In the early fifth century, a red-bearded Barbarian named Bodhidharma came to China to teach monks an intense practice that would later be referred to as Zen. This new “way” wasn’t for the faint of heart. In Zen stories, you’ll find men cutting off their arms to prove their dedication or a particularly famous story where Bodhidharma himself slashes off his eyelids so he could meditate longer.

While these stories are often mythical, Zen was never supposed to mean relaxed or chill. Actually, Zen means to cut through the bullshit, Zen and all of Buddhism is about identifying illusions and seeing things as they truly are.

The anti-bullshit of Zen isn’t confined to the meditation cushion, either. It’s meant to be applied to your daily life. This includes business. In fact, it absolutely includes business, because in most industries we are smothered by buzz words, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and a lot of talk with little action. In other words, bullshit.

I’ve yammered enough, the below story does an excellent job of cutting through the bullshit of our business lives and daily lives.

The below is what’s called a koan. A koan is a story or question that practitioners are asked to study and meditate on. Some can be pretty tough (see Nansen’s Cat) but others are pretty straight forward, like the one below.

Joshu’s Bowl

A new disciple came to meet Zen Master Joshu.

“I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me the first Zen lesson,” said he to the Zen master.

Have you finished eating your rice?” asked Joshu.

Yes master,” replied the disciple.

Now go and wash your bowl,” said Joshu.

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

You may find this one pretty clear (I don’t want to chew your food for you), but here’s how I apply this to my business life. I’d love to learn how it makes sense to yours, too.

1. Don’t Let Dreams Ruin the Product

Dreams are good, planning is important and long-term goals are necessary. But, we can’t let those get in the way of what’s real and what’s in front of us right now.

When working with artists or labels, I’d often say, “Don’t write the Grammy speech, when you haven’t even left the studio.”

But the same can be said for any industry – don’t write the Addy speech when you haven’t even pitched the client,  or don’t prepare your Forbes list bio when you’re still in Beta phase. 

Sometimes I meet with new clients, ones who have just launched, and they want to talk about corporate sponsorships, scoring big-time investors or landing huge editorial features. While these would be great … first, we have to roll-out the product.

First, we have to perfect our marketing voice.

First, we have to ensure our website and social channels are organized.

First, we have to eat the rice, then we have to wash our bowl.

The young monk had a lot on his mind – what’s next? Do I sit in lotus posture until I sleep? Should I do salutations to the Buddha until sunrise? What’s the next step? 

Have you eaten your rice? Then obviously, go wash your bowl. 

2. Your Idea of Success Is What’s Holding You Back.

The young monk seems to have a very specific idea of what Zen or enlightnement looks like. That perception (or illusion) that he has created is stopping him from seeing what’s genuinely there. In that moment. He’s made it all too complicated.

This is something we do in business – a lot.

We might have a certain target market in mind, and even though data is showing us otherwise, we really want that target market to connect. Or, we may even be in denial of our product quality but we still truck along in spite of it. This is because we think success looks a certain way, moves a certain way, and if it doesn’t fit the image we have in our head – then it has to be wrong. But in reality, that’s just our illusion and ego blinding us from what’s real.

This isn’t always as veiled either.

For instance, we may think the only way to make a profit or achieve success is through a particular route. But in reality, there could be others. I used fancy words like perception and illusion above – but my grandma would call it hardheadedness.

Is your hardheadedness overcomplicating things? Is it trying to make success anything more than a quality product?

Trying to make enlightenment anything more than a clean bowl?

3. Focus, Focus…

So, to recap, our mind wanders.

It clings and grasps to everything but the present moment. We focus on next quarter without finishing this one. Or, we’re so obsessed and attached to a particular path, we overlook others. Now for the big American question – how do we fix it?

And here’s the big Eastern answer – you don’t. You just watch it. It will go away. By simply becoming aware of our restless mind, we gain control.

Through awareness we are able to say, “Ah, my mind is wandering again..” or “I’m overthinking this..”. That simple awareness is incredibly powerful. It puts you in control over your anxiety or your grasping.

Because quite often, we want to do so much. We want to do everything. We want to write the Grammy speech before we’ve left the studio. We want growth NOW. We want to meet our sales goals NOW. But it’s still today – what can we do today? In this moment?

Eat our rice, then wash our bowl.