Two birds, one stone

“Wash your hands” is rarely bad advice, but could we be missing a trick when we focus only on physical hygiene?

This morning I was reading a book that touched on the value of being present in our lives. Our minds are so frequently flushing us with thoughts and worries. A constant stream of mental chatter that can feel impossible to escape. Reading this, I was reminded of the practice of focusing on what you are doing right now, whatever that may be. The idea is that, in paying attention to the world around us, we are less washed away by the thought stream, so more present in the moment.

I get bored quickly. 20 seconds can feel a long time when the task is repetitive and without immediate reward. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice was never going to work. For one thing, its not so cheery when you sing it to yourself, and can get rather depressing when you start to get caught up on the passing of the years and your aging immune system … oh(!) come to think of it, its really inappropriate! … sorry, I get bored quickly, wandered off there.

Okay, the point: we all get the importance of hand-washing, but staying motivated to do it to the recommended standard can be challenging. So, when I was reminded of this practice of paying attention to everyday activities, it seemed worth a shot.

I turned on the water, noticing the light, and colour, glinting as it flowed. I wet both of my hands, sensing the wetness and coldness of the water (and my mind pointed out how slow my boiler is – thanks mind!). I reached and took hold of the bar of soap, rubbing it between my hands to create a lather, seeing as I did the little bubbles beginning to form. I placed the now slippery soap back on the sink. And began: Palms together; backs of the hands; finger tips and nails in that weird self-handshake move. Webs of the fingers (“here’s the church and here’s the steeple” – not now mind!). Nails to the palms, wring the thumbs and wrists. Noticing all the while the feeling of my hands making these moves and the sound of the running tap. Rinse the hands in the warm water, and dry on a soft (hopefully) clean towel.

And, although I hadn’t sung anything, I’m pretty sure I’d hit the 20 second target.

Even better, I got a short break from the mind.

This bit is important, because the the incessant chatter, worry and rumination of our own minds is driving us all to distraction. Our attention is pulled away from focusing on what matters, into tales of terror that range from “did I leave the oven on?” to “it’s a pandemic and we are all going to die!” and “should I buy extra toilet roll? or will that look like I’m panicking/selfish/human/all-of-the-above?” It’s incessant, and most of what our minds whisper to us is not especially helpful.

But it’s not just about that lack of focus and wasted attention. The stuff our minds say is stressful. Physically stressful. Because when our minds start letting loose with this stuff, our brain listens in and starts ordering in the hormones and rallying the muscles into action.

How tense are you now? Really? Even if relaxed, do you notice any areas of tension in your body? Neck, shoulders, jaw? Stomach? Chest hunched in? Or around the eyes? Its often somewhere.

How many times today have you felt that mini-adrenaline hit, or cortisol release, due to some stressful thing that has happened … but has it happened? Or were you just reacting to a story your mind told you? (Maybe you didn’t leave the oven on, but did you turn the tap off? – now the mind conjures an image of a flooded bathroom, or a plumbing bill! .. and there we go .. stressy-hormones being pumped around the body, even though you know it’s all probably fine).

This is normal. But. Sometimes it gets beyond normal. Because we are pulled into fighting it. Our minds love to suggest ideas for this, and can get people washing there hands or going back to the house 50 or 60 times a day (OCD). Or retreating from life and crumpling in ourselves (depression). Or retreating from ourselves and cowering away from the bullying mind in a state of dissociation, psychosis or mania. Or the more socially acceptable distractions like alcohol, chocolate and binge-watching which (when done to excess) numb us out and take our focus away from the life we really want to connect with.

Now, reasonable hand-washing can’t fix all of these things. That’s okay, it won’t eradicate Covid-19 either. But it is a step in the right direction.

When we find ways to notice the mind chatter, we also start to notice the gaps. The stillness. It’s calming. It lets our bodies rest for a moment. Not being dragged to the future, or tied back into the past. But just here, noticing whatever we are experiencing right now.

It’s good for us. These little openings to notice that what our own mind is saying is seriously not helping!

So, this hand-washing thing. It’s an opportunity.

The thing is, hygiene is only a tiny part of fighting infection. We need healthy bodies and effective immune systems. Excessive stress erodes that.

However, just as many of us struggle to wash our hands, we also find it really hard to stop and notice the mind chatter and what it does to us. Pausing for 20 seconds, 30 seconds to notice what our minds are waffling on about lets us notice the stillness too. Doing that as part of a daily activity like walking or drinking tea, when practiced often, is good for bring our attention back to the world. But its seriously hard to remember to do.

Yet. Right now. Everywhere we look, there are reminders to “WASH YOUR HANDS”.

Next time you do, try to focus on it. The actions, the sensations.

20 seconds.

Wash your hands, wash your mind.