Tag Archives: Buddhism

Beginner’s Mind

When my yoga teacher asked the class to set an intention for the day’s practice yesterday, the words “beginner’s mind,” floated into my head. It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since I began mindfulness meditation a year-and-a-half ago, but being a meditation novice, it hadn’t meant very much to me. Here it was making an appearance on my yoga mat, a place where I have spent many hours and developed more than a beginner’s mentality.

Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist notion that encourages a person to constantly look with fresh eyes. The famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Suzuki Roshi seen above, opens with this saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

While trying out beginner’s mind, I experienced a different yoga class than I expected. I practiced as if I had never done it before, asking myself questions like, “What is this pose trying to get me to do with my body? Where should my foot really be? How is my breathing now? What does this feel like?” At one point I looked over to the clock and the 75 minute class was almost over. It felt like I had been there for half the time.

From Suzuki Roshi’s book:

In the beginner’s mind, there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

To my surprise, the intention carried forth outside the yoga studio and throughout the rest of my day. When it came time to cook dinner, I considered ordering Chinese food because I felt fresh out of ideas and inspiration. Then “beginner’s mind” popped up and I went to the pantry, pulled out a jar filled with orzo, and decided to make something with it precisely because it was an ingredient I had not used much before.

Forty minutes later I sat at the table with my two kids eating steaming bowls of orzo risotto and peas. I like this beginner’s mind. It feels spontaneous, open, and curious. Suzuki Roshi says the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner,” he writes. “Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”

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Biding Time

I’m always kind of amazed when people honk their horns in traffic. It makes no sense. Not that they should enjoy waiting, no one does. The honking is just blowing off steam.

Impatience comes up a lot in daily life. We have a sense that things should move at a certain pace or we want the instant gratification we have become so used to in our culture, and we are easily frustrated when we have to wait.

But maybe it’s worth it to cultivate some patience. In a lecture on Zen Buddhism, Gerry Shishin Wick writes, “Einstein was once asked about his creativity and he touched upon this subject of patience and effort. He said the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious researcher. His observation can apply to our own practice. We could say the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem or your question and your aspiration for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious Zen student.”

I have been thinking a lot about patience lately, what it means to have it and what happens when I don’t. In Buddhism, one is said to be practicing. We are practitioners. I think patience goes hand in hand with practicing. You are moving in a direction, but you are not there yet. You may never get there, wherever there is. Certainly, it’s not going to come instantly.

There is something a little painful about patience. This is recognized in both Jewish and Buddhist teachings.

Rabbi Abigail Treu, a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes: “Having patience means not only the ability to slow down in our fast-paced world, but also controlling our impulse to grow frustrated when things are not moving quickly enough or going our way.” To do this, she says “we find a way to trust in a positive outcome…to see what good might come out of a difficult or frustrating situation.”

In the Mussar book Everyday Holiness it says, “Patience is not just about waiting, it’s about bearing.” Enduring and tolerating are also words that come into play.

In the lecture on Zen practice that I quoted above, it says: “To learn to live with patience and not be drawn into anger you must let go of the notion that you can live without pain, suffering, disappointment, injury. Here we are asked, encouraged, to practice living with life’s discomforts.”

Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the States had this to say about patience in an essay on Right Understanding:

Work to nourish that quality of constancy, of what’s called, “a long-enduring mind.” It’s not a short game. You know, we’re used to instant food, drive-through, tell the lady through the speaker, “Yes, I’d like a Big Mac, fries and a coke,” or whatever it is. You drive around and you get it and you can eat it while you’re driving; you don’t even have to stop. Instant gratification. This is not an instant gratification thing. It is the longest thing you’ll ever do because it’s your whole life. It’s really to discover how to transform your life from being on automatic pilot to being conscious, to discovery, to play. And it’s wonderful. So it means that you don’t complete it, you actually learn how to play the game and make your life into that.

Patience is having the willingness to hold on to a certain amount of tension. To stay where you are even if it’s uncomfortable, just to see what happens next. Something will, of course. I got interested in this topic after hearing a beautiful talk by Kamala Masters. “Patience is generosity,” she said. “It is a gift of safety and reverence.” I immediately thought of being a parent when she said this, how having patience is an act of generosity to children. I love that.

“Patience is a strong quality,” she said. “You have be humble to step back and be quiet, take a look at the situation and gather more information, then you take the next step forward.” Or as Einstein would say, grope in the dark.


Rules of Engagement

Trust is usually something we think of in terms of other people. Can I trust this person? That is really about whether or not they are honest or have the integrity to do what you think they should do even if you’re not around to see them do it. Trust is also something we engage in when we step into an airplane and buckle up while others prepare to launch this behemoth into the sky and land it safely somewhere else. We feel betrayed if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.

But on the spiritual path, trust isn’t so much about other people. In Judaism, the concept of trust relates to our limited perspective. “We can only see part of the picture of life at any time, and often only a small part, and so we draw faulty conclusions about what something means,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. We can’t see the big picture — for example, how something that seems rotten will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. We cultivate trust, in part, so that we don’t put too much stock in our immediate reactions to life. This is considered to be trust in God.

There is also a sense of a lack of control over our lives, which raises questions about taking initiative. “It is right to put all your powers into taking action to better your own situation and that of the world because you understand and accept your real responsibility,” the book says. “Your obligation is to act, not to determine the outcome.”

The concept of trust comes up in Buddhist practice too. In the book, Smile at Fear, Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, Chogyam Trungpa writes, “The reservoir of trust is a very simple, straightforward idea. If we accept a challenge and take certain steps  to accomplish something, the process will yield results — either success or failure.

Trust means that we know that our actions will bring a definite response from reality. We know that we will get a message. Failure is generally telling us that our action has been undisciplined and inaccurate in some way. Therefore, it fails. When our action is fully disciplined, it usually is fulfilled; we have success.

Trust is being willing to take a chance, he says, acting with confidence that the phenomenal world will respond. “The fruition of our action will always provide us with information,” he writes. “Such trust in the reservoir keeps us from being too arrogant or too timid. If you’re too arrogant, you’ll find yourself bumping into the ceiling. If you’re too timid, you’ll be pushed up by the floor. Roughly speaking, that’s the concept of the reservoir.”

“We begin to feel that we are dealing with a rich world, one that never runs out of messages,” he writes. “The only problem arises if we try to manipulate the situation in our favor.”

I am fascinated by this. Scientists look for the facts, the laws of nature. This seems to me to be about the rules of engagement, trusting in what he calls the dynamic process. “The ancient Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching, often talks about success being failure and failure being success. Success sows the seeds of future failure, and failure may bring a later success,” he writes. “Whether the situation brings success or failure, it brings an unconditional good understanding.” I can live with that.


Just Do it

Seize the day. Go for it. Just do it. These are slogans, an ad campaign, even the title of a movie. They resonate ambition, courage, and success. That’s why we like them. They’re also a good introduction to the trait of enthusiasm that we have recently been studying in my Mussar class.

According the book Everyday Holiness, “The soul-trait of enthusiasm or zeal carries the sense of awakened energy…The lesson for us here is that merely showing up in life just isn’t enough.” Plodding through our daily routines dodging the slings and arrows and seeking comfort here and there just isn’t going to cut it on a spiritual path. You have to try, stretch, push yourself along.

The Buddhists agree. They would call it bringing energy and intention to your practice. Sitting on the cushion, your back a little slumped, your mind bored and wandering isn’t going to get you to enlightenment. You have to focus, seek, listen.

What does trying mean? For me it starts with the question, “If not now, when?” I read a book about a year ago called How to Live, A Search for Wisdom from Old People. It was a written by a Henry Alford who interviewed a bunch of people who were all 70 or older. I was struck by one woman who commented that you should act now in your life. There is no later. Now is later, she said.

Enthusiasm or zerizut is like that. Do good deeds now. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. And do it til it’s done. “As important as it is to be quick off the mark, it is equally important  to sustain energy throughout the whole enterprise,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “It takes enthusiasm not to bog down, wander off, or pull up midcourse but to press on to finish the good deed with vigor.”

There is another aspect to this trait that I think is really interesting. It is the idea that laziness is connected to our physicality. That the heaviness of the body or of gravity keeps us from acting with zeal. To cultivate enthusiasm is to counter that heaviness with the lightness or weightlessness of spirit.

I cleaned out my closet last weekend. There were a lot of extra clothes in there, things I don’t wear and honestly some that I had forgotten I owned. This was definitely one of those, I’ll do it later projects. It was interesting to see that while the motivation for diving in and finally doing it was to practice enthusiasm, I thought a lot more about gratitude and generosity. I ended up sorting through my clothes with the idea in mind that someone else might really be able to use these items. I felt grateful for the comforts I have enjoyed in my life and I felt excited to share what I had with others.

The project is not entirely done. I did bring several bags over to the local Goodwill. And there are a couple more that I plan to donate to a transitional housing facility for homeless women. I love walking into my pared down closet now. It is lighter and so am I.


The Value of Vulnerability

Uncertainty sucks. Waiting for an outcome can bring fear, anxiety, expectation, worry, hope. Maybe the answer is coming in a phone call in a few minutes. Maybe you won’t know for years. Either way, you have a pit in your stomach. It isn’t easy.

But modern research shows that opening up to uncertainty has tangible benefits to our everyday happiness and well-being. My very talented and remarkable friend Elena Day posted this funny, enlightening video on Facebook. It is a talk by researcher Brene Brown who studies human connection and our ability to empathize, belong, and love. The key, Brown says, is living whole-heartedly. I thought about my kids and myself while I watched it. I hope you like it too.


Worry

Once again, I have entered stormy waters. Life changes and suddenly it becomes difficult to pass through whatever is occurring. In my twenties, I experienced the painful ending of a relationship and sensed for the first time what it meant to ride along in rough seas, holding on to the sides of my rickety boat, and hoping not to tip over. I made it. Now again, I find myself struggling for steadiness.

We all experience this; it is life. People get sick, jobs are lost, and in my case, my child needs help. I want to preserve his privacy so I won’t talk about what is happening with him. This post is meant to look at how my inner life responds when my outer life is difficult.

Outwardly, I am taking care of business. Making decisions, getting educated, and trying to act in his best interest. Inwardly, I am grieving. I feel sadness, which in terms of mindfulness, is an emotion I can hold. But what is most difficult to manage is worry. I feel mindfulness slipping away from me because it is overpowered by my thoughts. The Buddhists call it restless mind. “Restlessness is agitation,” say Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith, in their book, The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation.

Restlessness seduces us into thinking that if we are restless enough, we will somehow make things better. It never occurs to us that being agitated or worried contributes nothing at all to improving the situation. Agitation just breeds more agitation.

That is the seduction of worry, at least for me. It seems that if I worry, I am holding on to the situation. I am fixing it by holding it. But I think that really I am just exhausting my energy like a mouse on one of those insane exercise wheels.

The writers suggest trying to see anxiety as the hindrance restlessness. “We learn to trust that if we let go and direct our minds back to our breath or the posture of our bodies, such as sitting or standing, we become much more effective because we develop steadiness of mind, which sees clearly what needs to be done.”

Seeing clearly what needs to be done is exactly what I am after right now. It is the reason I am worried. I am not sure what to do. In writing about acceptance, Joseph Goldstein, a respected Buddhist teacher in the West, says that struggle comes from not accepting what is present. In each moment, accept what is happening without wishing to change it in any way. Just to see it clearly.

In Mussar, we are learning about silence, both in restraint of speech but also in contemplation. “The soul needs silence as the body needs sleep,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. “Sleep to refresh; silence to cleanse. Sleep to dream; silence to awaken to the deeply real. The Talmud points to this in saying, ‘There is no better medicine than silence.'”

In my morning meditation I am trying to allow my worrying mind to quiet down and to listen to the silence within me. My day is noisy. My mind is noisy. But there is this space that is silent and I am grateful that I can rest there momentarily.


The Ogre In Me

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up in the worst mood. I came downstairs to join my husband and children and couldn’t stand any of them. My older son wanted to tell me everything he had thought or done since he woke up and every ounce of my being wanted to shout, “Be quiet!” My younger son came running to me for shelter from his older brother’s taunts and I tried to squirm away from his clutches. I warned my husband of the clouds over my head and he knew enough to steer clear of me.

I tried to use some Buddhist teachings to get me out of the funk. “I’m getting attached to my thoughts. Just let it go and let each moment be what it is.” Problem was, each moment was more annoying than the one that came before it. “I’m adding fuel to my own suffering. This is about me, not them.” None of it was working. I knew I was toxic to be around so I decided to clean the house.

All day I cleaned the house. You might think, “That’ll do the trick!” I thought it would. I still felt grumpy, but the house looked spiffy.

We went out that night with friends and I forgot about my bad mood. We had a great time. The next morning, the ogre in me was back. Sigh. We spent most of the day at a cyclocross bike race at a park in our neighborhood. My husband and kids all raced and we set up a tent where we grilled sausages, cooked frites, and drank beer. My husband is really into bike racing (check out his awesome blog) and this day in the park was his birthday party.

At one point during my husband’s race, while me and the kids and a bunch of friends stood cheering on the sidelines, my younger son started doing that charming testing thing that three year-olds do. It goes like this: I say, don’t go over the line onto the course. My son dips his shoulder under the tape that is strung from pole to pole along the edges of the race course. I say, don’t do it. He does it with his toe. I say, do you want to go sit in the car. He looks at me. I say, don’t. He waves his hand under the tape. And so on.

I’ve been a parent long enough that usually I can pull something besides brute force out of my bag of tricks to get us up and over this hurdle and into something more enjoyable. But not yesterday. I went into total reaction mode. Grabbed him and carried him off to another area where we were away from our friends. We didn’t make it all the way back to the car, but he got the message. He’d been removed. He was crying. I felt like crying too.

The rest of the day wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I could feel myself having little patience with pretty much everything. That night I went to bed early.

This morning started out on the same track until I was driving the kids to school when suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head. This weekend has been about the latest concept we have been studying in my Mussar class: the yetzer ha’ra. I mentioned it in another post awhile back, but this was the first time I think I’ve really experienced it. Here it is explained in the book Everyday Holiness.

We are born with free will and can choose to do good or bad, but whenever we try to do something that stretches us in the direction of good, we need to expect to encounter this inner resistance arising from the shadows. We have an inner inclination to elevate and purify ourselves – that’s the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse to do good – and what stands in our way is the built-in adversary, the yetzer ha’ra.

I think it is interesting that this tension defines the Jewish concept of free will. For me, the idea of an impulse to do good versus an impulse to do evil is a question of whether I can keep my focus on cultivating an inner life or just get swept up in the daily flow of my busy life.

Mussar teachers say it takes great strength to control the yetzer ha’ra, which by the way, is not something to be extinguished. Before now I did not understand what this meant. Now I think I do. If this mood this weekend can be understood as a manifestation of my yetzer ha’ra, then I see now the power of my inner adversary. For all the tricks I tried: cleaning, meditation, exercise, nothing seemed quite enough to overcome that grouchy, irritable, impatient side of me. To control that, harness it somehow? It’s daunting. I stand humbled, which is right where I want to be.


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