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.