes can trigger make me feel good.

Of course, I am not the first person to understand this.

I’ll leave you with this:

In Buddhist monastic traditions, monks would go out each day with bowls to beg for food from laypeople. This practice of seeking alms was seen as a spiritual practice of humility and detachment from material possessions.

After receiving the donated food, the monks would return to the monastery and eat their meal. But they were expected to cleanly wash and store their bowl after eating rather than leave it for someone else.

For the monks, washing their alms bowl was a vital part of the overall ritual and meditation practice. It was a mindful, present-moment activity — much like the ritual of eating the alms meal itself.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned modern Buddhist monk, wrote about washing dishes and bowls as an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant.

I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.

With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.

I will be constantly dragged into the future, miss out on life altogether, and never able to live in the present moment.

Related Essays