Meditation and Beginner’s Mind

I often encounter beginner meditators, and even people who’ve been meditating a few years, who seem to be obsessed with technique. Modern society trains us to treat our bodies like machines and our minds like computers, so it only makes sense that we approach meditation as if we’re running some sort of diagnostic script. People half-assedly approach various religious methods of meditation and focus so much on these methods that they can’t actually meditate when they meditate. So today I’d like to step back from my usual pontificating and explore approaching meditation with beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind was popularized by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” The point is to make yourself sort-of like a child, receptive to everything and highly observant of all stimuli, but also patient and steadfast. This allows you to remain open to everything that comes and goes, rather than setting various internal preferences, which cause you to grasp at this thought or that. When we adopt beginner’s mind, we let go of all thoughts and preconceptions enough to see new approaches to life, new solutions to problems, and new opportunities where we once saw burdensome challenges. Mostly, we become content with seeing nothing— which is what we often see during meditation. We’re sitting quietly in a room, “letting thoughts come and go without serving them tea”.

The more preferences we define for our practice, the more difficult it becomes to actually practice. If you’re too worried about your back being straight enough, you’re not meditating. If you’re thinking about your lotus leg posture, you’re not meditating. If you’re trying to pick apart a koan or conceptual idea, you’re not meditating. If you’re forcing some weird advanced tantric breathing exercise, you’re not meditating (and you might pass out). You may think you’re meditating, but the ultimate effect of meditation— letting all thoughts come and go— is negated by focusing too much on anything in particular. The only things we should be anchored to are the breath and the void. Leave your baggage at the door!

When people ask me how to meditate, I’ve stopped directing them to any method with a name. I say this:

Sit on a couch with your neck straight (ie. don’t rest your head on the couch, so you don’t fall asleep) and close your eyes. Rest your hands on your lap. Let your breath flow in and out effortlessly. Focus on observing the breath. Do this for 5-20 minutes. If your head isn’t resting, you won’t fall asleep. You’re doing as close to nothing as you can without sleeping. You’ll be surprised how challenging it is, but also how different you sometimes feel afterward. Practice every day, even if it’s just for a little bit. The moments of transcendence will grow in multitude over time. 

For many people this is an incredibly difficult pill to swallow. No purpose? No focus? What’s the point? The point is this: we are so overfocused, overambitious, overzealous and overhyped in our everyday lives that a brief period each day in which the mind is simply left to let everything  come and go is integral to spiritual growth and psychological health. You’re detaching yourself from all preference, attachment, and deliberation. You are just existing in pure presentness. It’s harder than it sounds, and it will take practice, but practice doesn’t mean reading extra books or buying fancy gear. It means showing up and committing.

Think about all the problems you can have in life: you’re worried about losing your job, you want your kids to turn out well, you want to save as much money as possible, etc. You’re so obsessed with what can go wrong and what should go right that you miss out on life entirely, looking back in anguish and confusion. All of these attachments and upsets come from expectations and preferences within our thoughts. Meditation practice helps us let go of these massive attachments by starting with the smallest chunk possible: your random thoughts right now. So, if you’re holding onto a thought about meditation while you’re meditating, it defeats the point.

I like to finish my explanation this way: you spend hours a day awake, worrying about things, planning for the future, working, etc. How many hours do most people spend reflecting? 0. That’s insane when you think about it. 20 minutes to an hour of meditation a day completely changes people’s lives for this reason. Let go of all expectations of yourself and the practice and simply do it. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner; in fact, it allows you endless opportunities to simply sit. In Zen we call this shikantaza, or ‘just sitting’. It’s the purest form of practice there is.

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