Choose a Mind, Not Any Mind

One of the wonderful things about Buddhists is that they can tell you exactly how to do something. A recent article in the magazine Lion’s Roar offered some steps to maintaining a beginner’s mind, that state of approaching the present moment wanting to learn from it rather than control it.

The article recommended noticing what’s happening now physically, emotionally, and in our thoughts. The next step is to remember what the practice is for that state of being. For example, if we’re being hard on ourselves, the practice is loving kindness.

When my thoughts start running around on the hamster wheel of life, I’ve been asking myself, what mind is this that’s happening right now? And let me tell you, I have a lot of minds.

There’s “I’ll never get there” mind. There’s “compare myself unfavorably to others to make myself feel not good enough” mind, and there’s “compare myself to others to make myself feel better than them” mind, both of which result in fear and unhappiness.

When I can name a particular mind, I feel an immediate sense of relief, as if I’m no longer required to believe that what it’s telling me is reality.

A workshop leader recently said, “We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world around us.” We see children do this, but we forget that it’s an ongoing process, that the meaning making factories of our minds work 24/7 every day of our lives.

So how do we choose to look for meaning in the world? My comparing minds have only one way to interpret all of reality—better than/worse than.

Gratitude mind, on the other hand, opens us to the wonder and beauty of existence. It creates the possibility of trust, which allows us to recognize and enter into our relationship with the rest of creation. From that vantage point, the only way to make sense of the world is to love.

What’s the Use?

There is a story about a bunch of trees on a hillside, and all of them are cut down except one that is so old and gnarled it’s not useful for anything. Despite the wisdom of this story, I recently discovered I’d rather spend a lifetime thinking M&Ms were the pinnacle of chocolate-dom than have people consider me useless.

gnarled pine tree in sand
Photo by Dan Mahr. Used under Creative Commons License.

This idea of usefulness did not come from me but from someone in a dialogue group I attend regularly. In this group, we often experiment with interrupting something we habitually do, and my reaction to the possibility of not being useful to people was panic. Why would anyone like me if I no longer did the things they counted on me for?

I suspect the only human beings who don’t worry about their usefulness are kids lucky enough  to be raised in a loving family that has the means to provide for them. Even then, the time to enjoy a state of uselessness is brief.

We start training our children to be useful early in their lives, as soon as they are able to put away their own toys. Then we give them small chores to do and ask them to carry their own backpacks at the airport.

It’s not unreasonable training. We’re social creatures, and we’re teaching our kids how to get along in society, how to become valued and integrated members of the tribe.

I wonder, though, if part of what Jesus meant when he counseled us to be like little children was to put down our usefulness occasionally, to give ourselves some time and space to be undefined, to allow the possibility of being valuable for some other reason than our contributions to family, friends, society. Parents don’t, after all, love their children because of their ability to do the dishes; they love them simply because they are who they are.

In the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie explains to one of the other children that the great thing about candy is that, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”

It might be that we don’t have to have so much of a point as we think we do.

What Gets Measured Gets Done

There are some really efficient people in this world, but I am not one of them. I am slow—at just about everything—and yet I want to be one of those people who gets a lot done.

I probably should not answer the “how am I doing at this life thing anyway?” question by counting tasks accomplished because the result will not be pretty. For other people, this approach might really work. Martha Stewart is probably a kick-ass list-item crosser-offer.

hummingbirdMy measurement system, on the other hand, needs to include such things as, did I notice the hummingbird hovering near the bottle brush tree? Did I taste my food rather than just gobble it down so I could go to the gym at lunch? Paying attention to these details makes me feel more alive and, as Howard Thurman says, “What the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Now you might say, doesn’t everyone want more hummingbirds in their life? If so, then the joy and peace quotient can only increase if people hang feeders and spend their evenings watching the little guys buzz each other.

But maybe not everyone is interested in hummingbirds. Not everyone wants to write—some people really enjoy being accountants. I am not making this up, though it is as incomprehensible to me as my voluntarily choosing to write a blog is to them.

Is it cheating to pick the indicators that will reveal we’re all doing a great job? Maybe, but would you choose an architect based on what kind of omelet he makes? No, so if you’re a born omelet-maker, why judge yourself on the kind of blueprints you draw just because the society you happen to live in thinks blueprint drawing is really cool?

It’s often hard to discern whether we’re omelet-makers, lawyers, or musicians, but if we measure our accomplishments in units of liveliness, we will head in the right direction.

The Sum Thing

I love stealing stories. This story is stolen.

old-young-holding-handsWhen he was young, my friend’s brother went to their grandfather and said, “I want the something.”

“What exactly do you want?” the grandfather asked.

“The something,” the boy replied.

“What does it look like?” the grandfather asked.

“You know, the something,” the boy said.

Then, much to his credit, the grandfather asked, “Do you know where it is?”

“In your office,” the boy said.

The old man and the young boy retired to the office where the grandfather held up thing after thing to no avail until he produced the calculator. At this, the boy nodded his head vigorously and held out his hands to receive the sum thing.

I often look for the sum thing in life, the experience or theory or explanation that will make everything add up, that will impart meaning to even the most drib drab days, the most miserable failures, the most painful losses. I don’t think it exists. In fact, I think it’s bad for us, like eating too many Twizzlers, because it keeps us living in future tense rather than present. It puts both hope and contentment (not to be confused with complacency) always just out of reach.

My spirits don’t exactly rise when I acknowledge that nothing waits around the next bend to transform my life into a complete and sensible and beautiful whole. A rather scary alternative presents itself: I create my life, which will likely come out messy and haphazard and undisciplined and wildly inconsistent and may, for all that, still be beautiful.

We don’t need to take on this life creation alone, though. If our lives belong to us, they are ours to share. We have friends, family, and communities to help us. We have grace. When all else fails, we have Ben and Jerry’s. And who knows, if we stop focusing on an unattainable totality, we may discover we like what we’ve made.

Workin’ for a Livin’

“Create a life you actually want for yourself,” poet David Whyte says in his Footsteps: a Writing Life CD set. And I think, “Yes!” Who can disagree with that fabulous Yorkshire accent, much less the sentiment?

“Isn’t there something we can do besides working?” a friend and colleague says. “Yes!” I reply and then spend roughly half my waking hours doing just that.

Work offers definite benefits beyond the simply monetary. Some people practice professions they enjoy. Offices or factories provide forced community, teaching us how to live alongside those we might not invite to dinner. I’ve developed skills at work I may never have discovered otherwise. Couldn’t all that happen outside of work, though? Absolutely.

If you take a look at the vast scope of human history, the majority of the population has spent most of its time growing, killing, and cooking food. And cleaning. I’d much rather write novels than the accreditation reports my work demands, but I’d much rather write accreditation reports than beat dirty clothes against rocks in the river.

As a species, we’ve just begun this diversification of tasks, and perhaps we haven’t chosen as wisely as we could have thus far. Perhaps we’re going through a stage, like adolescence, but tell a teenager she’s miserable because she’s a teenager and see how much comfort you’ve conveyed.

So how does one persist in work that is tolerable but not that which one actually wants for oneself? If you have a fabulous answer, please leave it in the comments below.

I try the following, which sometimes help and sometimes don’t: vacation; gratitude for not having the myriad of jobs I don’t have, like bus driver or president; lots of potlucks; sunshine breaks; gratitude for the things work has given me, such as a car, a house, friends, perspective.

And as often as possible, I remember a time when I was sticking small labels on tabs, a task whose eventual obsolescence no one will mourn. One moment life consisted of a mindless routine, and the next I felt I was in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing. I didn’t even mind that the right thing was affixing small pieces of gummy, flexible plastic.

I’ve never felt that way again, but I choose to think it’s always true. That doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray my job description will read well-paid novelist before the next accreditation report rolls around, but it opens up the possibility that this work we sometimes resist and often don’t understand can place us, against all our expectations, where we need to be.