Expectations can drain the pleasure out of any day. Holidays are especially good at stimulating our Know-it-All Mind, as in “I know how this [neighborhood picnic, family BBQ etc] is going to turn out…” Even if the expectations are good, like we are really looking forward to an event, they can backfire — creating an internally photoshopped standard of pleasure to which the real experience, always a combination of good and not so good elements, can rarely live up.
I remember getting a taste of the trouble with expectations when I was twelve or thirteen. It was the fourth of the July and I spent the afternoon working up a deluxe pair of jean cutoffs with custom patriotic patches. I donned them to walk with my parents down the street to watch fireworks with some neighbors gathered at the top of a hill overlooking downtown. Like many 13 year-olds, I was underwhelmed by my parents’ idea of a good time. It in no way lined up with the images of social gatherings which adorned the teen magazine which had inspired my sewing project. Plus it was so dark, no one even noticed my outfit!
In hindsight the night strikes me as a sweet one. My older sisters were likely out doing something cooler so it was just us three. And I now recognize that we actually had a great view of fireworks over this nature preserve. But I missed all that in the moment because the evening didn’t line up with my hopes. Plus the view was just at the end of my street so I already “knew” what it was going to be like and didn’t really appreciate it as anything special. Sound familiar?
Expectations rob us of our lives.
They keep us attuned to an inner script rather than to the felt sense of the moment.
Yet this direct experience of reality does slip in from time to time. I remember Richie taking me for an outing to an urban pond in Boston on the eve of Coleman’s birth. In this altered state of consciousness my attention was so drawn inward that it felt natural to let go of inconsequentials. With the chatter in my mind quieted and my senses quickened it seemed like the people walking around the pond were moving in slow motion. The sunlight reflecting on water, the wind in the trees, fingers touching— there was such life pouring out of it all on a frequency I could register. (Which was not an experience I felt attuned to normally as a busy grad student.)
These natural moments of beginner’s mind are gifted us all in tender connections of the heart: crying with a friend, making love, or alone in nature.
What if we rather than waiting to be surprised by these fresh moments we could actually populate our lives with them?
This is our work in Week 3 of the Summer Meditation Challenge.
Sarah McLean in her book, Soul-Centered, and our guide for the summer of meditation explains that beginner’s mind is similar to present-moment awareness but with an important distinction: “with present-moment awareness, you address the mind’s wanderings into the past and future, bringing the focus back to the present moment. With beginner’s mind, you address your mind’s tendency to label and already know every experience, bringing your focus back to what you’re actually experiencing instead of your idea of it.”
Sounds beautiful. How to actually do it? Step one—empty your cup.
Let go of being an expert and walk through the world with fresh eyes. Risk being innocent. Empty your mind of all that you think you know (and label and judge) and instead experience things as if for the first time. I find this concept especially helpful in terms of how we relate to emotions.
For we not only label people, places and things we also label our inner experiences!
Often this habit developed in childhood as we figured out which emotions pleased those around us (usually not sadness, fear or anger.) Consequently our reference point shifts and we lose relationship with our integrity — the true expression of our inner experience — and instead shift to an idea of how we “should” feel.
It can be a very freeing practice to note and allow what is actually happening inside us. To do this simply bring awareness to the embodied expressions of your feelings: noticing perhaps a tightness ours he throat, a sense of constriction in your heart, a clenched gut or jaw. Simply noticing them and continuing to breathe is often enough to track a shift in the sensation.
Step 2: Practice the Direct Experience Network
Our brain uses two distinct and opposite pathways to interact with the world: the default network (which corresponds to your enneagram number‘s habitual pattern or filter) and the direct experience network. The default network directs your attention to a mental narrative about what’s going on.
Beginners mind occurs when we activate the brain’s other pathway, the direct experience network. Riding these neural pathways bumps ideas and labels into the background and shifts senses to the forefront of your awareness.
How to make the shift?
Here are a few ideas McLean recommends:
- Go out to dinner at your favorite restaurant and ask for the chef to make you whatever they want. When the food comes, savor it fully, enjoying the surprise which comes with opening your expectations. Not easy to get out? Ask a friend or partner to do the same thing and offer to swap the favor.
- Choose a day (or even an hour of a day) in which you accept whatever anyone offers to you. Say yes when you might ordinarily say no out of habit. If someone invites you somewhere– go. Whatever food is offered you, accept it gratefully. This directive reminds me so much of my time in the Peace Corps. It is true that living this way filled regular days with meaningful and touching human encounters. No need to travel abroad to experience this adventure! I have found that even a few minutes of saying yes with my children is really satisfying. They are constantly inviting me to participate in their world. I am now trying to practice yes at least for a few minutes a day.. instead of what I normally say, which is “no… Mommy needs to finish the dishes.”
- Lastly, view a nonviolent movie you know nothing about. As you watch notice how your narrative mind wants to judge it or categorize it as good or bad. When you notice these labels bring your attention back to the movie as it unfolds. Simple experience it and yourself as you watch. This whole idea of “experiencing myself” as I watch TV or a movie was novel. I usually totally forget myself when watching TV, that’s the point right? But I have started to play around with keeping an awareness of my own breath and my response to what is happening on the screen rather than turning off and letting it all wash over me. Try it!
So lets review. This week’s recommended schedule of practices:
Morning: Long, slow deep breathing for 3 minutes followed by sitting meditation for 12 minutes.
Evening: Walk without labels for 3 minutes. For this simple practice walk slowly (outside if you can) and connect with the essence of whatever you encounter: listen, look, touch, and smell as if you were experiencing it for the first time.
After walking practice 12 minutes of sitting meditation.
Sprinkled throughout the week try any of the beginner’s mind practices described above (ordering a surprise meal, saying yes, watching a new movie).
I am curious, even if you haven’t been doing all the steps exactly, has anything shifted?
Maybe you have found yourself more attuned to birds in the morning, or the taste of food at lunch time or a sense of gratitude at day’s end? I loved Tiffany’s comment last week about feeling more grounded and crying less easily. Especially for heart types, learning to meditate keeps us rooted and able to ride the currents of our emotions more buoyantly.
What are you seeing unfold in your life related to your meditation practice?
I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!