Filed in Work, Zen (Chan)

The Dust Beyond the Cushion

From dishes to dusting, from window-washing to bed-making, housekeeping provides an everyday opportunity for practice.

Gary Thorp

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Ready to get started? The following are some practical tips on how to approach various housekeeping tasks with mindfulness, adapted from Gary Thorp’s book, Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks.


Use the time you dust to enhance your sense of touch. You can experience a feeling of intimacy with the things in your environment by caressing the various objects before you, becoming familiar with their shapes once again and remembering how they came into your life. As with sweeping, make sure that you give your full attention to those areas that would be easy for you to hurry over or to abandon entirely. The idea is not to go over or around things but to go into them.


The next time you sweep the floor, try to move with deliberation, feeling both the support of the floor beneath your feet and the protection of the ceiling overhead. Try to sense the differences between rooms and to be aware as you move from area to area and from environment to environment. Notice the different qualities of light and the variations of shadows. And experience both the fragility and the strength of your own body as it goes about its common work. If you move the broom from left to right as well as from right to left, the broom will wear more evenly and, in the process, you’ll experience two different sides of yourself. You may notice some awkwardness when you first turn the broom around, just as you feel a bit ill at ease whenever you change your perspective on things. Try to stand a different way or to hold the broom in a different way to see what else happens. Start to give more attention to the floor’s edges and corners. Think about your own shadowed areas as well as those that are out in the open.

Making the bed

As you air out your own sheets and blankets, you can be grateful for the fresh-smelling aroma and sunshine that permeate them. As you plump the pillows, try to remember the dreams that were born upon them. As you smooth the wrinkles from the top layer of bedding, you can consider the waking world. What does it mean to come fully alive? How do you change as you prepare to go out and encounter others? What do you leave behind? Now that you are embarked on your life again, it is the bed’s opportunity to rest. Perhaps you can take some of its comfort with you.


Wash the dish. Totally. Hold nothing back. Feel the warmth of the water. Look at the reflection of the light on the surfaces of things. Let your fingers touch the sides of the knife blade, the flat of the spatula, the rim of the dishpan. Don’t think about things. These thoughts are merely distractions and diversions from what it is you’re really doing. Feel what you are actually holding in your hands. Feel the genuine energy of your body as it engages in this activity. Notice the different materials that your dishes and utensils are made from. Concentrate on simply washing, rinsing, and drying each spoon and plate, and you will begin to develop your own individual style of handling things. When you wash and dry a single spoon and give it your full attention, you are expressing care for the entire universe.


Taking care of your windows can be a richly rewarding experience, especially if you clean your windows on a sunny day. You can feel the warmth of the sunlight radiating toward you from far away. As you attend to this cleaning, you might wonder about what you’re seeing. What do you look for when you seek more clarity in your life? What is it that interferes with experiencing this clarity? How far does clarity extend? And while cleaning windows primarily engages your sense of sight, there are sounds to experience as well. Listen to the sounds of the squeaking as your cloth wipes the glass and the sound of dripping water as you wring out the washing cloth. By concentrating on the simple wiping motion of the washcloth, you may begin to feel the origins of your own emancipation.

Putting things away

Position shorter items in front of taller ones. Place lighter things on top of heavier ones. Protect the fragile object from hard, neighboring items that might harm it. Store each thing carefully, giving attention to the fact that there are differences between caring for something by putting it in a safe place, and hoarding it or imprisoning it. Storing items poorly or forgetting about them is no different from abandonment. Even if something is being put away for a great length of time, visit it from time to time, remembering how it came to you, reminding yourself of its value, and checking on its condition. Make periodic inventories of any new possessions that you’ve acquired. Lay them out and look at them. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes you may have made in selecting them. Above all, don’t ignore what you have. ▼

From Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks, © 2000 by Gary Thorp. Reprinted with permission of Walker & Company.

Photos © Don Farber

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chrishazzard41's picture

I love my rituals, washing the dishes, sweeping my studio, sharpening the tools. I would love to send this to my (ex) son in law who says he has no timefor this. He doesn't cook, he doesn't change his sheets, his apple tree is ful of coddlin moth. He no longer has time to read a book. I don't think I will send though, he will not read it so such an action would be unwise.

hostsipes's picture

This fits with the eightfold path as well. Doing chores is one kind of Right Livelihood.

jjwalker7730's picture

"Go mindfully, mindfully go. Small function, Great function.All function is Great function. " Reverend Don Gilbert (Ta Hui, Great Monk), Zen Master

Dominic Gomez's picture

For Buddhists, faith equals daily life. Such is non-dualism. Each day's mundane activities are nirvana, and vice-versa.

junechun's picture

A good reminder. Thich Nhat Hahn's book,"The miracle of mindfulness" is all about being mindful,
doing the dishes, walking, driving, etc. It's not easy to be mindfull all the time, and that's why we need
reminders like these. Thanks.