The Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind (sh0sin), there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few”
Shunryu Suzuki
Perhaps twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the convocation address delivered by Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul, Soulmates) to the new crop of University of Toronto graduates. His message was succinct, clear, and, I’m sure to the freshly minted BA’s, just a bit paradoxical. ‘You’ve spent four years learning, cramming your heads with information. Now, just before you step into the world, empty it all out!’ He was not diminishing their efforts; nor impugning the importance of knowledge. He was merely pointing out that information, in and of itself, can be as limiting as it is useful and instructive. Suzuki’s pithy opening to his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, captures this same sentiment: when approaching any subject, maintain an openness and suspend preconceptions to reach the ‘correct truth’ (an alternate translation of the Buddhist term, shosin).
A few weeks ago, the Globe and Mail reported on the ‘brightest community in the world’ — and here we all thought it was Stratford — Shanghai!! Evaluated on standardized, high school-aged tests (evidently creating a basis for comparing academic performances across cultures), this mid-sized city out-stripped a host of other Western and Eastern candidates. What I found telling was that the educators even in this city were quick to point out that their educational policies have as top priorities test-taking skills and acquisition of content-heavy, broad information bases — evidently at the cost of fostering creative thought (and generally necessitating significantly extended ‘school days’). Great for high marks; not so sure about opening minds.
It seems that these priorities are not restricted to the Tiger Moms of China. Our culture too, protestations to the contrary, appears to validate the former of these two approaches (acquisition of knowledge), granting the designation of ‘expert’ to he/she who knows the most about a subject versus to those who choose to think outside the box, with the emphasis on understanding and the ‘how’ of a particular subject of interest. My wife has recently chosen to ‘redo’ her musical education, having completed grade 5 (in piano) in her mid-adolescence. Her approach this time round, I found a little confusing at first: integrating the physics of kinesiology and posture, mindfulness, mathematics, and the ‘psychology of practice’, as well as studying the theoretical rudiments (aka ‘theory’) of which I expect most accomplished musicians are intuitively aware (but to the casual player are a collection of rote, boring, and near random associations). Result: a very motivated student who now struggles to find the time in her day to fit in another practice. And all commenced at the preparatory level — a true beginner’s mind approach.
I had occasion to be chatting recently with a young man, currently enrolled in 3rd year university, only to hear this same theme echoed once again. Though the conversation was far-reaching, it seemed to return to the same thematic point of origin — whatever the content. A history major, he noted that he had little difficulty cranking out papers that were well-received by his faculty (and accordingly rewarded with good grades). But he was bored, lamenting that taking an ‘unpopular’ point of view — in his description, being less ‘conforming’, formulaic, or compliant with expectations — often failed to be endorsed with the hoped for ‘A’. Taking the ‘party line’ was the way to advance. He went on to say that, during a trip to Europe he found himself having to make a choice between ‘charging his camera’ (with which to document the reams of ruins they visited) and his iPod (source of much loved music and the portal into a more receptive, immediate state) — opting for the music over the camera. His rationale was that, in ‘shooting the sites’, he had become increasingly preoccupied with the right light, image composition, sun placement; losing his very present awareness / direct connection with the building, statue, etc. before him. Listening to his music, he became more immediately engaged, less distracted — and less obsessed with ‘keeping a record’, but risking missing the experience. As with information accumulation, interpolating, in this case, the photographic device between his ‘beginner’s mind’ and the site changed and constrained his experience — and was therefore, much to the dismay of his peers, eschewed.
Poets and educators, Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell (Power of Myth) in particular, underscore Suzuki’s ‘subversive’ stance as well. In a marvelous little essay, Bly characterizes the human shadow (that oft mis-named ‘dark side’) as the ‘long bag we drag behind us’ and, coincidentally, the repository of much of our creative potential. The ‘bag’ begins to grow (and become less accessible to us) as we move from childhood (‘that perfect globe of energy and curiosity’ — what a wonderful definition of the beginner’s mind), into adulthood, learning in the process what’s acceptable and what isn’t — to parents, teachers, peers, employers, friends; and stowing all those ‘not’s’ in our bag and generally losing touch with the content. And, one day, we look at our ‘globe’ only to find that it’s a mere ‘shadow’ of its former self, a slice instead of an orb — and we realize we have been ‘socialized’ out of our naive, ingenuous, receptive and curious selves. Campbell identifies a similar process as we discover and construct our personal lists of thou shalts and thou shalt not’s – building our formula for acceptance; but losing our (beginner’s) mind.
When we sit, when we meditate the task before us is to regain that lost capacity in the simplest possible way — by suspending our compulsion to think; even to think about thinking. To suspend the preconceptions, the judgments, the compulsions to evaluate — and to approach each experience ‘again for the very first time’, the true beginner’s mind with eyes (and mind) wide open with surprise and wonder.

Ethics and Happiness

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife . . . Or so goes Jimmy Soul’s recipe for marital contentment. Sort of a re-visioning of Proverbs 31, I suppose — and just about as popular nowadays (talk about a sexist stance!) Perhaps a bit more substance is required in cooking up a formula for this sometimes elusive state — happiness, not marital contentment (although they do somehow seem to be related).

A few months ago, I’d had a look at the benefits of ‘being happy’ (The Glass Is . . .) with a quick overview of The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) and Authentic Happiness (Martin Seligman), the latter author/researcher offering a whack of variables that he feels might underpin this golden fleece of mindsets. Both feel optimism is an important element.

And now, from that hotbed of happiness (Missouri) comes some research from Harvey James, an academic economist (now there’s an optimistic group!) that might expand our formula a bit: Ethical people are satisfied people, or to quote Plato, ‘the just man is happy, the unjust man, miserable’. Harvey’s findings are summed up: ‘happiness is derived from doing well (ed note: not sure if he doesn’t also mean ‘doing good’, in the grammatically correct sense) and from meeting psychological rather than material or hedonistic needs. While income, personal characteristics, and societal values play a role in affecting happiness, so do personal ethics. If the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, and if subjective well-being increases when people are just, the efforts to improve the moral behavior of people will also improve overall societal well-being’.

James, true to his researcher’s roots, is not about to say that the relationship between ethical behaviour and life satisfaction is a causal one; that is, that doing good / behaving justly causes one to be happier (any more than being happy causes one to do good!) What he is saying is that these two are related, possibly thru’ a collection of ‘third factors’, and that higher levels of intolerance for unethical situations is generally found in people with greater measures of satisfaction with their life states.

A bit of reflection on this relationship suggests that it makes good, intuitive sense. If I notice that the cashier has given me back change for a $20, when it should have been a $10 and I draw her attention to the oversight, we both leave the situation with a sense of well-being (although I’m $10 less well off for the trouble!). If I do a ‘cash only’ transaction in my work, I’m ‘saving’ the government’s bite; but might find myself checking the mail for months after I file that return, just waiting for the notice of audit. Not a very good use of time or focus — and easily avoided.

Seligman, in his taxonomy of (happiness-inducing) signature strengths, identifies a very similar element, which he labels integrity, grouping it together under the rubric of courage, along with bravery, perseverance and diligence, and in particular, honesty and genuineness. He defines integrity in his use of the word as ‘more than just telling the truth to others; (it means) representing yourself — your intentions and commitments — to others and to yourself — in a sincere fashion, in word and deed’.

Mindfulness teachings may just have scooped Dr. James (sorry, Harvey) on this one by a few millennia. These are couched in the Eight-fold Path (essentially Buddhist guidelines for living life) and more broadly as they address the three Liberating Trainings. These would be meditation / mindfulness practice itself, cultivation of wisdom, and ethical behaviour. The latter, in turn, is comprised of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. And perhaps therein lies the core — when practicing, amongst all the other benefits that seem to accrue, we feel freed. James speculates that the illusive ‘third factor’ (relating satisfaction and ethics) may be a ‘freedom from guilt or shame’.

As we move from the daily sit back into the world, mindfulness practice then is more than carrying that sense of calm, ground, and centre into the rest of our day. It is choosing the way in which we engage that day: the relationships it brings us in contact with (and how we respect or value those exchanges), the choice points that are often subtly fraught with decisions pitting altruism against personal gain, bringing empathy and compassion into our dealings — and being mindful in all these choices. All this, secure in the knowledge (now that Harvey’s done his math) that we will be more content at the end of that day.