I’ve been practicing zen for two decades now, and in honor of this anniversary, I wanted to write about how I got started. I used to do black-and-white photography and built a darkroom in my house. A photographer friend came over sometimes to use the darkroom, and he talked about Tassajara, where he had helped build the new bathhouses. He thought I’d like it there, and lent me Suzuki Roshi’s classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which, in the true spirit of the title, I could hardly make sense of. But I liked it. This is one of my favorite things: that although I’m always trying to understand everything, I can still like, and even love, things I don’t understand.
After months of ignoring my friend’s advice to visit Tassajara, I finally signed up for five days of their spring work period. I was taken by the sound of the creek outside my window, the kerosene lanterns, the wood architecture, the quiet, and the zendo, especially its faint but lingering fragrance of incense. Although I was seduced by all this beauty, what made the deepest impression on me was an experience that the beauty made possible.
My work assignment was painting cabin interiors white. I took considerable pleasure in this way to make things look fresh without actually having to clean them, like snowfall in a city. The work leader stopped by occasionally to see if I needed anything, but she never seemed to be checking my work, how well or quickly I was progressing. I so appreciated her trust in me, in my unsupervised diligence, that I felt a need to justify it, and I began to set goals; I’d finish this much by lunch, that much by teatime. I started making these commitments to her when she came by.
After a while, I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying painting anymore. Instead, I was feeling stressed. The work had become only about finishing. In the quiet spaciousness of that environment, I saw that the pressure I was feeling hadn’t come from outside — the work leader had made no demands. My stress was completely self-imposed. I had created it out of a need to prove myself worthy of what had already been given. And in doing so, I’d switched my attention from what I was doing to how well (quickly) I was doing it, thereby robbing myself of the joy of the activity itself, the joy of just doing. I wondered how many other pains in life were like this — experienced as arising from external facts, but in reality self-generated.
The desire to see life that clearly and inquire into it that closely was the seed that grew into a twenty-year practice. Since then, I’ve been shown over and over the value of cultivating beginner’s mind in each moment. As I wrote to a friend recently, it’s not simply about keeping an open mind or avoiding arrogance, although those are worth doing. The bottom line is that beginner’s mind is one of the keys to joy.
Teaching English in Japan for several years, I noticed that beginning students were delighted when they could assemble simple sentences. When they couldn’t, they tended to laugh at their mistakes. Either way, they had fun. Which meant that I had fun too. But the more students advanced, the more they hesitated to speak. Because suddenly they weren’t thinking about how to make a sentence; they were worrying about whether to say “a” or “the”.
They were focused less on what they wanted to say than on all the possible mistakes they could make in saying it. They often looked pained. And because they were so reluctant to speak, I probably looked pained too. I kept urging, “Just say something, and then we’ll fix it. If you don’t say anything, I can’t help you.” I realized ruefully that the students who most exasperated me were the ones most like me.
In contrast, I had a private student who was an unusual guy in many respects. He owned his own travel agency, called Gump Travel because he’d loved the movie. He adopted stray dogs, which was rarely done in Japan. And he persisted in practicing English every week for years although his grammar was beginner’s level and never improved, and he knew it. But he had an ardent curiosity and desire to communicate, and our conversations ranged widely, encompassing complex and controversial subjects. I was amazed that he never failed to understand me, nor I him.
I won’t say that doing things well doesn’t matter, because it does. And to do things well, we usually have to employ our faculties of discrimination, of recognizing and caring about differences in quality. But the moment you notice that you’ve stopped enjoying something, ask yourself whether expert’s mind has hijacked you — whether you’re too focused on details, mistakes, finishing. To paraphrase a comment about a famous painter, “If he could have drawn better, he wouldn’t have been as great an artist. His energy would have been diverted into finessing the wrong things.”
Expert’s mind has many uses, but it can lead you astray, into finessing things that don’t matter at the cost of what does. And maybe more importantly, expert’s mind limits the expanse of what you can love. Once you’ve tasted freshly ground coffee, it’s harder to enjoy instant.
Long ago, a mechanic advised me that when shopping for a car, you should always drive the smallest, most basic model first. Because you might love it — it might be enough. If it’s not, you can always try the next one up. But if you start with the most luxurious, you’ll never be entirely happy with less. His words still rank as some of the best advice I’ve gotten about life. Desire Management 101.