Doing the Dishes: The Power of Simple Meditative Practice

I have a mind that spins like a pinwheel. I’m willing to bet I’ve spent at least three-quarters of my life totally lost inside my own head, churning out stories about what I think is going to happen, how terrible or wonderful it will be when it finally does, all of the various ways I’ll respond to this or that situation, and on, and on. At times, the winds change, and my pinwheel starts spinning in the opposite direction. I rerun situations from the past, imagining all of the ways I could have acted or said something differently, building out the story, finding tenuous connections between experiences, inserting meaning here and there. Like lots of other people, I spend the majority of my time in the past and the future. Very rarely do I find myself firmly rooted in the present moment.

The human mind is not naturally wired for the present. Our species has flourished because we’re wired the other way. We’ve evolved with the tendency to keep close attention to the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and to plan for and foresee danger coming. As furless, clawless, dull-toothed, warm-blooded, rather slow and clumsy animals, our survival depended on worry. Being mindfully present meant the possibility of becoming another animal’s lunch. We have survived and thrived by our brains capacity to remember and plan (and opposable thumbs helped, too). While most of us aren’t running from lions and tigers anymore, evolution happens slowly, and the basics of our wiring has not changed as much as we’d like to think in the six million years our ancestors have been on earth.

The world looks very different today than it did millions of years ago. Hell, it looks vastly different than it did one hundred, fifty, or even fifteen years ago. Personally, I don’t have to worry day to day about my survival in a bodily sense. I understand this is a privilege, and I'm going to speak more about this just a moment, but in my current experience, I’m walking around in a relatively safe life with a brain that is determined to keep me alive by brooding, planning, interpreting, and bracing for that lion. For me, the lion mostly takes the form of what other people will think of me, sometimes it’s more immediate, like whether I will be able to get the bills paid, at other moments it’s more abstract, like whether or not life has any meaning, or whether all the energy I put into writing is actually doing any good, or whether I will ever feel satisfied with my work. In the absence of a real lion, I make one up, and my mind hums along as if the metaphorical lion actually has the power to tear me to bits.

While everyone deals with this to a certain extent, it’s a problem that goes deeper for some more than others. The actual experience of being unsafe that many of us experience in our childhoods, in our addictions, and in situations we often find ourselves working through in early recovery, rewire our brains in powerful ways. The stress response to threats programmed into our brains is there for a reason. If I were walking through the Sahara, and I came across a lion, the response I want is one where my body releases adrenalin and cortisol, my heart starts beating, my airways open up, my muscles tense, and my pupils dilate. I need to be able to either fight that lion, or run from it. This is the correct response. But what if that lion (threat) lives in our house? What if the threat is the daily experience of domestic violence? Gun violence in our communities? Living in homes where people are acting erratically because of their substance use? Locked up in prisons where there is constant threat? In situations like these, our brains are short-circuited. The fight or flight response, which is meant for survival purposes, becomes our default mode. We become stuck in survival mode, and the impact of this on our mental and physical heal is devastating. Check out this excellent TED Talk to see just how destructive it is.

For most of us, when we enter recovery, we bring brains that have been impacted by trauma. I know it’s absolutely true for me, and I suspect my experiences as a child, and in my addiction, play a significant role in causing my brain to spin the way it does. Like addiction, the default mode of stress and worry, which I developed as a survival mechanism, has been incredibly hard to break. Years into my recovery, I still experience the consequences of it in my social life and the anxiety I feel around most interactions, in my relationship with food, in my marriage, in my work, and in a broad sense, my ability to feel serene, happy, and whole. Maybe you struggle this way, too. If so, you're not alone, and I’d encourage you not to beat yourself up about it. Like I’ve said, this stuff is deeply rooted and not easy to overcome.

A couple of weeks ago, I found my self spinning again over one of the existential lions I tend to create now that I’m living a relatively safe life in recovery. My thoughts were playing like a scratched record. I’d think through my anxieties, arrive someplace, decide I wasn’t going to worry anymore, and without choosing, my brain would start from the beginning and work through them again until I arrived some place, and on and on. I’d been obsessing on this particular anxiety all day. I was worn out, and my wife was, too. Eventually, I got on the phone with a close friend, a guy who’s been helping to guiding me in my recovery for the past couple of years, and I talked through the thoughts that had been haunting me all day.

After listening to me for a while, he said, “Why don’t you do the dishes and call me back.”

This was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted him to tell me all of my fears were true, and my frantic mind state was the proper one. I wanted to explain how my particular existential anxieties were crippling, how I needed to make immediate and revolutionary changes in my life, quit my job, sell all of my belongings, move to a new state. My brain was totally caught up in the fight or flight response that I’d honed as a child. I slip into it sometimes without knowing why or how, and once I’m there, it’s hard to see outside of it. Ultimately, I did the dishes. I started out begrudgingly, and the most frustrating part of the whole thing was that I felt a whole lot better after I was finished. Once again, my friend was right.

I tend toward thinking when it comes to problems. The difficulty with this approach, however, is that my problems are often rooted in my thinking. It’s really difficult to think my way out of my troublesome thinking. And here’s where the dishes trick gains its power. Doing the dishes is an activity that is relatively mindless, but just engaging enough to keep me focused. Most importantly, for me, it turns my attention toward my physical experience. As I wash dishes, I’m feeling the sensation of warm water on my hands, listening to the hiss of water, smelling the soap, I'm right there with my work, and I'm seeing progress as I stack the dishes in the strainer. The same is true of walking aimlessly, or vacuuming, or coloring, or sitting in the sun and listening to the birds. Essentially, my friend tricked me into having a little meditation session there at the sink. I was meditating without even knowing I was meditating.

I've been known to complicate meditation. I like to think about monks sitting in caves on mountaintops. I like to think about hours of sitting. Years of silence. Enlightenment. When I consider mediation this way, I’m missing the point, and once again I’m back to thinking, thinking, thinking. I’m the kind of guy who needs to keep it simple. I need to do the dishes. I've had some success with sitting meditation, but what really works for me is mediation that involves the some kind of mindless action. It counts as meditation if I approach it mindfully and continue to nudge my thoughts back to the sensation of being in a body.

The beautiful thing I’ve found about taking simple meditative actions is that they tend to really work in the moment. And beyond the momentary relief I often get, I've noticed that over time my pinwheel mind has slowed down quite a bit. At the very least, I'm able to catch it quicker and come back to reality. Trust me, it still spins, and there are times when I find myself completely caught up in the whirlwind of my thoughts, but it’s not as bad as it was when I first entered recovery. Not by a long shot. Just as trauma creates the pathways that constantly trigger the fight or flight areas of the brain, meditation strengthens the connections that allow us to be present with feelings, observe them rationally, and not have to run (and this one, too). Meditation is the antidote to our pinwheel brains, and science is showing with great clarity that mediation literally changes the brain. It broadens our capacity to catch our minds pulling us toward stress response, and bring ourselves back to the present. And the more we do it, the stronger these pathways become. 

So if you’ve got a pinwheel mind like mine, one with pathways that have been forged by trauma and constantly bring you back to fight or flight, I think meditation is the best thing I have to offer. With practice, you can overcome this tendency. I’d encourage you, the way I’ve been encouraged, to let go of an idea of a “right way” to do it. I’ve found that meditation isn’t so much about having the right posture, the right chair or pillow, the right bells, the right guide, but mostly about the intention we bring to whatever activity we are doing. If sitting doesn’t work for you, go for a walk and pay attention to how walking feels in your body, how the ground feels beneath your feet, how the air smells, how your muscles respond to each step. Try sitting by a river or in the woods. Try joining a group of people who meditate. The opportunities are endless, and we should find what works best for us. 

Perhaps someday I’ll get really good at sitting in meditation. Maybe I’ll extend my practice to sitting twice a day for a longer period of time. I may take a vow of silence and move to a mountaintop. I might even find enlightenment and learn to levitate. Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll keep focusing on simple practices because, at the end of the day, meditation is immensely practical. All of the woo-woo spiritual stuff aside, it just helps me be a better participant in my life and be present for whatever or whoever I'm with in the moment. This is the good stuff, and the real reason I came to recovery. So, for now, I’ll just keep doing the dishes.