Begin journaling thoughts related to or arising from daily practice of mindfulness meditation on Zoom with a small group. Actually Zen meditation, or zazen. We have been doing this practice for about 40 days now. I found that one of the main ways my mind would wander in early days of practice was about the practice itself, spiraling out into an intricate thought process until I would — as instructed — acknowledge the thought and let it go. Sometimes they would refuse to go for long. I decided this insistence meant I should write them down, and the reason I kept getting them was that I was intending to write them down, but not following through! Classic goofing off, right?
So this is actually the second one I wrote down, but the first was on a different platform originally (Slack.) We recently changed the time of our practice from 7:00 pm CDT every day to 8:00 pm weekdays and 10:00 am weekends. I surprised myself by making it to both Saturday and Sunday, because I frequently don’t even hear my phone alarm and sleep until an average of 11:00 am. (I’m retired, so I can sort of do that.) These thoughts arose from today’s (Sunday’s) session.
Our facilitator J has been reading from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind before we start our “formal” practice time. He re-read, this morning, Suzuki’s Prologue, which introduces the idea of Beginner’s Mind. One of the very first things J told us when we were literally total beginners was that mindful meditation did not seek to have no thoughts in the mind. There will always be thoughts; the Zen/mindfulness practice is to catch one’s self having “extraneous” thoughts, accept and acknowledge them, then let them go. Being a very visual person, I especially appreciated the image to use — like clouds floating across the sky. So when Suzuki also says right there in the prologue that the Beginner’s Mind is an empty mind, my Western dualistic non-Buddha nature was puzzled by this apparent inconsistency the first time I heard it. But this second time, I saw the connection between having an empty mind and the practice of acknowledging and letting go thoughts that are in the empty mind. In the west, a thing can either be empty, or have something in it, but not both. But in Zen reality, all of these dualisms contain their opposites, so it is quite easy and possible for the mind to be empty, and also not-empty.
I also made another more esoteric, and more personal to me, connection to this snippet from “A Study in Scarlet,” part of the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle, and a part of my own guiding philosophy. This relates to a discussion between two very real (to me) fictional characters, Dr. Watson, and Sherlock Holmes.
That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it. “You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” “To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested. “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Suzuki goes on to say — and this is the essence I think of Beginner’s Mind — that if your mind is empty, you are ready for anything. So the idea is not to grasp, hoard, or store your thoughts. We know that Buddhism tries to teach non-desiring, along with non-striving, but we tend to only apply desiring to shiny objects or comfortable lives, not to something as obviously “desirable” as knowledge. If you store, admire, and mull over “your” thoughts, you begin to own them, and when you own them, they begin to define you. You feel they are an attainment, and these old, dusty thoughts in your attic start gate-keeping, and shutting out new, fresh thoughts. This is how you lose Beginner’s Mind, and it’s an error I have been very prone to my whole life.