Friday, June 09, 2017

My Minimalist Mantra: Wash Your Bowl

A few years ago, I read a tiny story - a fable, maybe, but I like to think it's true - about a monk seeking enlightenment. I stumbled across it in the middle of an internet bender, one of those rabbit holes where you click link after link and end up in the wilds of a random website, with no clear idea how you got there or where you were going. Usually this sort of bender ends with lost hours and nothing to show for them. Other times, such as on this day, it yields life changing advice.

Over the years I've searched in vain for the original source, but haven't been able to find it again. Luckily, many people have written about it, linked to it, and felt moved by it, which isn't surprising. 

The story goes like this
A monk told Joshu, "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me."
Joshu asked, "Have you eaten your rice porridge?"
The monk replied, "I have eaten."
Joshu said, "Then you had better wash your bowl."
At that moment the monk was enlightened. 
You're probably thinking, "WTF?" You might also be thinking I've been doing too much yoga (on the contrary: I haven't been doing enough), or drinking too much wine (ditto). Here's the thing: I love this story, and I think about it all the time. To me, it's about so many things I strive for and struggle with. Finishing the things I start (always an issue). Personal responsibility (wash your own damn bowl). Putting an end to procrastination (why is this so difficult?). Mindfulness and minimalism (doing one thing at a time and doing it well). How all of us, even if we're enlightened, or privileged, or have a fancy college degree, or would rather spend our precious time writing novels and drinking rosé, still have to make time for mundane and un-glamorous things like washing our bowls. 

I also love the metaphor of the bowl. In my world, the kitchen is the heart of my house. I have a hard time focusing if I know there are dirty dishes piled in the sink, or crumbs scattered across the counter, or tomato sauce dried to the stove top. It's no coincidence that the kitchen descends into this state whenever I'm feeling too busy or overwhelmed, rushing from one task to the next. The dirty kitchen kicks off a vicious cycle - I don't want to cook anything because the kitchen is a mess, so we go out for dinner and spend money we don't have, which makes us feel stressed about our finances, which requires us to work more hours, which leaves less time for cleaning the kitchen. Okay, it's not quite that linear, but you get the idea. A dirty kitchen is a bad thing in my home, indicative of deeper issues. And while a clean kitchen doesn't mean my life is perfect (ha!) it is a step in the right direction. 

Ever since I read that little story, I remember it each time I approach a task, whether it's reading a book, or working on a short story, or running five miles, or slogging through work emails, or writing a blog post, or, yes, eating breakfast and washing my bowl. And it's helped me focus and see things through, stay present and mindful and rush through life a little less. Maybe it will do the same for you. 

(A version of this post was originally published in March 2013.)