“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
The best lessons in life are often the most humbling ones. Here’s one of the best I ever got.
I first ran into Buddhism in high school, the way I ran into most things at the time—by reading about it. I found its ideas compelling, though if pressed I doubt I could have articulated the feelings behind my interest, other than some vague notions about discipline or self-mastery. I imagined being Buddha-like: to have perfect clarity of mind, to have complete mastery over emotions and desires, to be completely in control of body and mind, regardless of the situation at hand. That was appealing—my body, mind, emotions, and desires were all over the place—and that’s what I thought Buddhism was about. So, I continued to read about it, with the thought that I was coming closer to truly understanding it, at which point maybe I would be…………………ENLIGHTENED. Maybe the right combination of words on the page would finally unlock the mystery, and I would at last be able to see things as they really are, forever.
I tried to sit in meditation a few times over those years, on my own, but found it physically awkward and extremely uncomfortable, which were bad enough, but the worst part was that sitting still and silent for even a few short minutes was overwhelmingly oppressive mentally, as my mind maintained an unbearable torrent of thoughts the entire time. In short, I didn’t sit much, but boy, I thought about it a lot. So my practice, such as it was, remained an intellectual one.
That changed a few years later, when I moved to a city with a Zen center, where I received instruction in zazen (meditation) practice, and was able to sit with a group of fellow practitioners. The aura and rituals of the zendo were a strong motivating force, as was the need to remain silent and still for 40 minutes at a stretch, so as not to disturb those around me, so over time I became a semi-regular meditator. Yet all the old struggles remained; I just became better at enduring them for the requisite time period. Occasionally my thoughts would slow down, and my legs slowly adapted to sitting in half-lotus without hurting as much, but the thoughts (and the pain) always returned, sometimes with greater force than ever. Throughout, I kept my eye on the more senior practitioners, with their shaved heads, robes, and austere gazes, and tried to read them as I read books, trying to grasp their secret, to will myself to be more like them, or at least as I perceived them to be.
Then came the moment: One day after a meditation period, I was standing outside with a guest student at the zendo, commenting with surprise and dismay at what I perceived to be arrogant behavior coming from some members of the community. After a long moment of looking me in the eye, he asked me why I thought people at a Zen center would be any different than people anywhere else in the world. And he looked at me some more. The sun had just set, and a cold breeze had come in off the ocean. I remember an acute awareness of my shoulders being hunched against the cold, while he seemed impervious to it somehow. We were standing close together. He was from New Zealand, and spoke with an accent. He smiled at me. I was speechless.
It may not sound like much, but that moment remains one of the most vivid of my entire life, evidently because I was ready for it, and because of what it so plainly revealed to me about myself, and about this quest that I had been on for so many years. Buddhism wasn’t about being superhuman; it’s about being human. People at the Zen center weren’t there because they were uniquely evolved beings, but because they were uniquely suffering, just like everyone else in the world.
As the Buddha taught, the root of this suffering is our human compulsion to incessantly discriminate, to project our ideas about ourselves and the world out onto ourselves and the world, as if they had some objective reality. This is the trap of our having evolved the ability to self-reflect: not knowing how to stop objectifying all that we experience, based upon a mistaken understanding about the nature of the endless fountain of thoughts pouring out of our endlessly active minds.
The concept of enlightenment—-some kind of instantaneous (and permanent) transformation as presented in certain schools of Buddhism—-is undoubtedly the worst idea I picked up from my early studies of Buddhist philosophy. As long as you are busy looking for it, you are simply blinding yourself to whatever is happening now. What a meditation practice offers (to me at least) is the opportunity to notice and experience whatever feelings I’m having in the moment—boredom, pain, and oppressive thoughts (or bliss, pleasure, and ecstatic thoughts, for that matter)— so many times over that the impulse to believe in, indulge in, invest in, reject, or cling to them gradually diminishes. Which leaves—finally—some empty space to simply be present in. To see, hear, smell, taste, and touch without preconceived ideas. To maintain a beginner’s mind, despite what we think we know. Happy New Year.