A hand-washing meditation for healthy minds and bodies

My first meditation breakthrough came while washing dishes at a Zen retreat nearly 15 years ago. Before this brief glimpse of enlightenment, dish washing and breath counting were chores: necessary, but not exactly joy-inducing. Today, my dishwasher is typically empty and unused; I prefer to wash dishes by hand, creating the opportunity to quiet my mind and be fully present.

I still vividly recall that long-ago moment in the Zen center kitchen: my senses became heightened. I felt warm water flowing over my hands like silk, the rough texture of the sponge pressing against my fingers. The scent of soap mingled with incense and the lingering aroma of vegetable stew. Sunlight shimmered off the water and steel, and the ting-ting clink of silverware echoed over the hushed whisper of the work leader. It was as if a veil had been lifted, and I was experiencing the world as it was for the first time. It was magical.

Thanks to coronavirus, I’ve applied the same mindful approach to hand-washing: no longer a chore, but a gentle, regular check-in with my mind, heart and body. Done at regular intervals throughout the day, hand-washing can be a marvelously efficient way to keep both our minds and bodies healthy during this challenging time.

Hand-washing meditation how-to’s:

  • As you stand in front of the sink, take a deep breath. Feel the coolness of the air touching your nostrils, observe the air entering your lungs, and then pull it even deeper: into your gut, your legs, your feet. Feel the breath go down into the floor, grounding you in this present moment. Exhale. One more time… good.
  • Now turn on the water and bring on the soap, liquid or bar. Pay attention to how the soap feels in your hands: is it cool or warm? What does it smell like? What texture does it have?
  • As you wash your hands, count your breaths: inhale/exhale “one,” inhale/exhale “two,” and so on, until you reach ten.
  • Notice the quality of your breaths: are they fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Fast, shallow breaths indicate stress and anxiety; don’t try to push this away, but simply accept that this is your physical response to the events in this present moment. See if you can gently slow and deepen your breathing without forcing it. Relax into the breath.
  • Rinse off the soap after ten breaths, being sure to pay attention to the feeling of water flowing over your hands. When you dry them, notice the texture of the towel.
  • As you bring this short meditation session to a close, tap into a sense of gratitude to yourself for this moment of self-care. What does gratitude feel like in your body? Notice and acknowledge this feeling.

Bonus step: After you develop a sense of mastery with counting the breath while washing your hands, add in an awareness of your body: are your stomach and lungs tense or relaxed? Simply observe without judgment and continue counting the breath. Allow the breath to move into your belly, inhaling peace and releasing any tension it may find there.

This process resulted in a handwashing time of nearly 50 seconds on my timer with calm, slow breaths. Healthcare professionals call for 20 – 30 seconds, so you should be well over the limit even if you’re stressed out.

Please let me know about your hand-washing meditation experience in the comments. I’d love to know if this helps make hand-washing less of a chore and more of a gift to yourself.

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