Friday, February 18, 2011


The Dharma teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi once said, "The task of Right Mindfulness is to clear up the cognitive field. Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy. It reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations. To practice mindfulness is thus a matter not so much of doing but of undoing: not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not imagining, not wishing."
That succinct description of Mindfulness captures how I use the phrase "beginner's mind." This is something every visual artist is familiar with. One purpose of a drawing class, for example, is to get students to liberate their perceptions, to draw the body of the individual, unique model before them, as it is presented to them here and now in direct perception, to pay attention to it, and not draw how they remember or think the human body looks. This exercise is akin to what phenomenologists do with the technique called the epoche or "bracketing" of our opinions, views, and explanatory models when we examine a phenomenon in hopes of undergoing a fresh experience with it. 
Think of the old Zen masters asking us to "empty our cup," because a full cup cannot hold anything fresh or new. How often do we see not the object before us but instead our idea of that object (or person)? How often during the day does it happen that we perceive the world and things in it, objects and others, through our cultural and social conditioning that dates back to childhood? How many times a day do we experience phenomenon, not directly, but filtered through the interpretations, ideas, and opinions of our teachers, parents, friends, the English language (with its concepts) and especially the media?
In my thirty-first year of meditation practice now, and as I get older, I constantly and with greater ease watch my mind and practice this "undoing" Bhikku Bodhi describes, scraping away all the accumulated layers of ossified "conceptual paint," and questioning every idea that arises in my mind as it arises, especially my thoughts and feelings that are knee-jerk and uncritical, the ones that make me (or my ego) feel most comfortable. (Those are always the most suspect ones.) I interrogate each idea with these questions: Is that true? What is the origin of or basis for that idea? Can I truly say I believe it? That I've earned it? Is this idea or feeling really true to my experience of this particular subject (or object), or is this an idea or feeling I have received second-hand from others, which I'm just repeating, parrot-like, without verification?
The result of this practice, of experiencing "beginner's mind," is both liberating and humbling. On the one hand, it makes me aware of the intentionality behind my thinking, i.e., how so much of it can be defensive, reactionary, partisan, willful, self-centered, driven by desire, mired in my own conditioned and miscellaneous list of "likes" and "dislikes," with the ego working hard to protect its cherished ideas, beliefs, and itself. On the other hand, once I "let go" the ideas that stand between myself and undergoing an original experience with something, I find the "object" before me appearing in ways here and now that are fresh and unexpected.
Every day when I get up, I wash my face with hot water. That might seem like a dull, quotidian activity. But think of what we do when we meditate exclusively on our breath, following each one carefully, and thinking of nothing else. (Try doing that for just five minutes and see how hard it is.) Some breaths are long, some short. Some are fast, some slow. Some are warm, some cool. Some are deep, some shallow. Never is any breath we inhale and exhale the same as a previous one. Similarly, each day when I wash my face the experience of the "hot" and the "water" are never the same as they were the day before---or on any day before in my entire life.  
This experience of freshness in even the most pedestrian and mundane things is, I believe, beginner's mind, for the only place any of us can live is here and now. (Not in the unrecoverable past or in a future that will never come.) Beginner's mind is also the artist's mind, which invites us to experience the world anew in all its mystery and wonder.

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