The Zen of Washing Dishes

Washing dishes: What is it good for?

I have been sitting on this essay1 for almost a week. What I want to write about is how I have found washing dishes to be a therapeutic experience, and how much I’ve missed it. However, at face value, this idea may not make a lot of sense, so I’ll start with a bit of Background.

Two (plus one) Pakistanis Fly Into Toledo

I was born in Pakistan, and I was raised there. I am from a middle-class family, and had the same kind of upbringing. The same is true for my very dear wife. In Pakistan, it is quite common to have domestic helpers to deal with a lot of chores. Consequently, we don’t worry about these things a lot. This is doubly true if you happen to be of the male gender. Due to a largely patriarchal social structures, men are at the same time expected to not help with chores and kept away from them as much as possible. For my generation, when the focus shifted to empowering the girl children, that translated to treating them the same as boys: Keep them away from chores as much as possible.

This is the background that my wife and I came from. When we moved to the US in 2019, it was a difficult early adjustment period for us. Even more so because of our toddler. It’s not that we were not able to do them, it’s just that we were not used to doing them. Picking up clothes, for example, was something we had done occasionally, but not as a habit. The same was true for washing dishes.

The Zen of Washing Dishes

When we moved to Toledo, OH in 2019, everything was a shock to our system. This was in spite of the preparation we had done. It is one thing to read, watch or hear, quite another to actually experience it 2. The first apartment we had did not have a dishwasher. This led to quite a few days when dishes would not be washed. This bugged me. However, I had learned to lead by example, and thought that if there was a gap in the dish washing, there’s no better person to fill it than me.

At first it felt a little odd, like wearing clothes a size bigger than you are used to. However, in about a week, I got into a rhythm. I had a system set where I would start a particular way, work through the dishes one kind at a time3, and then put them in the drying rack. This came at the time where I was pursuing my masters in bioinformatics and had a project that not many people had attempted before. This was a time of constant stress and anxiety. Oh, and did I mention that there was a global pandemic? AND the 2020 US Presidential Elections?

In the midst of all that, washing dishes became a sort of meditation for me. I was not thinking about other things. All that mattered was the next dish, the next scrub, the next rinse. It was a way for me to be in the moment, and not worry about the future or the past. It was a way for me to be present.

The Dishwasher

Years passed. We moved to a new apartment. Had another child. I graduated with my Masters and started my PhD. This dishes part, however, remained a constant part of my routine. In the new apartment, we had a dishwasher. This was bittersweet. On the one hand, I could get my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome the proper way: by typing too much on my laptop. On the other hand, I would miss the meditation that washing dishes had become for me.

However, all my fears were for naught. As our family had grown, and as we had gotten accustomed to the life here, the dishes had grown as well. The dishwasher became a new form of meditation for me. Rinsing the dishes, and loading them methodically in the dishwasher had its own rhythm. It was a different kind of meditation, but it was meditation nonetheless. Every night, I would get lost into the routine of rinsing and loading the dishes; glasses on the top rack, ordered by size, dishes in the bottom right, largest ones first, silverware in the basket, ordered by type. At the end of it, just before I’d go to bed, I’d load the dishwasher liquid and start the cycle. The zen of washing dishes had become the zen of loading the dishwasher.

Back to The Duties

Over the past few months, I had a break from this routine. I had been preparing for my USMLE Step 1 exam, and that requires a lot more time than I had available. That meant that my wife had to take over some of my duties, while I studied. This included the dishwasher, more often than not. I did not mind it, as I had a higher goal in mind. However, I missed it. I missed the routine, the meditation, the zen.

Last week, I took the exam. When I came back home from the Prometric Center, I headed straight to the dishwasher. I loaded the dishes, put in the liquid, and started the cycle. I felt a sense of calm wash over me.

When I looked at my wife, she said “I’m glad you’re back to your duties. I honestly dreaded loading the dishwasher and was waiting for you to take over again”. I love that woman. She gets me.


So what is the moral of this story? I don’t know. I just wanted to share this story with all of you, and record it for posterity. I hope you enjoyed it.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  1. Using the term essay very loosely here. ↩︎

  2. My wife would like to remind me, and everyone else, that this is the reason we should be very mindful about lived experiences and use them as a guiding principle, instead of relying on observed knowledge. That’s a major perk of being married to a social scientist. ↩︎

  3. The order was large dishes, followed by smaller dishes, glasses, pots and pans, and finally silverware. ↩︎