A monk said to Chao Chou, "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me."
Chao Chou said, "Have you eaten your breakfast?"
The monk said, "I have eaten."
Chao Chou said, "Wash your bowl."
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
Your heart beats fast. But not fast enough to merit taking a break. Your mind races, but your body feels paralyzed as if cinder blocks have been hung around your ankles. You've hit a wall, and it isn't even lunchtime yet. Sound familiar?
We all have days that overwhelm us. Weeks where our to-do lists haunt our dreams and years where it feels like we've just been treading water. Fighting for a new job, surviving an old one, making time for a relationship, struggling with debt, trying to lose weight, trying to gain weight, searching for a little bit of peace amidst all of the noise – it becomes exhausting.
My default state when I'm feeling overwhelmed is to sink into the couch and let my mind wander. Other times I try to take on everything at once and end up burning out. Neither is a truly effective way in which to deal with an over-scheduled life. When I'm at my best – once in a blue moon – I remember to take a breath, and say to myself, "Wash your bowl."
The proverb above is a kind of Rorschach test for online Zen hobbyists. It seems that everyone and their goldfish has a different interpretation of what Chao Chou (or Joshu in some transliterations) is trying to tell the young monk. Some even go so far as to say that the meaning is that there is no meaning.
I was first told this story, by a close friend, a few years ago. I don't claim to have discerned the ultimate meaning behind it; however, I have found it to be an extremely valuable piece of wisdom when it comes to being overwhelmed.
My interpretation is a simple one. Do the work that is in front of you. The work that seems mundane or not enough or too big to finish. Just start. One step at a time. Eventually, the chaos clears and the dust settles – even if it's just a little bit – and you can take some bigger steps at that point. Maybe that means you literally have to wash your dishes to make room to do some work at the kitchen table. Maybe that means you have to write a bunch of crappy email drafts before sending them to your client. Maybe that means you have to say you're sorry, or go for a walk, or send out the application before it's perfect. The time for analysis is later. The time for doing the work in front of you is now when you're overwhelmed.
When you have a million things on your plate. Wash your bowl.
When you're distraught over the political state of the world. Wash your bowl.
When you're tired of figuring out the absolute best way to do – anything. Wash. Your. Bowl.
I'm not a Zen master. I woke up stressed today. But I wrote this. I washed my bowl. And I feel better now. It's not magic. It's just how things work. So get your hands soapy.
It's time to wash your bowl.