(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
At the playground the other day, Sasha, a spirited 9 year old, theatrically exclaimed “This Brontosaurus won’t stop!” As she sat on a tube, a friend jumped up and down on it, and Sasha bucked back and forth, imagining herself riding on the back of a particularly unruly dinosaur.
Immediately, I had a flash of nostalgia for such immersive play. As a kid, a swaying tube can be a Brontosaurus, and a summer day at the playground can be the setting for an incredible narrative. Sasha wasn’t thinking about riding a dinosaur, she was riding on one. Her imagination was in tune with her senses and she was fully engaged in the moment.
As I watched I had a sense of real longing for such richness of experience. What a gift it is to be young, I thought, to have the ability to be so engaged in the present. It echoed a moment from my own childhood, when I had just struck an imaginary baseball with an imaginary bat, and was watching the trajectory of my imaginary home run, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a family friend watching me with similar bemusement and longing. She was touched; I was mortified.
Sitting on the bench reminiscing about the joys of being fully immersed, it didn’t occur to me then that I had the same opportunity as well; my breath was rising and falling, my feet were touching the ground, my eyes and ears were open to the sight of play and sound of laughter. Instead I was lost in a fantasy about how lucky kids are, spinning a narrative about childlike wonder.
In Buddhism we often talk about “beginner’s mind”—a concept popularized in the West by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. This mind state is often represented by children because their innocence and openness suggests the very mind that this practice seeks. But is the goal really to revert back to the state of mind we had as kids? Do we run the risk of conflating naiveté with wisdom?
I recently posed these questions to Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson, founder of the Red Rocks Zen Circle in Sedona, Arizona. Eisho is a dharma successor of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo in New York City and has been practicing Zen since 1996. Here’s what she had to say:
Alex: As a society we prize the freshness with which children approach experience. Is this the same thing as “beginner’s mind”?
Eisho: To begin, it is worth asking what beginner’s mind is. The phrase, of course, comes from Suzuki Roshi: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” So it is a mind that is awake and alert, curious, sensitive to the unfolding of life, present to what is happening moment to moment. It is a mind that is not on automatic pilot. It is a mind that is fresh and open to possibilities because it isn’t blinded or limited by its own beliefs, opinions, and judgments.
That sounds similar to how kids often experience the world. Is childhood immersion the same thing as mindfulness and practice?
To be fully immersed in the present moment is something that people can experience in many activities, whether or not they are dharma practitioners. Athletes, dancers, swimmers, gardeners, or chess players might all experience moments of complete absorption in their activity. But without a practice, that ability to be fully present does not often carry over into the other aspects of life once the activity is over.
That’s an important distinction for dharma practitioners. We practice to be awake and aware in all aspects of our life. So much of our life consists of the routine of everyday living. Each day, every one of us will undertake ordinary tasks such as brushing our teeth, washing dishes, getting dressed, and walking the dog. Can we bring a fresh and awake mind to these activities? This is the true challenge of beginner’s mind. And it is vitally important, because otherwise we miss our life.
Children often seem to represent some of the qualities we seek in practice, at least in their ability to be so absorbed. Can it be useful to observe such complete engagement?
In my view, as adults who are practicing the dharma, we have adult brains and adult responsibilities. Our minds are already conditioned by our upbringing and the culture that we are part of. Because of that, we must learn to work skillfully with the minds that we have and not have an unrealistic expectation that our minds can go back to the simpler times of children’s play.
At the same time, Zen teachers have sometimes used analogies involving babies or young children to help us see an important truth. For example, here’s koan #80 from the Blue Cliff Record: Chao Chou’s Newborn Baby.
A monk asked Chao Chou, “Does a newborn baby also have the sixth consciousness?” Chao Chou said, “Like tossing a ball on swift-flowing water.” The monk then asked another teacher, T’ou Tzu, “What is the meaning of ‘tossing a ball on swift-flowing water?'” T’ou Tzu said, “Moment to moment, non-stop flow.”
This “moment to moment, nonstop flow” is the continuous stream of reality unfolding; it is the way a baby could perceive reality, and it is also a good analogy for beginner’s mind. A mind that does not get stuck but is moving freely in the flow of what is unfolding. That’s a wonderful metaphor for us to work with.
In my own experience as a teacher, being around children at play can be remarkably refreshing. But not because of the nostalgic longing it induces. Rather, such immersion simultaneously pulls you in and draws you out. It is hard to stay locked into your own cycles of self-concern when surrounded by such rapt and dynamic characters. My workspace is alive with this activity, and so I spend much of the day captivated and fully engaged by it. But Eisho’s words ring true: my students are not equipped with minds that can take on the responsibilities and realities of adulthood, and were the teachers to suddenly adopt true childlike minds, it wouldn’t take long to achieve a Lord of the Flies level of chaos. Children can remind us of how bright and mysterious our lives can be, but they can’t practice mindfulness in our stead. After all, the moment really is a bucking Brontosaurus, and though we may envy a child’s ability to hold on, it is only as adults that we have the capacity to let go.