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The Kitchen Sink

What do you do when you know have to do something and you don’t know what to do?

I learned this lesson working as a therapist with Rosalind. She was an emotionally frail young woman near the end of her rope, with nowhere to go —agitated, angry, threatening to walk out of my office. I “threw the kitchen sink” for the first time. I knew I didn’t have the skill for an “effective interpretation.” I wasn’t a “good enough” therapist, nowhere near experienced enough.

I don’t remember what came out of my mouth, but Rosalind, who was already in the doorway of my office, turned. Her hand still on the doorknob, she looked back at me. It seemed that she took a long look before closing the door and returning to her seat.

For years, I quoted that lesson. “When you have no idea what to do, throw the kitchen sink.”

Don’t just sit there, do something.

Does this seem to contradict the traditional Zen wisdom, “Don’t just do something, sit there?"

This morning it seems to me that these seemingly opposing instructions apply in different contexts. They are not simply another Zen paradox.

This morning, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” applies to the “monkey mind,” Zen’s name for the inner voices and impulses that arise moment after moment, that many of us become so aware of on our cushions for the first time as we begin to sit.

“I have to text Joe.”

“I need to put seltzer on the shopping list.”

“I haven’t taken my vitamins.”

Don’t do something, sit there.

Sit with the stuff that is bubbling in our heads. Bernie called this our “conditioning.” At the heart of Zen training is learning to let go, to discover the wonderful spaciousness of our lives.

On the other side of the coin is what is going on not in our heads but in the world. Treating what is going on in the world as monkey mind, as figments of our imagination must be common among meditators, maybe the most common of the Zen illnesses. Or maybe it is nothing but a derogatory stereotype of meditators. Either way, it has given Zen a bad name.

To me, it does not seem to be a bum rap.

“Nihilism.” “Passivity.” “Disengagement.” Common enough for “Engaged Buddhism” to appear as a reform movement, even as a rebel faction.

Bad stuff is happening in the world.

People are starving.

People are dying for lack of health care.

Kids are failing to thrive. So many graduate from high school unable to read or don’t graduate, drop-out or are thrown-out before they have a chance to fail completely.

Don’t just sit there, do something.

Bernie had a funny way of looking at the excuses people gave him for not doing something.

“I don’t have enough time.”

“I don’t have enough money.”

“I don’t have enough skill.”

“I don’t have enough knowledge.”

Bernie’s advice, “Stop focusing on the ingredients you don’t have.”

Using his favorite Zen cook analogy which he had taken from Dogen Zenji, Bernie advised, “Make the best meal you can from the ingredients at hand.”

Bernie called that the “Supreme Meal.”

A year ago, on one of the Peacemaker Zoom memorials for Bernie, there was a film clip of Bernie and Jeff Bridges talking — Eve Marko would later turn these recordings into The Dude and the Zen Master — Bernie added to his list of often-heard excuses, one that strangely I had never heard him talk about, “I don’t have enough enlightenment.”

That may be the excuse that traps the most Zen students.

Don’t just sit there, do something.

Don’t know what to do? Throw the kitchen sink. Not every sink throw will hit its mark.

I was lucky with Rosalind. She came back and sat down. Maybe she was just so shocked that I had thrown a sink.

It’s scary to throw the kitchen sink. It looks silly. It sounds silly. I don’t want to look like a fool. I won’t throw the sink. If things work out badly for Rosalind, I can always tell my supervisor, “I did everything I could.” I could even play the humility card. “I guess I’m just not a very good therapist.” That might even bring me some pity-support.

It takes courage to throw the sink. Or at least that’s what we often think.

Shelly Blackman, one of the founding trustees of our schools, had a very fresh way of looking at this problem, of knowing that something needs to be done while not knowing how or what to do.

Shelly mocked the “problems solvers” who never act because they want to consider other options. “It’s like looking down the barrel of a rifle, aiming, aiming, aiming, and never pulling the trigger.”

Shelly reminded me of the black-and-white, World War II movies that I enjoyed so much growing up, the nighttime air raids over Europe. Into the darkness streamed the white pulses, the tracer bullets. Instead of aim, aim, aim forever, pull the trigger, watch where your bullets go, see what they hit and what they don’t hit, and adjust your aim accordingly.

"Ready, fire, aim," Shelly said.

There is so much pride involved in wanting to get it right the first time.

Getting it right the first time is not so important.

I failed my driver’s license test the first time I took it. I was shamed. I didn’t know how to tell my friends. Maybe I didn’t tell them, but I passed the test the second time. Unless I offer the information — it now strikes me as so funny that I failed the written test — that no one would ever know. I’ve been driving now more than 50 years. “Did you ever fail a driver’s license exam?” The question has never come up on a job interview. It never came up on a date. It never even came up on any of the occasions — thankfully there haven’t been too many —when I was stopped for a moving violation. Not once.

Give it a shot. Learn.

I don’t even want to call it “learning from our mistakes”. It is not a mistake to try. Learn from the experience.

The only insanity is, as Einstein so wittily remarked, to repeat the shot and hope for a different result.

Learn. Try a different angle.

How many ways can you find to not make a light bulb? As many as Edison?

Throw the kitchen sink.

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