Wash Your Bowl: Marc Lesser on bringing your relationships, work, and life alive

Marc Lesser reminds us of one simple fact: that it is up to us to look within ourselves and to bring our work and our lives alive.

Marc Lesser
17 August 2010
Photo by Brooke Lark

There is a famous dialogue from ancient Zen Chinese literature that goes like this:

A monk arrives at the monastery and says to the teacher, “I’ve arrived. Please give me your teaching.”

The teacher says, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”

The monk responds, “Yes, I have.”

The teacher says, “Wash your bowl.” The monk understood.

A few days ago I came upstairs into my living room and my wife and teenage daughter were sitting on the couch, watching television. I reported to my wife that I had just heard that a friend’s 22-year-old son was to be married in a few weeks. She asked me how our friend’s father felt about the marriage. I said that he was supportive and also a bit concerned.

My 17 year-old daughter’s ears perked up at hearing me mention my friend’s concern. My daughter looked somewhat puzzled and asked me, “Why is the boy’s father concerned with the marriage of his twenty-two-year-old son?

I said, “ Twenty-two is fairly young to get married, and his son does not know how he would make a living. “

My wife looked up and said, “Well, when we were married, you didn’t know how you would make a living.”

Then, my daughter, looking partly at me, and partly at the television added, “And you still don’t know.”

I’ve purposely put this recent conversation in this format, mirroring a Zen dialogue from 1,500 years ago, to show that many of our daily conversations, and in fact the myriad conversations that make up our lives, can be unpacked, internalized, and when looked at carefully, have the ability and power to change us. The two dialogues, the ancient one from a Chinese Zen monastery, and the modern one, from a living room couch in front of a television, can be said to teach similar lessons.

An immediate message from the original dialogue is: If you want to receive the teaching — that is,  if you want to learn, if you want to broaden your vision, open your heart or expand your understanding of yourself and the world — begin by paying attention, and by bringing alive the simple and mundane activities of your life. No need to look elsewhere for the teachings. The message is that meaning and connection are right in front of us, in the midst everyday and basic activities. Let go of your preconceived ideas about where the real teachings are and pay attention to what is right in front of you.

We each have the ability to bring mundane activities alive — by being attentive, curious and open. How is it that we don’t see how alive everything really is, right in front of us? How often do we hold back from being truly alive and present, waiting for just the right situation, job, or relationship? How often are we doing one thing without paying attention, only as a means to get to the real work? If only things were different, then we would engage. Once we do this unimportant thing, then we will get to the real activities.

Our relationships and our work, and the mundane activities of our relationships and work lives, can be an expression of our innermost wishes, dreams and intentions; a way to connect with our true calling and a way to help others open to new possibilities; right in the midst of conversations, difficult and messy feelings, emails, phone conversations, and meetings.

There is a powerful passage in a David Whyte poem:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
Anything or anyone
That does not bring you alive
Is too small for you.

This doesn’t mean that we should immediately reject things and people that don’t bring us alive. It is up to us to look within ourselves and to bring our work and our lives alive. If our daily activities, relationships and work are not alive, this dialogue, about washing your bowl, presents an opportunity to notice, ask ourselves difficult questions, and shift our approach. What are we doing that prevents or hinders our aliveness, our energy and curiosity?

The David Whyte poem also highlights the importance of facing ourselves — even the darkness, confinement and aloneness — as a path to unlocking our energy and aliveness. This is often what washing the dishes or gardening or sweeping the floor can be, and perhaps is another reason that we often avoid these activities — using machines or hiring others to do our bowl washing. This is also the basis of meditation practice — the practice of “sweet confinement” as a way of deep learning and a way to transform our lives.

The message in both dialogues, ancient and modern, has much to do with humility. Humility is not particularly popular or sought after in our culture. The root of the word comes from humus, meaning earthy or from the ground. Humility, humble, and humor all indicate a letting go of pride and cleverness; shedding our coverings and protections. Humility can be a state of awe in the face of the mystery of life, of consciousness, of being a human being. Humility can be a way to shed the covers and burdens of needing to be or appear a certain way.

Many years ago, when I was in my early 20’s I spent ten years as a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center. During my 10th year I was director of a monastery and resort called Tassajara. This job had a fair amount of prestige. Successful professionals would come to Tassajara during the summer and look up to Zen students as people living meaningful lives, sometimes expressing that it appeared that we had made decisions that they found to be courageous.

When I left Tassajara and went to the east coast to attend business school, I needed to find a way to make a living. At the time I was in my early 30’s, without any work experience that anyone could identify with and no college degree. My first job in New York was as a waiter in a small restaurant on Long Island. I answered an ad for an experienced waiter. I had served food during the Tassajara summers in the dining room and figured I’d pick up waiter skills fairly quickly. But the head waiter could see that I was not really an experienced waiter; I was fired within my first hour.

I was completely humiliated. Suddenly there was no role or identity to rely on. It made me see that I had become attached to being a Zen student, which does seem pretty ironic, indeed.

And now, many years later, after starting and growing a publishing company for 15 years, I left it and have re-invented my career — coaching, consulting, facilitating, as well as being a Zen teacher. I’m in transition. I have again shed an identity I had for many years; that of being CEO of a publishing company. I find this process to be humbling, painful, and energizing. My daughter doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Though she is very supportive, in her own way, she can also sometimes express concern about my not having work that is easily nameable.

I have been co-leading workshops for business people at Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm for the past 13 years. At a recent workshop we began our day by having each of about 35 participants say their name, where they work, and what kind of work they do. It was very impressive hearing the company names and titles as we went around the room — famous high tech companies, banks, legal firms; IT managers, VPs, CEOs of small companies.

Then, after some yoga and meditation, we broke into small groups. Each person was given six minutes to speak about their issues and challenges in their work and their lives. Suddenly these grand company names and titles melted away. Each person spoke about their pains and fears and difficulties. Everyone was in the midst of significant life and work transitions. Barriers were down, hearts were open, and a feeling of support and community began to emerge.

I sometimes call this process “looking under the hood” of a business or a life. When we just see the outside, the appearances, the titles, and company names, people look so settled and secure. When we look more closely, at organizations and at lives, people are messy, unpredictable, and in flux. There is lots of pain, confusion, and healing that needs to take place. By being real, open, and exposed, this healing process begins and our energy is released.

A tradition in the collection of Zen’s stories is for the person collecting them to write poems or verses that comment on the original dialogue. The verse that accompanies the “wash your bowl” dialogue is:

Because it’s so very clear
It takes so long to realize.
If you just know that flame is fire.
You’ll find your rice has long been cooked.

This verse reminds me of a famous Rumi poem in which he says something like:  “Why are you out searching for a loaf of bread, when there is a bakery sitting on top of your head!”

Though the dialogue here is from 1,500 years ago, its message is so simple and clear: It can be difficult for us to embrace. Just pay attention to what is right in front of us. Just appreciate the simple activities of our lives. Just be grateful for being alive. How simple! Just have real, loving, and caring conversations with our friends and family. Just see that “flame is fire” is a way to express how we all have the ability to bring our lives alive and to appreciate the small, mundane, and “unimportant” activities.

When we look carefully there is nothing lacking. You can clearly see that “your rice has long been cooked.” Now, please, wash your bowl.

Marc Lesser

Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates LLC, a company providing executive coaching, seminar, and facilitation services. He is the founder and former CEO of Brush Dance, a publisher of greeting cards, calendars and gift items, with spiritual themes and artwork. Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years, was director of Tassajara, and is a Zen priest. He is the author of Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less, and Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life.