By Julia Prentice
I remember early in my college years I came across a book by Thich Nhat Han titled, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
It had some mind blowing ideas for me, a worrier, a perfectionist and someone who definitely did not live in the moment very often. The meditation that stood out the most was about washing the dishes. It guided you to only think about washing the dishes—not about what happened yesterday or many years ago, or the future, or what might happen. My heart balked at the idea, but I attempted to do just that. It quieted some of the catastrophizing thinking and made me calmer.
At that time I lived in an apartment with three other young women. As often happens when living with not very familiar people, there were things that really bugged me that others did. My roommate “Cheryl” had a habit of racing through washing the dishes. It seemed that often she didn’t do a good job washing dishes, one of the chores that we agreed to taking turns. So I thought of the mindfulness advice, and I added my own twist: I put up a sign above the sink saying: “there are two sides to every dish.”
I don’t remember if it solved the issue, but I remember always looking at the sign, and remembered to “just wash the dishes.” The sign also made me ponder the two-sided nature of human perception.
We all sometimes rush through things we do, and either forget, or skip over the other side of the dish. As a procrastinator I was often thinking of doing a dish later on instead of right then. This often caused me to beat myself up: why didn’t I just do it? As a perfectionist my doing the dishes never measured up to my too high ideals. I was often not satisfied with the result of my efforts.
There again: suffering.
Or if it is a particularly nasty dish we see, we humans may avoid it all together. This metaphor came to serve me well. I was examining things being either “good or bad” as two opposite poles, with nothing in between. However, what about the dish itself? How could it be inherently good or bad?
I often wondered if I made one side of the dish “bad’”then later saw it as good, how that could cause suffering? If I saw a person as all bad, I tended to avoid that person, then something would change my mind and my view would shift. How many things do we cast aside because we perceive them as bad? I believe this really can limit our experience of the world.
And there again: suffering.
I later began DBT therapy that included mindfulness as part of the skills training.
I recalled the two-sided world I often lived in and how I avoided “the bad side.” The black and white thinking caused its issues and in turn brought more suffering. But this new therapy was founded on a dialectical view of the world; things were neither completely good or completely bad but there could be a meeting in the middle. The meeting place was called Wise Mind and the skill was to not think in polarities, but synthesize experiences while being in Wise Mind.
When I practiced being in wise mind, the polarities I perceived could be reframed: maybe I didn’t hate someone, or something. Embracing the two sided (or many-sided) nature of the world, people and things in it, I now have a better understanding of my own behavior. Neither grabbing nor pushing away, not labeling things as good or bad, or avoiding what needed to be done gave me freedom from suffering.
When the other side of the dish needed washing I washed it. Neither side was good or bad and I did not have to wash dishes “perfectly” anymore—at least until the next time.
Julia W. Prentice was published in Where Journeys Meet: The Voice of Women’s Poetry, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice: Illuminating the Awakened Woman, (Dragonfly Press, 2016). She was a co-editor and contributor to Goddess: When She Rules—Expressions of Contemporary Women. (2017) She was a finalist in The Poet’s Billow Atlantis Award, in 2015 and had a poem nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017. She graduated from Clark University with a BA in Foreign Language & Literature. She currently works as a Mental Health Peer Specialist for the non-profit, Making Magic Happen—People Helping People. For her, writing is like breathing: deep inhales, ragged gasps and quiet whispers as she stories her passions of the heart. She recently moved to North Carolina, where she writes and enjoys the company of the love of her life and her furry companion.
Editor: Dana Gornall