Tag Archives: Caring

Minding–and Not Minding– the Mind. #I–Caring

Have you ever noticed how closely related are the words “thinking” and “thanking?” The mind is one of Nature’s loveliest creations. I remember reading somewhere that just as a meadow gives birth to wild flowers, so the mind generates thoughts and ideas. This is its nature, and it does so beautifully and without effort. It is a delight to walk along a beach, thinking, musing, imagining–all functions of the mind. I love Wordsworth’s allusion to “the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.”  It has become fashionable, however, in some “spiritual” circles to denigrate the mind. The “left brain” is often seen as the source of all of our problems, and if we could just turn the darned thing off, life would flow more smoothly.  Perhaps, however, there are perspectives in which sometimes minding our minds, and at other times not minding our minds, could make life immeasurably richer.

We use “to mind” in many ways, but in this series of essays, I would like to think about four of them: Tonight, I am going to mind the kids. Mind the gap.  Mind your Mother!!  I mind it when the guy at the next table is smoking.

These meanings suggest that we put the mind to work when we care about something, ranging from nurturing love to dependent attachment; when we sense danger, ranging from reasonable attention to paralyzing terror; when we are in the sway of authority, ranging from suggestions to  harsh commands; and when something irritates us–ranging from mild discomfort to severe aversion. The mind itself is often the object of each of these senses of “minding:” It, too, can be irritating, or needing care, or issuing orders, or warning of danger. As I “think” about it, it seems to me that in most of the gentler meanings of “to mind” there are ways to mind the mind that are positive and helpful.  As we get to the other end of the spectrum, however, the mind can become a tyrant that inhibits the creation of an artful life.  During the next few days, I am going to write a series of essays on these various meanings of minding the mind.

1.  Minding the kids: caring for the mind.  I can think of two ways in which it is important to care for the mind.  The first is obvious: use it or lose it.  In my mid-seventies, I am still devoting significant time to learning languages.  I just love this.  Speaking a person’s language is a key to opening the hearts of oneself and others. It  keeps my mind agile and attentive, and my heart filled with joy. This connection between the heart and the mind, between mental exercise and joyful engagement, is the key to caring for the mind.  We all learned in school that force-feeding the mind is counter productive, to put it mildly.  Plato, in fact, was against compulsory education of any kind and at any stage of life.  “For the free spirit” he said, “there should be no element of slavery in learning, for forced learning takes no hold in the mind.”   I will write more about healing the gap between mind and heart in the next essay in this series.

There are other ways to care for the mind.  It helps to turn off the TV and read a decent book once in a while.  Even planning a trip (how to get from Madrid to Seville to Malaga to Nerja) is invigorating mental exercise, with a great pay-off.  For many people,  meditation in one form or another has become a powerful gentling of the mind’s anxieties.   And of course, writing a blog, and reading the inspiring thoughts of fellow bloggers, nurtures the mind’s vitality.

The second way we care for the mind is suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn.  “Be careful,” he says, “about what you invite into the living room of your minds.”  Just as with my children, I need to have a “parental filter” on my own mind.  What do I read, what do I watch, what fantasies do i entertain, and what is the quality of my conversations?  Am I feeding my prejudices,or opening my mind to more ample vistas?   Am I paralyzing my mind with fear, or learning to create positive frames for this challenging world in which I find myself?   Our minds, like our children, call for tender nurturing and healthy nutrition, and perhaps some discipline, in order to grow toward their richest possibilities.

On the negative side, we can become obsessed with the mind, and live entirely within its narrow confines.  G. K. Chesterton once observed that modern people have huge heads and tiny chests, like the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small. Just as a parent can become overly protective of his children, so we can attempt to insulate the mind from ideas that upset our cherished opinions.  It is tempting to protect the mind by building a wall around it, turning it into Plato’s cave. As Robert Frost advised, however, before I build a wall, I want to know what I am walling out and what I am walling in.

Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, was fond of urging his students to “great faith and great doubt.”  I think the trick is to honor the truth that you have crafted over a lifetime of learning, whether through reading, thinking, discussing, or even cultural conditioning–and at the same time to realize that the entire content of the mind is partial and tentative.  What I think I know is always open to question and further  refinement, often expansion, and sometimes outright rejection. This is what Socrates meant when he said he knew nothing true and beautiful, and that this  not-knowing is the essence of wisdom.  My ideas, no matter how beautiful and considered they may be, must always be open to doubt.  The mind’s greatest enemies can be its cherished answers that close off further thought.  It’s greatest friends are its questions.   Thus,  a mind lovingly cared for is one filled with wonder.


Monkey Reaching for the Moon #3: The Pool


Let us again refresh Hakuin’s poem that has been serving as a theme for this series of essays:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

If the ideas in the previous post concerning the branch of attachment seem at all cogent, it is because I have spent so much of my life clinging to that damn branch! My experience of the pool, however, is much more tenuous and fleeting. Rather than talking about its nature (which might be impossible), perhaps I can describe some of its cooling springs.

The first spring is that of presence. Many teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, are making a big thing of this right now, and well they should! Many of us are rarely where we are or when we are. We are often somewhere and sometime else–in the past or future. We live in daydreams or sporting the bumper sticker “I’d rather be…anywhere else.” Life in the pool, then, is not so much grasping or striving, but embracing the marvels of life as it is here and now. Some of my students think that this is totally unrealistic. How can one live without preferences or plans and desires for a brighter future? Tolle clarifies this beautifully: ” Your life’s journey has an outer and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that, which, of course, implies future. But if your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey’s inner purpose, which has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how.” (This can be found on pg. 88 in the Power of Now.)

The how also points to another fascinating conundrum that my students raise. Doesn’t lack of attachment engender a lack of caring? If I am not attached to this post–where it will go or who will read it–can I really be said to care about it? I would suggest that the more I am attached to the protective and defensive needs of my ego, the less I am able to care for the people and things in my life.  Milton Meyeroff wrote a lovely small book, On Caring, in 1971.  He says that to care for another person or thing or idea is to support and to rejoice in its growth, while maintaining respect for its own inner nature and agenda.  True caring, that is, entails relinquishing control over the timing and direction of the other’s growth–a difficult trick, indeed, for parents. This idea, however, is similar to the Taoist teaching of wu-wei, that implies a life of graceful activity without a self-inflating sense of authorship or control.

This question, I think, raises complex issues involving the object of my caring, and the motivation that fuels it.  Surely, there are healthy ways to care for oneself, and destructive ways to care for others.  Clinging attachment to oneself or another, however, engendered by a fearful dependency, does seem to diminish the ability truly to care.  Examples abound: the more I am attached to winning a game, the less I care about the wonder and the joy of the game itself, and my playing suffers.  The more I am attached to my righteous ideas of Peace, the less peacefully i work for peace.  It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that I cannot nurture a more peaceful world by injecting it with more hostility and little regard for the humanity of my ‘enemies.’  Finally, the more needy attachment I have for my significant other, the less I can love and care for her.  If we monkeys can let go of our dependent attachment to our own ideas and the needs they engender, then our egos could at least occasionally disappear into the pool of caring.  That, after all, is where we long to be.

Another refreshing spring in the pool of enlightenment is attention: looking and listening. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard has a marvelous passage on the dynamics of recognizing our own uncertainties: “We don’t know what’s going on here…We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise” (pg. 9l). I spoke above of taking everything and everyone for granted as a tragic misconception. My wife and I do our best to pay attention to each other. We take great care to look at each other freshly every morning. What is she thinking and feeling today? Have her dreams evolved? Who is she right now? In order to relate to the woman across the table, I need to look and listen to her, and not to rest in the complacency of my set ideas of her. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but more important than words can say. Continue reading