Zen master Shunryū Suzuki encouraged his meditation students, even the advanced ones, to practise with Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin). Beginner’s Mind means having an attitude of freshness, curiosity, openness, receptivity, eagerness and humility. In Beginner’s Mind there is a lack of expectations, preconceptions and judgements.
But beginners at meditation don’t often come with Beginner’s Mind. They come with a busy mind or a sleepy mind that is swirling with worries, hopes, fantasies, expectations, judgements, criticism, etc., etc. The beginner’s mind may be crazy with fears and desires…,running towards their desires, running away from their fears, but always running. This hyperactive mind with its excessive thinking is constantly busy, and that is why they are looking to meditation.
A meditation teacher can help their students to become aware of their busy thinking mind without fighting it and without feeding it. Fighting thoughts and feeding thoughts only creates more thoughts and keeps the thinking mind busy; this is how meditation becomes a struggle.
So, how do they fight their busy, thinking mind whilst meditating? They fight it by trying to stop it, by trying to get rid of thoughts and by trying to get a blank mind. And, how do they feed the busy thinking mind whilst meditating? They feed it by holding on to hopes and expectations of an imagined outcome, and by “waiting for something to happen.” And what are they hoping/expecting will happen? They are waiting for an experience of inner peace, emptiness, nothingness, stillness, insight, energy moving, bliss, etc. Fighting thoughts or feeding them and “waiting for something to happen” can keep the meditation superficial and frustrating.
So, how can a meditation teacher teach their students to give up fighting thoughts and to let go of their expectations that something is supposed to happen? The first step is awareness: to be aware of thoughts (even the subtle thoughts- like expectations), the next step is acceptance: to completely accept the coming and going of thoughts, the third step is choice: choosing to shift attention back to present moment experience (breath, sensations and feelings). Thoughts aren’t a problem and they aren’t important. Thoughts may continue to come and go but, gradually, they become less compelling and less disturbing……..after all, they’re just thoughts, they’re just words and images in the head, just memory and imagination.
I often hear meditation students saying, “That was a good meditation!” or “That was a terrible meditation!”, and I gently challenge them as to what they mean. Naturally, they call a “good” meditation one that is comfortable and easy with “good” feelings like feeling relaxed, calm, peaceful. They call a “bad” meditation one in which the thinking mind is busy and they don’t feel so relaxed, calm, peaceful. Of course, the thinking mind loves to compare one meditation to another, to evaluate, to judge and to hold onto those evaluations. Those evaluations generate expectations which come into the next meditation. Ideas of what should happen abound!
Remember Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
As meditation teachers we can help students to cultivate non-judgmental attention. Non-judgmental attention is free of expectations, comparison and evaluation.
A friend of mine, a meditator and teacher for many years, describes his meditation as “love loving itself”. Whilst this expression absolutely resonates with my meditation practice, it may be unhelpful for beginners. The same can be true of expressions like: “awareness of awareness”, “emptiness”, “nothingness”, “bliss”, and all outcomes that are too far away. These expressions can generate expectations and craving; they can leave the beginner waiting for something to happen, trying to make something happen and being disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
For beginners I have found it more useful to emphasise the benefits of: presence, patience, acceptance, gentle perseverance, curiosity, compassion, lightness and humour…………these words are more process- oriented (less outcome-oriented).
One of my meditation teachers used to say, “On the spiritual path, Acceptance is the first step …….and the last!” Acceptance of what is, even the busy mind and the vulnerable feelings, enables the meditator to stop struggling, stop searching, stop hoping and be present to simple, direct, moment-to-moment experience. With this attitude, beginners can discover: Beginner’s Mind”.
By Paul Bedson, President Meditation Australia