Tag Archives: mindfulness meditation

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.”

Recognizing the Good

The truth of the happenstance circumstances of my life is that I am very fortunate. I was born into a family with two dedicated parents, one kind older sister who tolerated my unending interest in her glamourous, five-year old life, and a brother-to-come who quickly became and remains one of my best friends. We lived in a house that just contained us and a dog. The lights never went out because we couldn’t afford the utility bills. Mean people from the government never stormed into our home, scaring us out of our wits or worse. Mother nature never unleashed her fury upon our heads. None of my friends ever died or disappeared. I managed to survive a rebellious adolescence. I have had interesting work experiences and along the way, met people with talent, commitment, and integrity. That is all before I met my husband and we began our life together which includes a move across the country to start anew, two healthy children, and many friends here and afar who we love.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it.

In the Mussar class I am taking we have moved on from studying humility to gratitude.  Here’s how it is described in the book, Everyday Holiness. “The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.”

A big part of practicing gratitude is learning not to take for granted the good things in your life. We forget to notice the good, Mussar teachers say, for a few reasons: We are too busy pursuing the enjoyment of worldly things, we become so accustomed to our gifts that they appear to us as permanent and unremarkable, and we are so focused on the travails and afflictions of our lives that we forget to notice that our very being and all we own are among the good things that we have to be thankful for.

It is this last point, recognizing the gift of my being, that strikes me the most. I can see that I take for granted all of the things and the important people in my life. And I can see how it could be beneficial to acknowledge all of my good fortune, both to improve my perspective on my life (are things going well or not?) and also to create a more open heart in how I relate to others.

But in my meditation practice, as I sit and focus on my breath trying to cultivate mindfulness, I keep thinking about how grateful I should be for my breath. It sustains my life. Without it, there would be nothing else. It reminds me of a story I read recently about a person who was struggling with mindfulness meditation and went to speak to a teacher about it. The student found following the breath to be boring. The teacher suggested they do a practice in which it quickly became difficult to breathe, leaving the beginner gasping. “Now is it so boring?” the teacher asked.

An essay I read recently said that when we focus on the breath, we are focusing on the life force. Life begins with our first breath and will end after our last. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself. As I go about my day today, I will try to remember not to take for granted all that I have to be thankful for. But most of all, I will try to remember to be very grateful for the breath that sustains me in the most basic way.

Being Good

Even my kids know there are good guys and bad guys. As adults, we decide what we are. This post is directed to the good guys. If you’re a bad guy, maybe I’ll write something for you another time. My Buddhist meditation teacher talked about good guys a couple of weeks ago in our class. Here’s a version of what he said.

We want to be good people, but there are often occasions where our inner life does not stack up. We try to turn away from the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that we think tell us something bad about ourselves.

— Within all of us, there exists every human emotion, “good” and “bad.”

Our unpleasant states of mind create tension, we want to get over them or we act them out, and then we feel shame. Later on, we do it again.

— Aversion invests emotions with energy; every time we act them out, we condition our mind to behave in that way.

It is better to make a home for all of our emotions. Accept that it will not all be pleasant or comfortable, but it will all be workable. Their existence means nothing about who you really are. It’s what you do with these emotions when they occur that determines whether your actions will help or harm others.

— By becoming more open and accepting of ourselves, we become more compassionate towards others.

Mindful awareness observes the breath, the body, and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise and fall away. Mindfulness holds anything completely, without judgement. This holding is an approximation of love.

— There exists in all of us a capacity to hold instead of react.

Every experience exists on its own. We just have to show up for it without resentments, judgements, opinions, or desires. That is what having an open heart means.

— Goodness flows from an open heart.

I Need Space

Here’s a trick. If you want time to stop, try meditating. One of my concerns lately has been that I can’t seem to slow down enough to notice anything beyond kids to school, whose been fed, where are your shin guards, is the cat in or out, why am I tripping over shoes in the kitchen, did you pee in your pants again, and so on. In all this chaos, life is zooming by.

Now that I’m sitting down everyday for thirty minutes to practice mindfulness meditation, I can’t believe how long it takes for a half an hour to go by.

Meditation is hard. My mind wants to jump on and ride off into the sunset with every thought that comes by. It’s supposed stay where it is and just be aware of my breath. But my mind does not listen. It is a lot like my son Sascha.

This is normal. In last Monday’s class, my teacher told us, “Point your attention to the breath instead of towards your thoughts. When you’re gone, just come back. The practice is the willingness to come back.”

You’re supposed to be gentle with your mind when it runs away. I’ve tried imagining that my thoughts are occurring in a stream at the top of my head. Then I imagine there is a gauzy barrier below which my mind can just be with my breath. Thoughts break through and my mind goes off, but I can bring it back to a quiet space.

Creating space in my mind. I think that’s what I’m doing.

My teacher told us that mindfulness meditation can have a profound effect on you. Yesterday I spent three hours cleaning my office, taking care of some matters that I’d put off for months, and getting rid of clutter. It was not lost on me the connection between cleaning out the clutter in my office and getting some quiet space in my head. Looking forward to class on Monday.

Don’t Miss a Step

Last night I went to the first of a six-week class on mindfulness meditation. It is taught by Rodney Smith, the founding and guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society (SIMS). It was interesting to see that over a hundred people showed up for the class. I guess I’m not the only one who is searching for something.

Early on, Rodney asked the students to comment on what we hoped to get out of meditation. One person said he wanted to feel more peaceful, another said she hoped it would quiet her mind. I wanted to say that I hoped it would help me get into the present. To feel like I’m experiencing each moment and appreciating that this is my life. These are my children. This is the sound of their voices. This is what it’s like to cut a carrot. I want to notice it all.

He taught us a basic sitting meditation and we practiced that for a short while. It involves sitting upright, either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, closing your eyes, and trying to keep your mind focused on the sensation of your breath. Nothing more, just paying attention to the breath. Thoughts arise and your mind wanders away, over and over you bring it back to the breath.

Thich Nhat Hanh says this: “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

Rodney also taught us how to do walking meditation, in which you pay close attention to the sensation of taking each step. Picture a large empty room filled with people taking very slow steps. It felt a little weird, but also interesting to see how focused you can become. “Don’t miss a step,” he would say occasionally. You are training your mind to pay attention.

For homework, he asked us to sit in meditation for 30 minutes every day and to do one “marker.” A marker is a daily activity that you do routinely, without thinking about it, that now you will try to do with complete mindfulness. He suggested teeth brushing. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh:

Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. Be mindful 24 hours a day, not just during the one hour you may allot for formal meditation or reading scripture and reciting prayers. Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. Does the word ‘rite’ seem too solemn? I use that word in order to jolt you into the realization of the life-and-death matter of awareness.

So this is the beginning. The path I am choosing to follow, at least for now. Thirty minutes of sitting meditation each day. Mindful teeth brushing. Maybe mindfulness will spread into other parts of my day. And we will see.

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