Eps 62: Why It Is Good To Bow

Genki Sudo Bowing

There is something we don’t do during the 100 Day Warrior. We don’t have a formal bowing practice (we bow a bit here and there). Bowing is quite important in Zen training, and Zen training is nothing more than an old monastic style Japanese training to become selfless. Zen is the way that I receive training in myself and therefore the 100 Day Warrior is Zen-inspired but I don’t know enough about bowing to comfortably transmit it. Basically I don’t have enough bows under my belt to really feel its wisdom in my body.

During the 100 Day Warrior I try to give the warriors at least a taste of what it means to be selfless but my first priority is to show them how are egos are limiting us. I think you first have to see how limiting, damaging and uninspiring it is to remain selfish. With that insight in the pocket the concept of selflessness all of a sudden becomes appealing.

It is no secret that I am fascinated by our egos. It is such an interesting condition: we are all caught in a personal bubble that gives us a certain perspective on the world: our perspective. My perspective is different than your perspective and if we are honest we always have a preference for our own perspective. We think that the way we see the world is the right way. If others see it differently they must be wrong. And you don’t need a stereotypical ‘big’ ego for that: also introverted and insecure people secretly feel that their view is the right view.

But when you start looking at how your ego is constructed (and meditation is an essential tool in that process) you will start finding a lot of contradictions. Personally I found the realization how dishonest and yellow my ego was most confrontational. There was a time when I honestly believed I did not have many fears. But it wasn’t true. I had told myself that I should do anything to cultivate a self-image of honesty and courage. It was a mask. I was in denial of weakness and dishonesty and therefore unmistakably not honest to myself. But by leaving dishonesty and weakness out of the equation you are left with strength and honesty. I really believed that this was how I was.

Secretly we all are interested in this stuff. We all have a deeper truth inside that wants to be seen. But when we start looking at it some sort of short circuit happens. Because what you start to see is exactly the opposite of what you thought you were. Then something funny happens. Even though you explain all the mechanisms of the ego in a very clear way and all its consequences; the ego still refuses to change its course.

It feels like a morbidly obese person is sitting behind a table piled with pastry and he is gorging away. It is obvious that this person is killing himself. During this process you are talking to him and give him many arguments why it is in his interest to change his behavior. He seems to be really listening and he agrees with almost everything you say. Sometimes he even tears up. You can see it is hard for him to see the truth but also liberating. At the end of the talk he even agrees to make a permanent change and tells you he really feels different now. Only problem: during the whole conversation he never stopped eating.

Seeing the pattern, acknowledging it and opening up to it is one thing, really changing it is another.

I see this often in myself and in others and it blows my mind how stubborn we are.

This word, stubbornness, reminded my of a passage from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki roshi often spoke about his own stubbornness and how we should engage our stubborn ego with respect, as it is a mighty opponent. Bowing is great because it is a way to really physically bring your ego towards the floor. Because it is quite an elegant movement your ego accepts it. The ego spends so much of its energy on keeping up appearances that giving him permission to bow offers relief.

Even though we don’t do a lot of physical bowing during the 100 Day Warrior it is very good to integrate the concept of bowing into your life. In the dojo this is translated as ‘leave you ego at the door’ and my teacher Genno Roshi often says ‘step out of the way’.

“By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. (…) Bowing is a very serious practice. You should be prepared to bow even in your last moment; when you cannot do anything except bow, you should do it. This kind of conviction is necessary. Bow with this spirit and all the teachings are yours, and you will possess everything within your big mind.

My teacher had a callous on his forehead from bowing. He knew he was an obstinate, stubborn fellow, and so he bowed and bowed and bowed. The reason he bowed was that inside himself he always heard his master’s scolding voice. He had joined the Soto order when he was thirty, which for a Japanese priest is rather late. When we are young we are less stubborn, and it is easier to get rid of our selfishness. So his master always called my teacher “You-lately-joined-fellow,” and scolded him for joining so late. Actually his master loved him for his stubborn character. When my teacher was seventy, he said, “When I was young I was like a tiger, but now I am like a cat!” He was very pleased to be like a cat.

Bowing helps to eliminate our self-centered ideas. This is not so easy. It is difficult to get rid of these ideas, and bowing is a very valuable practice. The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable. There is no end to this practice.”

Excerpt from: “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki roshi

When you reflect on the concept of bowing I think it becomes quite clear how little bowing there is in our lives. There is a lot of resisting. We resist change, we resist influence, we even resist obviously good things like love, tenderness, open-heartedness and vulnerability. For our stubbornness is quite often not really serving us it is a good idea to learn to bow.

In the accompanying picture you see former professional MMA fighter Genki Sudo bow to a defeated opponent. Just feel in your belly how different this feels from the usual displays of dominance. By turning inwards see for yourself if you can get in touch with the gentle wisdom of the bow.


This is episode 62 in a series of 100 blog posts that will be published daily during the 100 Day Warrior, a unique program around physical strength, inner wisdom and meaning. All posts are written by Atalwin Pilon, founder of Basic Goodness and creator of the 100 Day Warrior. For requests for motivational speaking, in-company workshops, online coaching and mindfulness training click here. If you would like to join our international community of brave and inspiring human beings or just follow this blog and receive updates, please click here or sign up on the right side of the page. Atalwin specializes in coaching smart and creative people, both groups and individuals. If you are interested in a free coaching session click here.

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