Your Moment of Zen

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.  Shunryu Suzuki

I concluded an earlier post, Annals of the Obvious, by saying that sometimes the obvious place to begin in one’s observations and reflections is with the obvious.  There I was defending that apparently perverse interest philosophers and scientists have in examining commonplaces that most of us take for granted. Here I want to suggest that such a starting point is in many ways characteristic of all true thinking.

Notice for example that beginning with the obvious is also a starting point of meditation and mindfulness practice. I smile to think of how many people must find the instruction to sit still and pay attention to your breath to be among the most obvious—not to mention tedious and boring—practices imaginable. But what such practices promise is anything but boring. Imagine seeing the world (and yourself) through the fresh, unjaundiced eyes of the child who has not yet acquired the habits, beliefs, assumptions, and opinions that frame and filter every one of your experiences. For the child the world is curious and astonishing, and why not? After all, she doesn’t know what to expect, nor does she have habits of thought and feeling informing every experience while it is happening.  But, for better and worse, adults do. For us to experience the world anew with a child’s eyes requires developing what the Zen master Suzuki famously calls the “beginner’s mind” (shoshin in the Japanese). Socrates had this, as did Einstein, as do first-rate thinkers generally.

It may be that this beginner’s mind—this open, ready mind of the inquisitive child—lies at the root of all true thinking. (Note that the beginner’s mind is not to be confused with the skeptical attitude adopted by some scientists and philosophers.) It lies near the core of our capacity to transcend our own frames and filters and see clearly what lies before us.

Now to fit these reflections to my earlier post about the virtues of pursuing the obvious. In one such pursuit, we find dogs waiting.  In a room. Where some of them have been clearly and distinctly demonstrating their aversion to inequity.  Again, anyone who has worked attentively with dogs already knows from direct experience that they’re averse to inequity.  In fact, this is one of the crucial reasons we can and do get along so well with them. (For the full story of the role justice plays in friendship, check out my book.)  So to the cognoscenti this is an obvious, even ridiculous, research project.  And that was my first and jaundiced reaction—complete with all the narrowing assumptions of my expert mind—when I came across it.  But on further reflection I realized that many people—even most dog owners—have not paid enough careful attention to know with any confidence that justice matters to dogs. Which means that this study promises to be a revelation.

More generally, these can be occasions for the experience of beginner’s mind.  The occasion is facilitated by the method of science, which takes care to eliminate ambiguity and  bring us face-to-face with simple incontrovertible fact, in this case the fact that dogs, like us, want to be treated fairly.

So from now on when I come across a candidate for the “Annals of the Obvious”, I’m going to think of it as my moment of Zen.

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