Like Kids at Play

Today I attended class at Russian River Zendo, where a group of us are reading Kosho Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought, with Tony Patchell. In the section discussed this afternoon, Uchiyama is trying to define the undefinable: What is self? He argues that we are too used to viewing our self as just that conscious part of our being, our thoughts, our feelings. And yet what happens when we go to sleep? The thoughts and feelings are gone for those eight hours – but clearly, our self remains, because it is right there again when we wake up in the morning. So what exactly is that self?

Uchiyama believes human thought “cooks” everything up, removing it from what is raw and fresh, the direct experience of living fully present in the moment. We interpret; we generalize; we make associations to past experiences and those associations flavor the “now.” How to get around that?

He continues: In Zen, it is said that a person knows cold things and hot things only when she herself experiences them. Everything is taken in as the real life-experience of self. This means there is no true value in definitions of things, reports of other people, or so-called pure observation of things, from which the life-experience of one’s self is removed.

The lesson, which he drives home again and again, is that generalities and philosophies cannot serve us. It is only through direct experience, a complete understanding that the universe is me and I am the universe, that we can begin to approach true self.

Talk like this quickly becomes a bit of a mind-bender for me, especially since I am easily enticed by thought games. But then I luck out – chance encounters open new doors.

After the talk, I walked down the hill and to the Guerneville Park and Ride, where I had left my car. There was a van in the parking lot, with the words Segway of Healdsburg emblazoned on the side. For those of you who haven’t heard of a Segway yet: it’s a motorized “personal transport” device that looks like a one-person scooter on two wheels. The driver zips around at about 12 miles per hour, standing up. I had heard reports, but hadn’t actually seen one until today.

A half-dozen people were tooling around the parking lot on Segways, wearing bicycle helmets. They were just going around and around in circles. Most of them were older, as in grey-haired but not octogenarians. What was amazing, though, and what made me stop in my tracks, was their facial expressions. Every single one of them was grinning from ear to ear.

It was so clear, at a single glance, that these people were THERE. They were completely in the moment. And in those brief periods when they stopped concentrating on how the thing worked, and whether or not they were going to make the next turn, I could just imagine them returning to reflective thought for a second: Damn, I haven’t had this much fun since I was 10!

What it made me realize was that sometimes it takes a jolt, a Segway even, to wake us up. To remind ourselves that there is just this one wild and precious life, as poet Mary Oliver would say. I tend to forget that. I get caught up in my everyday routine, and then the thinking mind takes over, the planning, the worrying, the staging. Those bursts of newness can help shake us out of the rut.

I went skydiving once when I was in college. I’ve always wanted to go again. Words cannot express what it felt like, to dive out of an airplane in a solo jump. Falling through the sky, I had never felt so alive. Because it was, as Uchiyama said, that undefinable self, pure, raw, uncooked.

Having taken myself far too seriously for most of my life, the Segway lesson was clear: remember to play, kid. Remember to play.


Beginner’s Mind

The Zen priests that I study with, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, have asked me to start writing a blog affiliated with their Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, California. At first, I was at a loss as to how to respond to this request. I have been formally practicing Zen for only about three years. What could I possibly have to say that would be worth listening to?

But, Darlene quickly assured me that this is precisely why I should write. She said I have “beginner’s mind,” not because I have attained enlightenment, but because I truly am still a beginner. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi said in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, that the goal of practice in Zen is always to keep that fresh perspective. He said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

I first was exposed to Zen practice many years ago, when I studied aikido, a Japanese martial art, in Seattle. After we practiced, we would sit zazen together. I found it as challenging and invigorating as the martial art itself. It took me many years, and many twists in the road, to come back to this path. But I often reflect on that first experience, and remember my initial impressions.

In aikido, there is a similar concept of “beginner’s mind,” connected to the idea of attaining a black belt. When you begin practice, your belt is white. Over time, through sweat and use, the belt slowly becomes soiled. When it is completely black, indicating the years you have dedicated to the art, that is when others often recognize you as a master. But — soon after that, if you continue to practice, the top layer of the belt will actually wear away, revealing once again the bright, new white cloth. In other words, when meeting a martial artist wearing a white belt, there is no way to tell — is he or she a beginner or the head teacher at the dojo?

So, in the interest of full disclosure — I am no Zen master. I am just one of many who practice, and search, make mistakes, and try again. I invite you along for the journey.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved