It’s Not a Package Deal

images-1One of the problems with being a cynic is that, when you’re trying to learn something new, it’s easy to focus on all the things that sound wrong or silly or otherwise questionable and to disregard the entire lesson or experience as a result.

I was sitting in a meditation class recently, for example, when the teacher said something about past or future lives. I don’t even remember what he was talking about -– probably something about karma and our minds -– but it didn’t really matter. My internal alarm bells went off immediately. I thought: “That’s ridiculous. I’m not coming back here.”

The thing is, I know and like this teacher, and I know he’s very good at explaining meditation, its practice and purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth and engaging way. And I know, from personal experience, plus all the scientific studies backing it up, that meditation can be very helpful. I hadn’t been to that particular meditation center for a while, and I was enjoying being back and laughing along with his painfully accurate descriptions of how absurdly our minds work sometimes, and how they often cause us distress. Until he said the thing about multiple lives. At that point, my internal critic leapt to attention and immediately dismissed the value of whatever it was he was trying to say. I didn’t hear it. And chances are, it was something interesting.

Aware that he was talking to a group of mostly secular Brooklynites like me, the teacher quickly interrupted himself to let people know they didn’t have to believe in past and future lives to learn to meditate or reap its benefits. But I was aware of how easily and quickly my mind was ready to dismiss him and the whole meditation project, simply because the teacher — who was, after all, teaching at a Buddhist meditation center with a big golden Buddha statue behind him — had briefly mentioned something that is a basic tenet of Buddhism.

I’ve written before about how our minds have evolved to focus on the negative aspects of our experience, largely in order to protect us from mortal dangers. The part of the brain that reacts to fear, centered in the amygdala, also steps up when something isn’t physically threatening, but just doesn’t sound quite right. But it’s important to learn to step back a bit, and let the more developed, discerning part of my brain –- centered in the prefrontal cortex -– play its part, too.

I may not believe I’ll have multiple lives to live, although sometimes I wish I did. But I’m capable of distinguishing that piece of the teaching from the larger point, which is that our minds are influenced by all sorts of things –- including past experiences — that we’re often not aware of. Whether it’s something I did in my past life or something my mother said to me in grade school doesn’t really matter. The point is it may or may not be helpful to me, or to anyone else, today. The purpose of meditation is to develop more awareness of what’s going through my mind so I can choose how I want to respond rather than letting unconscious habits choose for me. And one of my habits is letting a cynical mind quash any new ideas that come packaged in or accompanied by something that makes me squirm.

As my positive psychology instructor, Tal Ben Shahar, pointed out in a recent class: “this is not a package deal.” I was in the middle of a week-long immersion for my Positive Psychology certification course, and struggling with some of what at the time seemed like really dumb, pointless exercises. More than once sitting in that lecture hall, I wanted to flee. But it helped me to hear Tal acknowledge that that’s okay. “You’ll hear things here that don’t make sense to you or just sound silly or unconvincing. If you don’t like them, forget about them. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and use it. Leave behind the rest. This is not a package deal.”

It was an important reminder for a skeptic like me. I too easily dismiss things as irrelevant or meaningless because some piece of it doesn’t jibe with me. This aversive reaction may feel immediately comforting, because now I don’t have to bother engaging with new material and can stay safely ensconced in my own cocoon of imagined superiority. But it’s ultimately extremely limiting, and really kind of silly. It’s a bit like dismissing Freud as irrelevant to psychology because I don’t believe in penis envy. But he did develop our modern understanding of the unconscious, which underpins much of our understanding of the human psyche today. So maybe there’s some value in his work after all.

Our culture of cynicism and irony is so focused on mocking and disparaging what we think is wrong that we tend to overlook or outright dismiss ideas that may be really valuable. The criticism might make us sound really clever — especially if we can express it as a witty 140-character commentary on Twitter. But in the process, we may find ourselves flushing a lot of really helpful wisdom down the drain.

The Importance of Being A Beginner

Zen Bizarro-07-22-12-WEB bizarrocomics comOne of the biggest challenges of becoming a coach at this stage in my life is being a beginner all over again. Having spent years becoming an “expert” at things – first law, then journalism, then national security/human rights – it’s frustrating to go back to square one. Of course, no one ever totally masters anything completely, but after a few years doing something you get the hang of it enough to feel at least competent. Not so when you’re learning something brand new. It is, to say the least, humbling.

That can be true even for things that are supposed to be fun. I’m on vacation right now, for example, stretching the summer into September by spending this week in Maine. It’s beautiful up here, and I decided to bring some drawing materials with me to really immerse myself in that aspect of it. But the truth is, I haven’t done much drawing since I graduated from college. That was a long time ago. Over the last year, though, I’d decided I wanted to get back into doing something more creative, exercise the right brain a bit and let my more rational, judgmental side get some rest. So I’ve been taking the occasional drawing class (with this great teacher) – some life drawing, and an occasional pastel workshop. Surely, I thought, I could capture the beauty of Maine if I tried.

Not so easy. Two hours of pastel drawing while perched on the edge of a cove on an overturned canoe yesterday, trying to render an incredible landscape of wildflowers and beach grasses and evergreens, turned into a pretty big mess. There are a few parts of the drawing that kind of work, but there’s a big blob in the middle that I can’t make head or tail of.

At first, I found this really frustrating. I’d just spent half the afternoon to create this? It didn’t help when later in the day I stepped into a gallery in town and saw a perfectly-rendered framed pastel of a woman kayaking in a blanket of fog. I felt defeated.

I love what I’m learning, whether it’s coaching or drawing. But learning something new will always be hard, and sometimes even a bit humiliating. It requires going back to being a beginner while living in a culture that’s focused on celebrating expertise. For those of us raised to prize achievement and accumulate merit badges over the course of our educational and professional lives, it’s hard to start back at the beginning. But I’m finding it’s also wonderful: it allows me to truly value and appreciate and learn from others, while I grow and stretch myself.

This made me feel better about my lousy drawing, too:  Scientists have found that learning new things actually rewires our brains and makes them function better, through a process called myelination. That requires practice.

I like the Buddhist perspective, which, unlike Western culture, actually celebrates “beginner’s mind.” As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The idea is not only to be open to the new, but to deliberately adopt a fresh perspective on everything — including on the things you do or see every day. Dr. Kevin Tidgewell, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Duquesne University, applies the idea to his scientific studies: “this beginner’s mind philosophy is the idea that you should come in your practice with no ego…. you should come with an open mind in that all things are possible, not simply the previously held beliefs and the standard beliefs of the field.”

Consider the alternative:  if you’re not willing to brave being a beginner or to adopt a beginner’s mind, you never learn or see new things. And so, for the sake of maintaining a polished exterior and a comfortable, if somewhat stale, interior, you stay stuck – pretty much repeating yourself over and over again.