Tai Chi and the Dishes

How do you wash the dishes? This is one of those things that, I think, everyone has to do (at least once you stop putting it off). But how exactly do you wash plates, cups, and spoons? It’s no simple task to judge the weight and shape of every piece in a pile of objects, choose one, then hold it in one hand while using the other to clean its contours. At the same time, you visually assess the object for debris, add soap and water as needed, and then stack it someplace for drying.

Of course we don’t think about any of those things. We just wash the dishes and try to be done with it so we can go back to playing our Tai Chi forms (heh).

What I see here is a perfect microcosm of the fundamental principle of Yi or intent in life. We are not usually present with our individual actions when we go to wash the dishes. We are not conscious of what we’re doing. But as Thich Nhat Hanh cautions,

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” … If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

When you practice Tai Chi long enough, you can perform postures and transitions without thought, but this is not Tai Chi, nor is it really “alive”. The idea of using “intent” is to fully be present with each movement of the body (or hey, the mind!) while playing your Tai Chi form or while working on any task.

As I pick up a bowl, I feel its weight in my hand, supporting it (Peng) while I move in my other hand to begin cleaning. If I find my attention wandering to other events, I gently bring it back to the bowl, telling myself, “I am washing this bowl right now; the other thing can wait.”  Often I will get impatient with the endless sea of bowls and try to speed up my washing, a tactic I’m well aware has broken many bowls! When the bowl is clean, I need to get it to the rack, so I shift my weight smoothly to one foot and rotate my body using my hips so I can comfortably place the bowl in its place. If instead I were to stretch my arm to the side and twist my torso, I may find that my lower back is sore later (for some weird reason). Tai Chi alignments aren’t just for the form.

In Tai Chi we never stretch when we could comfortably reach and if we cannot comfortably reach we move our core (or your lower dantien) to make the distance easier. With a little practice, the art of lift, wash, turn and set down, lift, wash, turn and set down can become a rhythmic qigong set in itself (I believe Tai Chi is just applied qigong anyway). It’s at the least more interesting than just creating clean dishes. Keep the focus turned inward on your body and its motion and your “chore” can even be relaxing.

Now what about the breath? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. When my mind is present with the actions, my breath is smooth and even. If I am moving in straight, jerky lines, my breath is also jerky and tense. As you put your hands in the water, take a moment and feel your breathing. What does it feel like for you? Practice letting your breathing become soft and gentle before picking up the next plate.

If you clean out the sink before you know what happened, you may have made some progress in your Tai Chi.

  1. Nhat Hanh, Thich (1975,1976). Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press books. ISBN 0-8070-1232-7