Because bowing is a physical practice, bowing in the morning can also be a great way to wake up physically and spiritually. One of my teachers, a nun from Australia, used to say, "When you hit the floor in the morning, do three bows!" She meant it literally: before uttering a word, before brushing your teeth, before anything, you should bow.
Becoming awake and aware are important aspects of any spiritual practice. We can begin with an awareness of our bodies, because our bodies are easy to observe, and as our strength of concentration increases, we'll find this initial awareness of our bodies expands into an awareness of both our external environment and our internal environment of thoughts and emotions. In the Zen tradition, we begin our bow standing, with our feet firmly planted on the floor and our hands at our hearts. This is the strong stance, and it's one that allows us to both stretch and ground our bodies. Before we begin our first bow, we should take a deep breath, and really wake up our bodies. Our breath should go all the way down into our bellies, so that we feel our stomachs and chests rise with our breathing. As we wake up our bodies, we can start to wake up our mind. Be aware of your body. How does it feel? Are your legs tight, is your back stiff, or are you tired? Maybe you feel refreshed and alert. Whatever your physical state, be aware of it. Don't make anything out of it, though — you don't need to think that a stiff back is bad and feeling limber is good. When you're beginning your practice, you just want to be aware. Awareness is without judgment, because it comes before thinking.
After you've maintained an awareness of your body for about ten deep breaths, then you can shift your awareness to your inner state. How do you feel? Are you sad about something? Are you joyful? Whatever your mood, just be aware of it. Again, you don't need to make anything of it, such as being sad is bad and feeling joyful good, or vice versa. Just be aware. This awareness takes time to develop. It's difficult not to get involved in our emotions. If we feel joy, for example, we start thinking about that joy, what happened to make us joyful, and what we want to do next with or because of our joy. All this is "making," and all we need when we practice is awareness.
We should try to keep a sharp and strong awareness of our inner state for another ten deep breaths. Then we can set an intention, either spoken or not. The Four Great Vows of Zen are the intention I set before I bow: "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all; delusions are endless, I vow to cut through them all; all teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them all; the Buddha Way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it." These vows remind all Zen students of their direction: to attain enlightenment and save all sentient beings from suffering, no matter how difficult or impossible the task seems. Muslims also set an intention before they perform their daily prayers, but the intention is silent. We should have an intention before a practice, before it clarifies our actions and our direction. Anything that connects you to your greater purpose is helpful: "May I practice patience," "May I bring peace to the world," "May I come closer to God."
When we bow, we can hold our intention in our heart. If we have a specific prayer, then we should say that, either aloud or silently. If we have no specific prayer, then we should hold our intention in our heart and keep our awareness on our actions. Staying aware of our actions and our inner state is challenging — if it weren't, we'd all be Buddhas already! Keeping aware is helpful, though, no matter what our tradition or practice. When we act mindlessly or carelessly, we lose the power of bowing. Bowing is an opportunity to reorient our lives. Spiritual practice gives us many bridges between intention and action. Bowing is one of them.
When we bow, we can put down whatever baggage we have. Our baggage isn't just "bad" baggage, such as a rough day at work or a fight with a friend. We have "good" baggage too, and this can impede us if we get too attached to the good things in our life. We want only the good things and none of the bad things and we carry around the fear of losing the good. When we bow, we can put all of it down, good and bad. We have our intention, and we just bow.
If your spiritual practice is one that can incorporate Zen-style bowing, that is, formal and repeated bows, then I would encourage you to try it. You can use a formal Zen-style bowing, like the one I described in chapter three, or you can use Tibetan-style bowing, which is less formal, like the one I described in chapter two. Whatever form we use, the important part of the physical bow is to make sure we engage our entire body. If our knees allow it, we should also make sure our head touches the floor. If we need to be kind to our knees, then we can bow from the waist, making sure that we lower our heads, so that we remember humility as we bow. We can bring awareness to any tradition and any practice, an we will benefit.
If we really want to develop our awareness as we bow, then doing sets of bows is helpful. A set of one hundred and eight is a lot of bows, especially if we're just starting. Doing twenty-one, thirty-six, or fifty-four bows at one time is a good way to ease into the practice of bowing. As our physical stamina and mental awareness increase, we can do more bows. We should do them with just enough time for us to keep our breath deep and steady — but it's also okay to get a little out of breath and break a sweat! If we bow too slowly, our mind can wander off. If we bow too quickly we are always anticipating the next bow instead of actually bowing. So a steady rhythm is important when we bow. Quality matters in spiritual practice. Even if we're strong enough to do three hundred bows, we're better served going three completely sincere and totally aware bows.
Our formal practice should have a clearly defined beginning and end. By having a beginning and an end, we can set that time aside. If we don't really know when we start and when we end, then if the phone rings we may answer it, interrupting the energy of our efforts. If we know when we've started practice and when we've ended practice, then if the phone rings we can just let it ring and not interrupt our formal practice. Later, after practice, if the phone rings, then we can answer it, because our 'everyday' practice requires answering the phone. But we should have an opening and closing for our formal practice, so that we can focus ourselves.
For me, reciting the Four Great Vows is the beginning, and bowing (and sitting and chanting) are the middle. I end with a silent dedication of my efforts, that whatever good I have accomplished with my practice may help other beings. Our dedication can be something we create ourselves, although I find a verse from a Sanskrit text, The Guide to Bodhisattva's Way of Life by Shantideva, as translated by Stephen Batchelor, to be a beautiful and inspiring dedication: "For as long as space endures, for as long as living beings remain, until then may I abide to dispel the suffering of the world." A dedication is like an intention: it focuses our specific efforts on the larger direction of our life. The traditional peace prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi is another beautiful dedication:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is discord, unity; where there is doubt, faith; where there is error, truth; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light.
O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek happiness for myself, to be consoled as to console, to be loved as to love, to be understood as to understand.
For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternall life. Amen.
Another beautiful dedication, form the Jewish tradition, comes from the last portion of the Amidah:
Grant peace, goodness, and blessing, grace, kindness, and mercy to us and to all of Israel, your People. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, in the light of your face, for in the light of your face, Adonai our God, You gave us a Torah of life, a love of grace, righteousness, blessing, mercy, life, and peace. You see fit to bless your People Israel at all times, at every hour, with your peace. Blessed are You, Adonai, who blesses his People Israel with peace.
Every tradition has prayers or aspirations we can use for opening or closing our practice. We should find one that we can connect with sincerely, so that we can really digest the spirit of the words and put them into action in our practice and in our lives. If we really want to focus on a particular aspiration, we can recite it while we bow. And if we have a specific tradition that we practice, then we can use the bowing form from the tradition for our personal practice. Having a strong connection to our personal practice is important because then we can really enter into it. When something doesn't feel right, or feels too foreign, we may shy away from it or focus more on the foreignness of the form, instead of just doing it. If we have a tradition that we're already connected to, we probably don't need to go shopping in other traditions to pick up the parts we think might work with our own tradition. Every spiritual tradition has inspiring verses we can use for our intention and dedication, and while not every tradition uses bowing in the same concentrated way that Buddhism and Zen do, all traditions do use bowing and have a form of bowing.
Our personal practice is a wonderful opportunity to explore the different aspects of bowing and find a structure that works for us. The most important thing is to be awake, one hundred percent, as we bow. This one hundred percent focus is enlightenment, faith in God, union with the Divine — everything that spiritual traditions have pointed to throughout the ages as the ultimate goal or direction of human spiritual endeavors. These are not the same and they are not different — if we are one hundred percent awake when we bow. Then, we are just bowing and our direction is clear, whether it's saving all beings, serving God, or understanding the Divine.— Andi Young in The Sacred Art of Bowing: Preparing to Practice