Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Twenty Questions and Then Beginner's Mind

I received a thorough tongue lashing at a recent Wujifa class though it was delivered with the dryest of humor. My instructor's simple, one minute soliloquy delivered in private was a painfully instructive lesson on the ridiculousness of my approach to training. So why share this potentially embarrassing information? It is hugely instructive! And if I'm getting stuck here, maybe someone else is too. This is part of my journey.

It is easy to find many articles describing the characteristics and attributes of Zen Beginner's Mind. There are also many articles that provide tips and techniques on how to implement Beginner's Mind. Reading these, I easily became intoxicated in the knowledge of Beginner's Mind. I developed a belief and maybe even a little egotistic attitude that I approach my internal gongfu training with a Beginner's Mind. As it turns out, this was a trap.

The illusion presented by "the knowledge of" prevented me from knowing, from seeing "as it is".

Have you ever played the game "Twenty Questions"? If you haven't, it goes something like this. You have to guess what I'm thinking of but you only get twenty questions to figure it out. The questions should proceed deductively, incrementally narrowing the possibilities until you arrive at the answer.

While the Twenty Question game itself may only take several minutes or less, I have been playing this "game" for years in trying to figure out how to move internally. In the beginning, I didn't know I was playing this game. I thought I was approaching with a Beginner's Mind. And this is the trap. Here is how I remember my instructor's one minute soliloquy:

Me: Is it an animal?

Instructor: No.

Hmm. Is it an animal?


Well, then it must be an animal.


Really? It's not an animal?


C'mon, you're kidding, right? It's an animal.


Let's try this again. Is it an animal?


Well, if it's not an animal, then... it must be an animal. Is it an animal?


Hmm... You know, everything I read says it is an animal. Is it an animal?


These other guys described it like an animal. It's gotta be an animal.


Why am I having such a hard time figuring this out? All indications suggest it is an animal. Is it an animal?


The other day I heard Mr. Famous Master describe it as being like an animal, so it's an animal, right?


I don't know. I give up.


So it's not an animal?




Maybe the first obstacle (to learning) is my inability to recognize the depth at which the ghosts in the attic and skeletons in the closet are informing, channeling, shaping, and directing my line of reasoning, questioning, and approach to my current practice. I thought I checked my coat at the door, but in fact, my underwear came in with me. (I didn't even think that I should check my underwear at the door too.) You understand the metaphor. There were some things I was consciously excluding from interfering with my "Beginner's Mind" (despite having so much knowledge about "X", I will keep an open mind), and there were some that I wasn't even aware were potently influencing my "Beginner's Mind" (I couldn't even begin to imagine what these might be). In the final analysis, I now see that these two are fundamentally one and the same; an insecurity about letting go to the level at which I want to work. I only let go of and to the level at which I don't feel threatened.

Maybe an indication of overcoming this obstacle is coming to the self-reflective realization that I've come to the end of my rope, that my implementation of my naive knowledge-understanding of "Beginner's Mind" is all wrong.

Thinking of Zen Beginner's Mind as a thing or a goal led me down one path - "it's an animal, right?". Maybe considering "Beginner's Mind" as a name of a process which involves constant evolving and developing will lead me down another path. Here's where I got this idea...

During the course of this class I was granted a unique opportunity to watch and compare two school brothers; one who has a more authentic Beginner's Mind and is making remarkable progress, and one who, like me, thinks he does, but in fact does not and is progressing slowly. I had not noticed this difference until it was pointed out to me! (Sure, I'd long recognized personality differences but I never recognized how "personality" influenced approach to learning; Beginner's Mind.)

But this first brother was not always like this. His "Beginners Mind" was stuck in one place for a long time too. As his Beginner's Mind changed and evolved, his practice progressed. Also in this class, the instructor pointed out to me how, in response to one suggestion, he was being resistant. "Huh?" And then he explained that his resistance showed up in the nuance of his choice of words, the inflection, the intonation, the emphasis, the feeling behind or driving his words. How subtle and yet how obvious! Once pointed out (to both of us), the recognition and acceptance opened yet another door for him and he progressed even more!

How amazing to witness! How hugely instructive!!! I've got a new model. Now, I need to step back, re-tool, have a change of heart, and follow a different model of Beginner's Mind.

And no, it's not an animal.