Now in the lockdown, I have rediscovered an old joy, the joy of washing dishes. In my twenties, when I first started living by myself in a flat, I first discovered that nothing calmed me down as much as washing dishes. I would stand at the sink, in good light, and clean for an hour every evening, and feel wonderfully relaxed after that. I would lose myself in the simple process of scrubbing everything in the sink, then looking at each piece once more to see if it needed a second scrub to get rid of some stubborn stain. There was nothing automatic about it, my mind was constantly busy, examining differently shaped objects, looking for spaces where food could hide, changing scrubbers according to need, sometimes simply using muscle. There was no reason why this should have been calming: the constant identification and solution of a stream of problems. But it was.
Many years later when I re-read Robert Pirsig’s cult classic (for a certain generation) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it all came together for me. Zen, dhyana, is being mindful of the moment, immersing yourself completely in the simple flow of things, something that you find so absorbing, that it drives every thing else out of your mind. Zen can be anything: archery, chopping vegetables, mathematics, washing dishes, copy-editing a manuscript, cleaning out a cupboard, learning to play music just beyond your capability, mopping the floor. There is no need to listen to the obscure words of sages (If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, … Blake). The coronavirus has given me a wonderful new shot at achieving inner peace.