MOST people reading this will have heard about the many benefits that mindfulness meditation can bring us. While it sounds good, there’s one problem for some: how do you meditate if you can’t sit still?

Whenever people complained to famous Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) that they “didn’t have the time to meditate”, he would respond by saying, “Do you have time to breathe? Then you have time to meditate.”

It’s often thought that, in order to meditate, one needs to be seated on a cushion or mat, in full lotus position, and to spend sufficient time observing the breath until the mind is clear of all thoughts.

This is both a caricature and misrepresent-ation of what it actually means to meditate and yet, if people subscribe to this perception, it’s understandable that they are reluctant to find the time to develop a regular practice.

Meditation, in a nutshell, takes place whenever we are present to what we are doing and observing whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions arise in the mind without judgement. It’s a deliberate practice of curiosity that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of our minds and how they tick from day to day.

As such, it offers a wonderful opportunity to recognise and avoid clinging to unpleasant emotions whenever they’re likely to lead to unhelpful behaviours.

While meditation is often carried out as a seated practice, what if you’re the kind of person who can’t sit still for even five minutes?

How can the benefits of meditation be cultivated if you prefer doing to “non-doing”?

There is a story about a visitor to Ajahn (or teacher) Chah’s forest monastery in Thailand who was extremely keen to meet the revered Buddhist teacher. He had travelled thousands of miles to reach the monastery.

However, it quickly became apparent that, with so many people taking up Ajahn Chah’s time, there was little chance of getting a private audience with him.

To make use of his time, the visitor decided to help sweep the monastery grounds and, after 10 minutes or so, he felt a hand on his shoulder. As he turned around, he found himself face-to-face with Ajahn Chah who offered him a simple teaching: “When you’re sweeping, give it everything you’ve got.”

Immediately, the visitor understood the message.

The mind is so conditioned to judge, to find fault, to wish for life to run according to our expectations. It’s never at peace, always wandering off into the past or future, clinging to or rejecting the present moment.

If we want to be at peace, a good way to start is by being fully present to whatever we’re doing.

Mediation can be done when we’re doing anything, even washing the dishes.

What kind of thoughts tend to run through the mind when we’re doing chores? “I really can’t be bothered doing this.” “There’s so much to get through.” “I have to do this every day – it’s so unfair.”

On and on the thoughts go, adding nothing of value to our experience, but heaping plenty of suffering onto what’s already present.

When we take the time to simply engage with our experience as it is, that’s meditation right there.

There’s no need to go off into the mountains or take a vow of silence. We can pay attention to the feeling of the water on our hands, the slipperiness of the washing-up liquid, how the dishes start to gleam as they’re cleaned, and how the water runs off them when we place them on the rack.

We can also throw some gratitude into the mix. Washing dishes might be a chore, but it probably means you have plenty of food to eat, that you have clean water, a roof over your head, and that you’re relatively safe and secure.

How many millions of people would love to have the kind of lives we lead?

Thinking about these things while doing our chores can be a powerful part of a mindfulness meditation practice. It helps us to pay attention and be aware of what we’re doing in the moment, while our reflections lead us to cultivate qualities such as gratitude for the blessing we have.

If we can transform washing the dishes into a meditative practice, we can do the same for anything that we find ourselves doing, whether it be eating, exercising, listening to music, being fully present at a conversation (without looking at our phones), or simply noticing our breath for a minute or two.

The benefits of meditation can be tapped into just by being with whatever’s going on right now.

The visitor who travelled thousands of miles to see Ajahn Chah was obviously hoping to receive some kind of profound teaching from the respected Buddhist teacher.

Like many great teachings, he found that his lesson came in the simplest form: Whatever you’re doing, give it all you’ve got.


Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.