Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Bowing to Life

I was practicing with some taiji buddies yesterday, and we got to talking about the custom of bowing in martial arts. Students and teachers bow, sparring partners bow, everyone bows when entering or leaving the practice area.

Our discussion expanded to other bowing customs. Some people bow in greeting or farewell, children bow to elders, people bow to pray or when near a sacred place, some bow to royalty or those of higher status, some bow when giving or receiving a gift.

We also explored different styles of bowing – hand or fist to chest, hands to side, open hand covering fist, hands clasped together, hands with palms together raised to forehead or heart.

Why do we bow? To show respect, gratitude, reverence.

I realized after our conversation yesterday that I bow a lot. Shortly after arriving at my cabin for the weekend, I usually go down to the creek to see what going on. I bow to the creek in greeting. Before I head home, I bow to the creek and to the cabin in gratitude for a replenishing retreat. I bow to trees. I sometimes bow when I sit on my cushion to begin or end my time of meditation. I bow when I light a candle. I bow to the people in our contemplation group. I bow to the earth and to the heavens.

I bow to life – with respect for the grandeur and the mystery of existence, with reverence for the sacredness of all creation and the source of all creation, with gratitude for the gift of this life and all its blessings.

Hmm, I had thought to end the post here and went to search for the perfect quote to wrap things up. I was surprised to find that there were just as many if not more quotes about refusing to bow as there were about bowing in the sense I am speaking of in this post. People refuse to bow to tyranny or intolerance, for example. Bowing has a different connotation of submission or acquiescence in those contexts. Interesting that the same movement can carry such contrasting significance. More to ponder. I bow to it all.

In the meantime, I didn’t find the quote I was looking for, but I was charmed by this one.

Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children. ~Khalil Gibran

6 thoughts on “Bowing to Life”

  1. Like so much in life, bowing can mean different things to different people in different contexts. I like the idea of a bow in recognition or appreciation of something that is a gift to us, just by its presence. Even if the bow is only performed mentally, that split-second pause is enough to take the focus away from ourselves if even for a moment.

    1. I really like your observation that a bow can be performed mentally. The significance of the bow is the inner attitude with which it is performed. Thanks, Bob, for pointing that out.

  2. Galen, once again you’ve written words that give me pause. Bowing to life and all that encompasses makes me think of surrendering to life’s ebb & flow. “To show respect, gratitude & reverence” – that’s why I bow to life. I often give thanks aloud to my home in the hills.

    1. Gratitude is the key, isn’t it, Mona? I love it that you say thank you to your home. And I love the image of surrendering to life’s ebb and flow — riding the waves, rocking gently in the current. No striving or struggling. Effortless. Thank you.

  3. In the 1970’s in high school and part of college, I took Judo lessons. My head Sensei, (Lead teacher) taught us how to defend ourselves quite well, but did not install in us the respect of the Dojo (School for Martial Arts) or the respect of each other, or even ourselves. He was a “street kid” from the Philippines’s. He reminded me of the bully in the movie “The Karate Kid.” I remember when he taught us to “bow” before our opponent, we should bow at the waist but always keep our eyes up and focused on the opponent. Now, I understand this as a fighting ploy, but I always felt he was teaching the opposite of respect.
    There is a happy ending to this story. Our teacher had a younger brother who taught whenever his brother was too busy. He not only taught us true respect of the Dojo, but respect for our opponents, each other and ourselves. He also told us beautiful stories about his homeland, as well as the Spiritual binding that intertwined all aspects of “Being.” In this case, I had both a negative and a positive role model. I learned a lot from both of them!

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