The art of bowing

The art of bowing
Thought for the Day MCO

As social distancing becomes the new norm in our lives we are no longer able to express thanks through a handshake or a hug, so perhaps the simple bow is one solution. In today's blog Dan, our Primary Counsellor, looks at the act of bowing.

If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank-you’, that would suffice - Meister Eckhart

These comforting words of the medieval German mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, speak directly of the blessed simplicity of the spiritual practice of bowing. To bow with spiritual intention is to express heartfelt gratitude with the whole body. It is an act of profound reverence for the mystery of life; A liturgy of the body that expresses the intention to give ourselves humbly over in love to the world. It is the simplest and most powerful act of prayer, a prayer that truly suffices.


Bowing cultivates spiritual emptiness. A bowing practice is where we, involving our whole embodied being, risk becoming vulnerable and showing others our vulnerability. We practice being empty handed. We risk living without answers. We bow to all that we don’t know. We risk learning to lean forward into the love that loves us so in our confusion. And we learn to sit there in childlike innocence, in hope that this love might take us and guide us to itself unexplainably, or that we might at least grow a little in humility along the way.

In bowing we lower our heads and forget ourselves on purpose. Our obsessions, our anxieties, our compulsions, are still there, like the buzz that circles around waiting to have their way with us. But in our bowing, we can keep the intentionality of our heart focused on what our heart intuits to be true, rather than the stories of our minds. There is a Zen story of a Japanese master, Nan-in, being visited by a university professor curious about Zen. After some conversation, Nan-in served tea to the professor. He poured until the cup was full and then continued to pour upon the overflowing cup. The professor waited until, unable to restrain himself further, he raised the alarm that the cup was full and wouldn’t take any more. “Like this cup”, replied Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”


Bowing introduces a gentler way of being. It utilises the will or intention to momentarily place ego to the side in an expression of reverence for the personal and divine in the other. Unlike much of our human lives, when bowing we are not forcing ourselves, others or situations into an imagined reality, but taking ourselves and the world just as it is. We align our inner compass towards the limited but precious beings that we are, and we extend our love towards others. In a contemplative sense, bowing to another person is a practice of touching what is real and alive—within us and within them. But in most day-to-day situations, a mental bowing practice is more practical. After all, beyond the monastery walls or retreat space, the physical act of joining palms and bowing deeply might invoke alarm as well as gratitude. Instead, one can simply and mindfully open oneself like a lotus flower to the other person and allow one's soulful presence to communicate itself.

Thomas Merton once said, ‘Perhaps the people whose lives we will touch the most deeply are people we will not meet until after we are dead.’ When bowing, in the deep interiority of things, one bows to everything and everyone in this interconnected intimate dance of life. And so, one bows in humility and love to both the living and the dead, the saints and sages, to all who bow and those who don’t bow; To the whole human family. I find it particularly powerful to practice bowing to those who, personally known or otherwise, I’ve loved and felt deeply influenced by. Bowing is a celebration of divine interconnectedness of all, a knitting back together of the disparate threads of life. Bowing is a celebration of divine interconnectedness of all, a knitting back together of the disparate threads of life.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said that ‘when we bow, we give ourselves up’. If ever you get to a place in life where the only thing you can do is bow, you should do it. In the meantime, it is never too late to enter into the living stream of bowing as a daily practice.

Take a moment today to, either mentally or physically, bring your palms together and bow deeply towards those around you. Do so in a spirit of humility and gratitude for all that is good and loving in those around you and in this mysterious life. Do so in a spirit of love for this precious life.

Make this your quiet practice…

The Unthought Known is a short writing, reflective of a contemplative perspective on life. It is the fruit of many years of reflective note taking on a range of psychological and spiritual texts and in that spirit no inherent originality is claimed. If it offers comfort amidst adversity, read the text and call whatever resonates to mind when needed (even if just a short phrase from the larger text), allowing it to soak into the marrow of your bones and merge with your breath. Remember, we are all in this together.

Take good care, Dan