Of all the teachings, one alone rises above for me, for now. Shunryu Suzuki called it "Beginner’s Mind." Master Seung Sahn called it "Don't Know Mind." Sometimes it's "Just Now" or "Begin Again." At others, "Only This."
But for the most part, the concept of "no past, no future" remains just that: a concept. Consider the activity in my mind during a typical writing period: Are these not the same aches and pains I've had for the past week? Isn't this the same grief, compulsion, or habit pattern that derailed me the last time? Isn't the person who I "am" the same one who slept late (again), or missed yoga (again), or forsook the healthy things he should have done in order to live the life he should be living (again)?
Well, yes. And, well, no.
Should I choose to operate from the perspective of the ego, then the "I" or "me" that does anything is the one that the world sees: the 44-year-old, white, male with blue eyes and graduate degrees and the somewhat obsessive love of tea and organizing. But is this really me?
Or, better said, is there really a "me" at all?
I don't wish to abandon my identity, wholly. I realize that the many labels I have accumulated in the conditioned world serve specific and important purposes. When others are able to identify me as something — teacher, son, brother, customer, pedestrian, lover, American — it helps us all understand how to act, which rules to follow in order for things to run smoothly. But if I'm not careful, I begin to assume that those labels (and those rules) are, in fact, the truth. If I'm not careful, I then lose the opportunity to view my life, and each of its unique situations, through a lens unclouded by past experience, understanding, judgment, or opinion.
The other day I was sitting in the woods with a friend when we heard the song of a bird neither of us recognized. We saw the bird, broad tan wings fanned out, float between the trees in front of us, and were both captivated by this new sight. "I wonder what kind...," my friend said, but caught herself before finishing the sentence. Ironically, we had just been discussing the notion that "it" — whether a tree, a cloud, a dog, or a bird — is not inherently any kind. It just is. We laughed for a moment, allowing ourselves to watch "it" flitter and sing and hop from branch to branch without needing to know, at least for that moment, anything else. There may have been times in our lives when being able to provide the appropriate label — starling, woodpecker, sparrow, etc. — may have proven helpful, maybe even necessary.
This was not one of those times.
As a writer, I try to remember to approach each day of work as a new person. I remind myself of that all-too-common factoid that the cells in one's body are always changing, dying, regenerating, and therefore one is literally not the same from day to day. I try to remember that this writer, with his barnicle-like accumulation of experience, emotion, and expertise, is altogether different than the one who sat at this desk yesterday, or last week. Conceptually, this makes perfect sense: If I am truly not the same man I was yesterday then "I" have never done that which I am about to do. Thus, I don't know what will happen. Thus, I can choose to remain free of preconceptions, judgments, fears, or concerns about the implications of my actions. I am simply doing what I am doing: breathing, sitting, writing. I am here, and it is now. I am in "Don't Know Mind."
Not so fast.
I used to assume that I could revolutionize my creative life by simply telling myself each day that I was "new." Simple! I am a new person today. I will write what this new person wants to write. It will be fresh, exciting, and ground-breaking. I will not fall into the same traps as before.
But this didn’t work. The "new" Chris made up the same excuses for not writing. He delayed and complained and fretted. And when he did write, the "new" Chris ended up writing the same things as the "old" Chris. And leveling the same criticisms. And abandoning the work in the same challenging spots. In fact, the "new" Chris — despite understanding himself to be fundamentally "different" — seemed like the exact same person.
But why? Why wasn't just telling himself that he was "new" — and sometimes even that he just was — enough to facilitate transformation, to override the years of the years of hard-wiring the neural pathways that had already programmed him to believe who he "is," as a person, writer, man. In short, he literally was what he — through millions of repeated actions — has programmed himself to be.
What is Beginner’s Mind, really? Is it just “mind before thought”? Or “mind before repeated thought?” Or is it “mind before old thought”?
The teachers and sages give us many visual examples to help: mind is clear water and thoughts are the silt; mind is clear sky and thoughts are the clouds; mind is the surface of a still pool and thoughts are tiny air bubbles that come to the surface either clinging or floating up to a POP!
Using these metaphors, we see that the best definition of "Beginner's Mind" is actually "mind underneath thought." Once we are able to access and recognize it, we have the capability of making a choice each time we get lost in a mental frenzy; we can stay connected with that which is thought, or that which is under it. The empty sky or clear water is always there, we just have to practice accessing the vast open space it offers. This is true Beginner’s Mind, the place of great expansiveness and possibility. This is where we can access the greatest truth of all: the truth of not knowing.
Not that there are not benefits to the bubbles, the clouds. Many of them contain very creative ideas, insightful notions, and practical information. But many don’t. Many are filled with the stuff of betrayal and hurtfulness and fear and shame. And yet we cling to them so fervently, afraid to let go of them because we know them so well. If I release my grip on my own insecurity, then what do I have? Who will I be? Well, what we have is what is underneath, that which is not only holding that insecurity, but also everything else, including the seeds of the actions you might take that could, eventually, wrestle control of your daily life away from it.
But you must be willing to loosen that grip. If you do not, then you will always be led down a very small and limited path — perhaps one that contains some adventure and interesting elements, for sure — and miss out on the vast, openness of a mind without restrictions.
So here I am again, at the desk and facing the various trains of thought: the familiar tracks and grooves of the story of "me." In fact, I have come back to this post five different times in the past month. Each time, the trains jockey for my precious attention. Too tired to write anymore. Don’t know anything about mindfulness. All of this has already been said. Terrible idea. Nobody will read this anyway. Back is sore. Too much sitting. You will never sustain this!
I'm sure you know the drill.
Sometimes, however, I catch a glimpse of what lies beneath all the chaos. Big Sky Mind. Underneath Mind. Beginner's Mind. Call it what you will. It is the voice of reason, the wide open carpet of warm grass, the mother’s breast of nourishment and freedom. It is the place from which my “true self” can actually see what is going on, can notice what happens on each of these trains and make educated decisions about how to proceed, how to respond to these "clouds, dust, and bubbles," as it were, and preserve my sense of grounding and clarity.
From this place, I can write. I can compose, create, and worry about whether my words are “right” or “true” or "good" or “original” some other time. I can lean back in my metaphorical lawn chair, watching as all the clouds, silt, and bubbles try to undermine this effort. And I can rest easy in the space of creativity, not knowing what comes next, not caring. There will be plenty of time later for discerning mind, editor mind, for all of those important critiques and changes and revisions to take place.
But now? None of it. Don't know. Don't care. I've never been in this exact spot before, about to write this word, about to notice this thought. It's a scary place, but liberating. I don't always know who is writing when I'm here; but that doesn't matter. I don't need to know.