Clean Your Bowl

This morning, at precisely 3:53 a.m., my dog threw up. Twice. I groaned in tandem with his familiar wretching which precedes a barf by about two seconds. Not enough time to change what's happening, but just enough time to yell "NOOOOOO" in slow motion. I swung myself out of bed as he happily bounced around my legs. He's 85 pounds, so the bouncing is usually entertaining. Not this time. He's happy that I'm up and ready to let him out or feed him or whatever his small brain thinks is going to happen now that I'm magically up a couple hours early for some reason who knows why gee what could it be? He's always chipper right after; yes, this happens regularly. About once every six weeks, at approximately the same time in the wee hours of the morning, my dog hurls. For no reason. And he's fine. The vet says it's most likely a mild form of a condition some dogs have. It involves stomach bile, and I'm supposed to be happy that it doesn't happen every morning because that's a thing apparently. There's not much I can do to change it, he says. Awesome.

I don't have children, but I do have Palmer. I imagine that what I feel for him is the closest I'll get to unconditional love until I do have a kid. I suppose that's only fair, since he feels unconditional about me. I am the greatest in his color-deficient eyes, the pinnacle of creation. I am the giver of food, the benevolent provider of walks, the keeper of treats. Oh, and the chump who gives up a large chunk of bed so that he can spread out comfortably. All these feelings considered, they're not what get me out of bed at 3:53 a.m. to clean up dog vomit. I mean, they're a part of it, but the action is more about just doing what needs doing in the moment. Taking the next step.

A couple posts back, Logan introduced a new running project called Aletheia. It's an effort to spotlight small pieces of text that touch on something essential, something true. One of the included pieces was a story told to me by a friend a year or so ago. It turned out to be a case story from The Gateless Gate, a central text for the Rinzai school of Zen. The original story is slightly different from the way it was told to me[^1], but how I heard it first has stuck so clearly and powerfully, I continue to share it that way.

A student said to his teacher, “Master, teach me Zen.”

The teacher replied, "Have you eaten your meal?”


“Then wash your bowl.”

I love this story. It's incredibly difficult to be present, to do what comes next without laboring over the steps beyond. Maybe we get little glimpses of it, like when we're cleaning up a mess before dawn even has a chance to break, practicing the motions without worrying about what comes next. I guess some might see that as the blurry result of being rudely awakened, but who says awakening has to be gentle? For the novice meditator (that's me), I see the practice as letting motions fall into place while doing my best not to question the moment to death. If I've eaten my meal, then I should clean my bowl. One step after the other, walking softly in a circle until the thought is no-thought, until there is breath and no-breath. Rise and fall, rise and fall. Clean your bowl.

[^1]: The historical background on this text, at least as I've read, revolves around enlightened practitioners eating rice while maintaining deep meditation. Insane, I know. With this element, you can see that the student is asking how to achieve awakening, yet he's already done it. He's eaten his rice in this fashion, so there's nothing left to teach.

Downward Facing Dammit

This morning, I yelled at an apple. I fed the dog, did yoga for half an hour, and then I yelled at an apple.

More specifically, I yelled at the sticker attached to the apple, but I can’t imagine the apple’s feelings weren’t hurt. It was right there.

I can’t say why I got so upset that the sticker wouldn’t come off, but it’s even more pathetic since I had so recently finished putting my body through a calming mindfulness practice. That's a life lived as a human for you, I guess.

If nothing else, my little outburst reminded me that any religious/mindfulness practice is just that—practice. It’s an effort to ground yourself in the present, to reconnect the mind and body. They need reconnecting because your normal state (if you’re like me) is apple abuser. The effort is one to be made again and again, the centering attempted in the face of one soul-destroying piece of fruit after another.

I’ve written about ritual and mindful awareness here before, but failing at the practice is a different part of the process. Failing is the reason the practice exists. No one needs connection if they never become disconnected. Maybe there’s more than fifteen minutes between the connecting and failing, but sometimes there just isn’t. Resting in the failure, then, can become its own ritual, its own physical interplay between the grumpy children we are and the slightly-less-grumpy children we want to be. That’s hard, though, and there's a wide gap between failing like you normally do and working through the failure via ritual. It’s the difference between "namaste" and "namaste, dammit."

Let’s Get Physical

Rowan Williams contributed a great section to a recent article on ritual practice in daily life.[^1] He describes his time of sitting prayer, preceded by a walking meditation, as “a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts.” Unfortunately, it’s a messier reality given that the vehicle doesn’t always take you where you want to go and doesn’t always move when you want to go there. Williams gets this, too:

"So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again."

What we're left with, then, are broken brains and bodies that listen to our broken brains. But as Williams points out, this isn't cause for despair; rather, it's a chance to reorient and try again. When the focus shifts from actively seeking to improve ourselves to noticing what needs improvement in a kind and mindful way, something fundamentally different happens. The practice becomes more than the original effort to have some kind of awakening or breakthrough. The practice becomes attempting the practice.

Getting the body involved in where we want the mind to be gives us an out when our minds start to dump on the present. The bodily practice brings it back. This is the failure ritual, and doing it enough helps eliminate the failure distinction altogether. Getting out of sync and realigning becomes the wider ritual at play. The morning yoga isn’t the practice or the ritual; the morning yoga followed by emotionally damaging some produce followed by a breathing prayer is.

[^1]: The rest of the article is great, too. Read it after you read this one.