The Importance of Mindfulness

For many people, the word “meditation” conjures up images of a two-hour “om” session in a room filled with candles, the scent of patchouli wafting through the air. While it would be nice if we all had a couple hours to focus on ourselves, and an unlimited incense budget, for most of us that’s not remotely the case. If you’re like me, your time is filled with work and family and all of the other little things that make up a day. You don’t have two minutes to meditate, it seems, much less two hours. But by learning to make do with the opportunities that present themselves throughout the day, you can find a few nice meditative interludes to help get you through your schedule.

The benefits of mindfulness are legion. Meditation and imagery are used to treat all sorts of physical ailments, and the stress-busting powers of mindful practice are becoming legendary. Western science is finally learning what Eastern practitioners have long known – the mind and body are inseparable, and paying focused attention to both has a positive impact on both physical and mental health.

“Sure,” you say, “I’d love to meditate. That all sounds great. But, I’m too busy just getting through my day to sit cross-legged in some room, humming to myself. That’s for gurus and retired people!” Luckily, you don’t need two hours, you don’t need to sit cross-legged, and you don’t even need a room. There are ways that you can gain the positive, healthful, relaxing benefits of meditation without even missing a beat in your busy day. I call this “Menial Mindfulness.”

My favorite menial mindful moments come when I’m doing what used to be my least favorite task – washing the dishes. We have a large blended family, and there’s no shortage of dirty dishes in my kitchen, ever. I used to struggle to motivate myself to get the dishes done. I’ve learned to use the time as a peaceful, centering interlude. It all has to do with slowing the breath, and opening the senses. Here’s how:

-Start with acceptance. The fact is that you have to do the dishes, and at that moment in time, you’re at the sink. You are going to do the dishes whether you fight it or not. So, think about this as analogous to your entire journey of change. There are menial tasks on the road to changing yourself. Here’s some great practice in how to embrace those tasks as you work toward your goals. Breathe deep, look at your task, and get ready to dig in. It’s a feeling that you’ll get to know.

– Approach your task with love and gratitude. If you have a roof over your head and a sink in which to do your dishes, there are many, many people who would give just about anything to be in your place. You are upright and breathing, and you are capable of washing dishes. This puts you in a position of privilege, and it’s worthwhile to remember that. As you continue on your journey of change and self-improvement, don’t forget to be thankful for what you’ve already got.

– Use all your senses, but especially your sense of touch. Many grounding/centering exercises use touch to bring us back into our bodies. Pick up the first plate, and feel its weight in your hands. What temperature is it? How smooth is it? How do your fingers feel when you grasp it? Turn the water on, and use your senses to experience that. Take your time… feel the warmth of the water, the smooth slickness of the soap, the texture of the dish scrubber. How does the soap smell? How does everything look?

– Keep returning to your senses. At some point, probably sooner than later, you’re going to want to escape into your thoughts. You’re going to want to race through this task and get it done so you can move on to “important” things. As far as your self-improvement journey goes, though, it’s hard to imagine anything more important than learning to gratefully accept whatever task you’ve been given in the moment. All self-improvement gains start with acceptance. It’s a wonderful skill to work on. So, as you hear your thoughts intrude, telling you that you need to hurry, asking you where the money is coming from to pay the bills, quiet your thoughts by returning to your senses. Feel that mug in your hands, slippery with warm soapy water. Express gratitude. Rinse. Repeat.

– Generalize your learning. What works for dishes works for walking down the block to the coffee shop or driving to work. Try a walking meditation, where your focused breathing and mindful attention to the feel of your shoes on the pavement provides your center. Life is a meditation, if you make it that way. You can refresh your mind any time you’ve got a menial task at hand.

Try menial mindfulness for yourself, with these ot other daily chores. If you find one that really works for you, share it in the comments.

Dr. Jeff Guardalabene is a clinical psychologist. He blogs at

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