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"Wash Your Bowl": Insight on Procrastination From a Koan

Action and the path to freedom from procrastination.

Key points

  • Our reactive thoughts to tasks create barriers to action; they promote procrastination.
  • We are not our thoughts, and not identifying with our thoughts frees us to act.
  • Ancient Zen wisdom in the form of a koan can help us discover this simple truth.

Continuing with my focus on mindfulness and what it has to teach us about procrastination, today I turn to the Zen tradition of the koan. Koans are enigmatic and paradoxical stories that defy solution through logical reasoning. They are used to provoke insight into truths about the world. Ironically, in terms of writing a blog post, they are not something we can or should even try to explain to another. It’s a matter of realization with one’s whole being. In other words, the truth inherent in the story becomes real for the person who encounters the koan.

There are many famous koans such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Collections of koans with commentary are available.

I encountered koans for the first time in my late teens with Radical Zen: The Sayings of Joshu, and I spent the years since reflecting on them, as well as the tradition from which they emerged. Many have influenced me over the years, but none so much as the one I want to share today.

An Influential Koan

This koan, like many, is recorded as an exchange between a Zen master and a monk. In this case, the master is Joshu (Japanese) or in Chinese, Zhaozhou (known as Chao-chou Ts'ung-shen, 778–897). I have read different versions of this exchange, but all have the same essential structure:

A monk spoke to Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery: please give me some guidance.”

Joshu asked, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

The monk answered, “Yes I have eaten.”

Joshu replied, Then go wash your bowl.”

In some versions of this koan, there is a final line that notes something like, “At this, the monk was enlightened,” or “The monk understood.”

No Reactive Stance

Of the many commentaries on this koan, it’s not surprising that most focus on being in the present moment, doing the right next appropriate action. Although I agree, and this seems obvious, what I want to bring your focus to is what isn’t there. What isn’t there is a reactive stance.

Think about the task of washing the dishes, or even just this one bowl and spoon. Common reactions include the following:

  • I don’t feel like it.
  • I don’t want to.
  • Why do I have to do this?
  • I will feel like it later.

These reactive thoughts are the barriers to our action.

The wonderful thing is that we can have thoughts without being these thoughts. Thoughts think themselves. The brain is always busy thinking and feeling. We don’t have to identify with these thoughts. These thoughts are not us. We can observe these thoughts, these reactions, our conditioned responses, but nothing more. We don’t have to get caught up in them, the stories that are often associated and the emotions that are similarly conditioned with them such as resentment, frustration, even anger.

Mindfulness meditation can help us. A daily practice can help us have thoughts without being thoughts. This creates tremendous freedom.

Wash your bowl. The end of procrastination is as simple as this.

References

Zhaozhou, S., & Hoffmann, Y. (1978). Radical Zen: The sayings of Joshu. Brookline, Mass: Autumn Press.

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