Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes

The strong chemical smell of detergent and sanitizer is carried into the air from the steam of the scorching hot sink where grease goes to die. A cacophony of laughs, insults, and profanities ring out from the small space where cooks dirty more plates for you to wash. The arrival of the bus pan means another plunge of your hand into the mystery liquid collected from all of the cups and leftover food on the plates of the last half hour’s patrons. Olive oil, parmesan, Pepsi and marinara mix to form a substance that can only be removed by extremely hot, high pressure water.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a nice dinner in a low lit restaurant where people are afraid of talking too loudly then this is where your plate ends up. It’s a stark contrast of the room you enjoyed the meal in, often separated by a single swinging door where cooks and servers collide with food in hand.
A couple of months ago, I took a second job as a dishwasher at a local family owned restaurant. This also coincided with my decision to look deeper into Buddhism, mindfulness and in turn, my own self. Having only a history of working in retail and cutting grass, I had little knowledge of what I was getting myself into.
As someone who overthinks every aspect of their day to day life and being neurotic off the charts; the idea of the Buddhist way of life caught my attention hard. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go through the world as an entity of pure love emitting gratitude and understanding? The promise of being able to turn the volume down in my own mind and apply the concepts to everyday life had me hooked. I began reading Buddhist texts and resumed my daily meditation practice from the previous year.
At the same time, at least four days a week I would show up to the stuffy, cramped kitchen and wash load after load of dishes. It turns out that having seven hours everyday where you stare into water containing leftovers from a local’s chicken parm will really test your mindfulness chops.
I found that after the new had worn off the job after a couple of weeks that it allowed for way too much time to think than I ever needed in the first place. Once the task was handed over from the active learning part of my brain to the autopilot part, I found myself in some trouble.
I began ruminating and deeply analyzing every part of the things I was learning and reading. At some points, I truly felt as if I was losing my grip on reality. In these moments I would try to remind myself of some of the main lessons I had learnt thus far. “‘You are not your thoughts’, ‘All that really matters is now be present’, ‘Follow your breath'” I would recite to my own mind. Eventually these things all muddled together and I truly felt lost. I thought about how much sense these teachings meant to me and got very frustrated when I seemed to not be able to apply them for myself.
Then, at the climax of my neurosis, I convinced myself that the only true way to be a practicing Buddhist is to live in a monastery. How could I possibly apply these ideas to modern life with social media and the need to make money to buy things I don’t need? I felt as if all of these were truly incompatible with daily life in modern society. No matter what I sought out, I couldn’t shake these thoughts. Being raised in a fundamentalist Southern Christian household might have contributed some to this but I could find nothing to attach my identity to Buddhism or being a ‘spiritual’ person. Simply being mindful and aware of things didn’t seem enough. I mean shouldn’t I have to shave my head every morning and wear saffron robes to truly live by these teachings?
At times I would have a sense of clarity. Thinking of the story of the Buddha as a man could give me some relief. The Buddha was just a dude who really sought out peace and found a way to achieve it and teach it to others when you boil it down to its most basic elements. He wasn’t the human manifestation of God like Jesus, or part of a pantheon of other entities like in Hinduism (not that these are negative things in any way). On the same note, the Buddha wasn’t a ‘Buddhist’ and Jesus wasn’t necessarily a ‘Christian’. They were both just people who had some good ideas to help live life and taught them. The people who came after them were the ones who applied the labels and weird rules to complicate the matter.
Then a partial realization hit me, maybe my problem was labels. I had spent my young adulthood identifying as a Christian by default without really ever putting too much thought into why. Everyone around me identified the same way and it was an easy mold to fall into since it was assumed. But now in my early twenties looking for new thoughts and experiences to grow as a person, I was trying to attach a label to everything to help the identification process. What is it about my mind that will not allow me to just accept knowledge without first attaching a label and adopting it into my identity? I have spent time looking into multiple religions and think they all have strong lessons to offer to life but I cannot seem to take the lessons at face value for what they are. I feel like I must first fully adopt and identify myself with the teachings before I can learn from them. I am still not sure what it is about my mind that makes me feel this way. Maybe it is conditioning from childhood or a circuit firing in the wrong way up there in my head.
I came across a quote from the Dalai Lama, it goes: “Don’t use Buddhism to become a better Buddhist. Use Buddhism to become a better whatever you already are”. I think my answer lies somewhere in that sentiment. I feel like I have begun to scratch the surface off of the answer deep underneath. The whole point of the Buddhist mindfulness teaching as I see it is to just apply awareness and compassion to everyday life and try not to attach to things and overcomplicate too much. That makes perfect sense to me. I have to find a way to put my Ego in the backseat and just practice.

Now to wrangle the beast that is my overworking mind and try to stick with the basics. For now all I can do is just sit and breathe.

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