One thing at a time

I mentioned in an earlier post that an anecdote from The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh had stuck with me for the 20+ years since I first read it. Truth be told, I don’t remember if I anything more than the first five or six pages at that time. Probably not, since I didn’t pursue mindfulness as a discipline in any way.

But in those first pages I came across two ideas that deeply influenced me. “Unlimited time for myself” is one. “One thing at a time is another.” Here’s the passage.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.

At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

This helped me in a number of ways. I stopped reliving the past—I mean, I would review past events when there was something to be learned from doing it, but otherwise I let the past go. And I stopped worrying—I mean, I would plan for the future, but only until the plans were sufficiently refined, and beyond that I refrained from living in the future, whether through worry or daydreaming or some other kind of speculation.

Later this practice helped me resist the fad for multitasking (which seems to be experiencing a strong backlash recently). I am often scattered and unfocused in my activity, but I see it as a hindrance rather than a help to getting things done, and when I notice it I work hard to get back to doing one thing at a time.

And as I’ve rediscovered mindfulness, and the practices which cultivate it, I’ve found deeper levels at which I’ve tended not to be present to life as it is in the here and now. More about that in another post, perhaps.

All that said, it’s too tempting to turn a truth into a belief. By which I mean this.

Mara, the demon who plagued the Buddha, was passing through a village one day with his entourage when he saw a man walking down the road in deep meditation. Suddenly the man’s eyes lit up as he leaned over and picked up an object.

Mara’s entourage asked, “What did the man find on the ground?”

“A piece of truth,” Mara explained.

“How awful! Doesn’t this bother you when people discover a piece of truth, O evil one?”

“No,” Mara replied. “Soon after this they usually make a belief out of it.”

“One thing at a time” is a truth, but not the whole truth, and it is a mistake to construct a system based on it. This anecdote is equally true:

So one day a student walked into the Zen Center kitchen where Zen Master Seung Sahn was eating lunch and reading a book.

The student was taken aback: “Master, you said that when eating we should just eat, and when reading we should just read; but here you are eating and reading!”

The Zen Master replied, “When eating and reading, just eat and read.”