One of the many phrases from Zen Buddhism that resonates with me is the simple instruction, “Eat your rice, wash your bowl.” The beauty of this phrase is endlessly deep, and yet it is so deceptively simple that one wonders why the instruction even exists.
As I reflect on the phrase, I wonder if the reason for it is that we human consciousnesses just can’t do anything without assigning meaning to our activity, or meaning to ourselves in doing it. “Assign” is probably the wrong word because it suggests a deliberate choice. It might be better to say that we discover ourselves to be inside of a matrix of meanings when we undertake an examination of our experience. For example, rather than ‘just doing’ we want to do what is important. Alternatively, in our doing we may want demonstrate that we are good. If we are of a different bent of mind we might indicate that we are injured. We signify the chip we carry on our shoulder by the way we lift the rice to our mouth and sadly wash our bowl. Another common attitude might be resentment. Why should we have to serve ourselves our own rice in the first place? Shouldn’t we be served by another? We could imagine that if we were loved enough, we wouldn’t have to preform ‘menial’ tasks. Since attitudes dominate our experience, our doings in the world are never simply what they are.
It is even possible, with the endless creativity of being oneself, to flip the whole thing on its head. Why not use the opportunity of serving rice to another to demonstrate our significance? Let me show you what I mean. Have you ever been served by a haughty innkeeper or waiter? I was, and his bearing was such that our whole table wanted to impress him. As if he alone knew the secrets of good taste and culinary discrimination, this man sadistically teased us as we tried to guess the contents of the soup. Finally, with a flourish, he revealed the recipe (a pumpkin soup in a chicken broth base) shaming each of us. My brother in law even tried to win his approval by buying him an expensive bottle of wine at the end of our stay.
Eat your rice, wash your bowl. What does this mean? Freeing an action from symbolic and projected meaning is no easy task. Human consciousness swirls in dreams of self-importance or injury, outrage and anger. We invest our actions with meaning and are quick to take offense if these meanings are violated. It is enough to cause us offense if our own assigned meanings simply aren’t noticed.
The journey to eat your rice, wash your bowl requires self-inquiry. We can start by asking ourselves who we imagine that we are. Unlike the TV show that explores our DNA and our heritage, this “Who do you think you are?” is about our unexplored attitudes. How do we explain the apparent actions of the world upon us or our own actions in the world? Do we have some secret justification behind our actions; some unarticulated assumption? We must tease apart the circumstances of our life from the meanings we ascribe to in order to discover that the way we live in circumstance is a manifestation of our attitude. In seeking to be released from our notions, we seek ‘eat your rice wash your bowl.’
Our attitudes are an excessive embellishment to the good of simple action. I think of the designer’s phrase, “form follows function.” The elegant object that is made by the practitioner of this edict demonstrates simple beauty. Maybe this phrase, ‘form follows function,’ is the craftsperson’s ‘eat your rice, wash your bowl.’
In the case of psychology attitudes are also constitutive. In other words, the attitudes can shape experience. An example might be a paranoid person who sees danger even from innocent people. By believing in the malevolence of others, this person may even elicit that malevolence. Even if he does not, he is able to experience the world as threatening regardless of the reality of that threat at any given time.
People often use objective fact to counter the suggestion that their attitudes inform their experience. It can be a convincing argument. What is left out of this argument are the twists and turns consciousness can make in the effort to support its own claim. The fluidity of argument has an intelligence that seems to combine self-insistence with a prejudiced opportunism. It is as if each person we speak with manages to twist the words of others to accommodate a preexisting vision of reality. Rather than being available to uncover their own vision and its ramifications, the individual interprets fact and action to fit into the un-self-seen vision. The versatility of intellect required to do this demonstrates a creativity that we can hardly say we are the source of. It is too fast, spontaneous and automatic for us to have calculated it so well and so quickly.
Let’s see if I can indicate this intelligence that we are and yet are not the source of. It can be witnessed hundreds of times each day and yet ordinarily missed. How do you know even how to lift your arm with the attitude of yourself? Watch another move and you will easily see how perfectly he is himself in moving. In another example, anyone who has been in an argument has seen the uncanny way in which his opponent interprets remarks and configures discussion along unrecognized but rock solid terms. (We ourselves are guilty of the same.)
The easy predictability of human actions also illustrate this intelligence. What perfect consistency our actions reveal! If one had to hold one’s personality together like so much formless silly putty, the work require to live each moment would be monumental. Instead, we are ourselves as easily as animals are themselves. The intelligence that we are manifests with our each and every breath.
There is genius in responding to a circumstance in a way that confirms one’s attitude. It is far savvier than any personal genius. I’ll offer a story to illustrate this. My husband had a client who was a large and irritable man. This man frequently came to trouble as a result of his argumentativeness. The man himself experienced the world as hostile. What appeared to others as his provocativeness was borne from within by him vulnerability to attack. On one occasion, the man described a complaint by a female colleague. He considered the woman’s complaint completely false. Gingerly, in the effort to explain to the man that he could appear threatening, my husband told him that women can feel intimidated by large men. Jumping on the opportunity to support his claim, the man declared that this was indeed true. He was, he said, regarded unfairly because of his size. He was, he asserted, a victim of prejudice.
Let’s apply eat your rice, wash your bowl to the experience of pain. We suffer illness, pain, and injury. We suffer heat and cold. Since, as I’ve already suggested, our doings and experiences are laden with projection and meaning, is our experience of pain likely to be an exception? If not, how does our personal history, our desire, our projection, and our self-image influence the way we experience pain? What would “just pain” be?
As long as pain is a part of our lives, this question is relevant. There are many forms of emotional pain, but in this case, I want to consider only physical pain. As I raise this question, I imagine that you are already wondering how your own attitudes may influence your experience of pain.
Let’s say you are sick and your doctor doesn’t listen to you. Are you outraged? If you are outraged, is your pain worse? Or, imagine that you feel that you should be self-sufficient. Because illness often requires us to ask for help, will you greet this as a failure of self-sufficiency? Will your pain be doubled by the pain of realizing your project to be self-sufficient fails? I think you can see quickly where I am leading.
For most of us, the majority of the pain that we feel in life is not physical. It’s psychic. Our disappointments are disappointments of meaning. You will not be able to avoid all physical pain, but learning to experience just pain, stripped of projection, will offer significant relief.