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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Why Do You Wash the Dishes?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 14th 2007

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen master, asks this question in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. The great French-English singer, Charles Aznavour sings about something similar to this. In one of his masterpiece songs entitled "The Happy Days," of which he is the composer; he sings that "the happy days are here and now."

Dr. Byram Kerasu, a well known and highly respected psychiatrist, delivered a lecture to the psychiatric staff and students at Einstein Medical School in New York City many years ago in which he reminded all of us about the age old adage that "there is no use crying over spilled milk." Nevertheless, said Dr. Kerasu, "we cry and cry and cry." Therein lays many of our problems whether expressed in the language of a famous psychiatrist, a Zen Buddhist or a French singer.

The message that summarizes many of our problems is that we live too much in the past, crying over the "spilled milk" of yesterday or worrying and fretting about tomorrow.

Many years ago, in what seems to me like another life time, I was a school teacher. During that time I met many older teachers (I was young and had hair in those days) who bemoaned the loss of "the good old days." Many of those teachers reminisced about the brilliant students who attended the school in days gone by. They idealized what it was like being a teacher when they were young, stating that students were not violent, were trustworthy and went on to careers as doctors, lawyers, dentists and accountants.

Alongside these veteran teachers were a cadre of younger men and women a few of whom were in the habit of counting the days until the next vacation. I remember one math teacher who had a formula used as a ratio that expressed the number of days until the next vacation relative to the end of the school year and summer vacation. When I told him that he was wishing away the days of his life he dismissed my observation as just nonsense.

Do you spend your life bemoaning the past or worrying about the future? My guess is that this is exactly what you do because it is what we all do. This bemoaning the past and fearing the future is at the root of our stress, depression and anxiety disorders. This is why Hanh asks, "Why do you wash the dishes?"

Hanh states that the correct answer to the question is: "you wash the dishes to wash the dishes." WHAT? I hear you cry, this is craziness. Indeed, it does sound crazy but there is great wisdom behind the statement. Hanh points out that if you wash the dishes to get it over with so that you can watch television or do something else, you are not alive in the moment. He reminds us that the moment will never exist again and that if we do not live in the moment then we are not living at all.

Aznavour states something similar to what Hanh is saying. In his wonderful chanson, he asks, "do you hear the sounds of children playing and the birds chirping, do you smell the flowers of spring?" He goes on to sing that "all the yesterdays are gone and tomorrow may never be...the happy days are here and now."

Dr. Kerasu, discussing how tired he was at the end of the day when he was on the way to his private practice office from the hospital, would contemplate his exhaustion instead of noticing the way the sun was going down and beautiful shadows and colors over the city as he drove over one of the bridges.

Many anxious and depressed people tell me that when they awake in the morning, they anticipate the upcoming day with foreboding. Already, they are looking ahead to the day and are not living in the moment.

Borrowing the ideas from Hanh, Aznavour and Kerasu, what if we blocked out anticipating the day ahead when we awake and focused on enjoying the shower, that first cup of coffee, or tea or toast or cereal and the first breath of fresh air when leaving the house?

We take our lives for granted until something terrible happens and then we are traumatized into awareness of the preciousness of life. Do you smell the flowers, listen to the sound of the children at play, see the beautiful colors and enjoy the wonderful sensations of life? Perhaps you answer to these questions is no because, you might say, "I am too depressed." Yes, perhaps you are depressed and need to seek help. However, you could, perhaps, feel less depressed if you did make yourself aware of all the wonderful things that exist in the moment.

Your comments, opinions and observations are welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Slightly different question - malign - Mar 9th 2009

I thought you were going to say that the question was:

"Why do you wash the dishes, when you're just going to get them dirty again?"

But the answer, like you said, is "Because they're dirty now."

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