Zen practice is about living a life that is in harmony with our natural mind, and with our natural heart. We say that this natural mind, this open heart or “true self” is compassionate, soft, smooth, flexible, and open. Buddhist practice in general is all about discovering this natural peace, freedom, and openness.
A Mind That’s Open
The zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki would sometimes say, “Whatever you do, this attitude is necessary. [Keep your] ‘soft or flexible mind.’… When you lose it, you lose everything.”
Each of us already has the necessary ingredients to grow and then live fully from a warm, flexible, smooth, openhearted mind. If this truth was not so, growth in Buddha’s practice would not be possible.
Imagine that you suddenly develop an automatic, irresistible compulsion to say every critical, or embarrassing, or offensive, or hurtful thing you think— to whomever, whenever. No matter the setting, no matter the time, you must say it.
And, there is no cure. You are stuck in this for the rest or your life. No doubt this situation would be profoundly distressing.
And adding to your distress, you can still“take a step back” to consider the moral implications of the things you are compelled to say as you say them.
Additionally, you still feel empathy for the people who hear you, and for yourself. In fact, when you hear yourself say the hurtful things you used to easily hold in check, you’re mortified for others and you’re deeply concerned about the effect you’re having on their happiness, and for your own. Nevertheless, you cannot stop yourself. You speak.
Feeling Compelled to Speak
In this thought experiment you are living in a nightmare in part because we view ourselves as compassionate, moral beings due to the fact that we have two fundamental capacities, one of which you have lost.
First, we have the fundamental ability to reflect on our thoughts, words and actions with compassionate concern. That is, we constantly consider whether or not our words and actions will be helpful or harmful to others and to ourselves.
And, second, our view of ourselves as compassionate, moral beings depends on our ability to act. We aim to act in ways that are consistent with what we think of as decent and good.
In the thought experiment, you can reflect; you can take a step back to pause and consider the usefulness or harmfulness or your thoughts and words—but you cannot stop saying the harmful things you think. That is, you cannot act in harmony with your own reflections.
The Fixated, Biased Mind is not It
I offer this thought experiment because it highlights one kind of mind that is not a smooth, natural mind in Suzuki’s way of speaking.
The mind in the experiment is stuck; it’s trapped in acting in harmful ways. And, importantly, it has lost one of the natural capacities a normal mind has to right itself: it cannot change.
Interestingly, you might know people who say things that suggest echoes of the thought experiment. For example, Jane might say things like, “Whenever Henry pushes my buttons, I can’t help but respond in anger.” Or, Adam might say, “When I hear people who support x or y politician, it sends me through the roof. I can’t help it.”
Feeling Like Freedom is Lost
Jane and Adam are talking as if under specific conditions they’re unable to either reflect or act freely, or both. They’re talking about themselves as if they’ve lost the capacity to reflect and freely act when in fact they have only lost touch with these capacities. Perhaps they have never learned practices to help them strengthen these capacities.
Noticing Openness, Practicing Openness, Living in Openness
There is a kind of automatic and habitual quality to the mind that does not function in a smooth, natural mind kind of way. For example, you might know someone who seems to be “spring loaded” to anger. No matter what, this person’s anger is always set to boil over. Or, you might know someone who is never able to stand up for themselves, or someone whose emotional or cognitive dial is always set to gloom and doom, no matter how sunny the day.
Yet, given the natural capacities of our hearts and minds, things don’t need to be like this.
I could draw on many experiences to support this last statement, but I’ll mention only one as this post draws nearer to a close. A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to a Nonviolent Communication Workshop sponsored by NVC Boston.
One of the things you might find peculiar and intriguing about this workshop was that attendees spent most of the day in pairs or in larger groups taking turns saying “triggering phrases” to each other.
That’s right, we spent most of the day practicing not going through the roof as we listened to triggering words designed to send us through the roof.
Whats more, over and over again during the workshop exercises, I saw people triggered by aggressive, rude, and harmful speech gather themselves, pause and reflect, and then open to the other with empathy and curiosity.
With practice, we can always open to the other with empathy and curiosity.
For example, when it was their turn, one person in a group would emphatically say something like, “You! You’re so controlling! You always have to have everything your way.” And then the person “receiving” that message would practice responding to the speaker with empathy, interest, and expressions aimed at maintaining respectful connection.
And, as you might imagine, responding in this way required the respondent to get in touch with their heart/mind’s capacity for forbearance and composure. The practice asked us to open our minds and hearts to the humanity and needs of the “offending” speaker while we calmed ourselves through the exercise of self empathy.
Arrestingly enough, one can see and feel a visible, visceral shift in the two people as they move from the verge of a nasty confrontation toward empathy, understanding, and calm connection. Witnessing and experiencing this shift first hand is powerful evidence that we need not be stuck in triggered, afflictive emotions or in hostile conflict. We have the natural capacity to be open, empathetic and unafraid
Our Natural Mind is Always Open and Ready to Turn to Flexible, Beneficial, Compassionate Action.
Notably, because our minds are naturally open and ever ready to learn skillful ways of relating, we can in fact learn to respond to any verbal provocation with empathy, interest, and respect. We can cultivate a sincere desire to understand so we can help an upset or angry person get their human needs met. But it’s a matter of intention and practice.
One way to practice living from the heart of our naturally open, compassionate mind is by practicing Nonviolent Communication. NVC is a language and approach to communication, consciousness, and conflict resolution developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph. D and it is eminently compatible with Dharma practice.
Here is a link to a 9 minute YouTube video of Marshall describing NVC and explaining it’s transformative potential: youtube.com/watch?v=-dpk5Z7GIFs
I hope you’ll watch and notice how NVC language and process relies on the natural capacities of our minds to be open, flexible, and compassionate.
And here is a link to NVC Boston, a group that sponsors frequent workshops on NVC at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge: nvcboston.org
Of course, another way to practice getting in touch with the potential of our smooth, natural mind is by practicing the Buddha’s Dharma.
“Our way is not to sit to acquire something; it is to express our true nature. That is our practice” ~Shunryu Suzuki
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I hope you have a wonderful time until the next post!