Curious about meditation? Here’s how you can cultivate “beginner’s mind” and live a more Zen life
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Mindfulness is definitely en vogue right now. Now more than ever, there are dozens of posts in my social feeds encouraging me to be more mindful. While I’m down with the concept of mindfulness, I can’t help but notice that the buzzier it becomes, the more people use it as a blanket term for wellness and confuse it with other concepts, like meditation. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your mind on one thing happening at the present moment; meditation, or Zen, is a technique that focuses your mind on your breath. In my quest to discover both how to meditate and how to practice mindfulness, I spoke with Charlie Ambler, the creator of Daily Zen.
You might know Ambler from his daily inspirational Zen, Buddhist, and Taoist quotes. His new book, The Daily Zen Journal: A Creative Companion for a Beginner’s Mind, is filled with prompts, proverbs, and illustrations that will help you live a more meditative, Zen life.
I asked about how to meditate, how to adopt a more Zen lifestyle, and how to engage your beginner’s mind. (Read on to find out what that means.)
What is beginner’s mind?
Beginner’s mind is the way we approach things we haven’t done before. We’re open, humble, and eager to learn. As we get older and more set in our ways, we tend to settle into expert’s mind; we close ourselves off from new experiences, make blanket assumptions, and believe we know the best way to do things. A big part of Zen practice is challenging this and trying to view our lives through the lens of beginner’s mind. The purpose of The Daily Zen Journal is to return to that beginner’s mindset with self-inquiry and creative exploration.
There are a lot of self-care and enlightening buzzwords floating around the internet. What makes Zen different from other approaches to mindfulness?
“Zen” has become a cliché in the self-help marketplace to just mean “chill,” but this misses the point. Zen is quite disciplinary. It all comes down to the backbone of meditation practice, a habitual decision to control oneself and reflect, instead of indulging in various lifestyle changes and positivity just as distractions. Zen literally means “meditation” or “absorption.” The essence of Zen is making an art of our boring day-to-day activities: working, cooking, cleaning, exercising, meditating, sitting, speaking, listening. With the discipline of meditation comes the discipline to attend creatively to these “boring” routines, which we soon find are more interesting and flexible than we’d previously thought.
How does writing and journaling along with meditation enrich your practice?
Writing and journaling help me sort through my ideas. I often start one place and end up somewhere totally different. This helps me see how fluid and inconsistent my thoughts can be and encourages me to be more open and less sure of myself. Translating this into The Daily Zen Journal was a challenge, because it’s easy to make journaling just another routine. I like journaling best when I start to question my deepest-held assumptions. And in meditation, I sit with these ideas without grasping at them. The meditative process starts to reveal how fleeting and strange emotions and thoughts can be. In journaling, we’re refining our thoughts, and in meditation we let them sort themselves out. In journaling, we organize; in meditation, we throw all the junk away.
Have you noticed a link between Zen and levels of creativity? Or curiosity and playfulness?
I think the attitude Zen cultivates allows me to be more creative. It’s really just fundamentally encouraging openness vs. closedness. If I’m open to my routines, my thoughts, and my emotions, I can play around with them and be mindful of my approach. If I’m closed, I end up begrudging the day-to-day or living on autopilot. So if we define Zen as actively attending to the little moments in each day, this process definitely encourages creativity and fun. Once you start paying attention to these details, you notice how many opportunities there are to try doing new things.
How has your life changed since adopting Buddhist ideas?
I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but I’ve been meditating on and off and studying Zen since I was 13. The biggest asset is a degree of self-control and discipline, as well as bursts of creative energy. If I didn’t have meditation as a tool alongside reading and writing, I don’t think I would have the discipline to run my own business or live life somewhat creatively on my own terms. My brain has always been very hyperactive and anxious, so meditation is a sort of anchor that lets me sort through all the chaos and remember to both enjoy myself and work hard at the things that matter to me.
The openness of Zen encourages honesty and transparency, which are extremely valuable problem-solving tools. If you’re honest and transparent with yourself, you become honest and transparent with others. And it’s amazing how many things in life, from managerial and financial decisions to relationship conflicts, can be mediated by simply putting all your cards on the table and being honest. In Zen, delusion is the enemy. And in life, delusion often digs us into holes we have a hard time getting out of. I think living one step ahead of delusional thinking is the biggest gift this practice has given me. It roots you in reality.
Any tips for a beginner who wants to adopt a more Zen lifestyle?
I like to tell people to start by taking a simple inventory of your life. What does your day-to-day consist of? What do you like? What do you hate? What’s necessary and unnecessary? Why? Accompany this deconstruction process with a meditation practice and your life slowly starts to change over the weeks and months that ensue. Just keep asking, “Why?” Meditating for a little bit each day, and practicing questioning yourself and your assumptions, is a shockingly fast way to change your life. Zen is getting rid of the nonessential. It doesn’t mean becoming a workhorse or a yoga addict or a vegetarian; it’s different from person to person. You can slowly trim the fat in your life until you’re left with the most precious essentials, and then spend your time cultivating and appreciating these things instead of feeling overwhelmed or confused.
Why is now the time to cultivate a beginner’s mind?
The internet is a vast ecosystem of ideas, but it’s very easy to find our little tree branch and stay there, throwing coconuts or yelling obscenities at the people on another branch. People are more polarized than ever. Talk about delusional thinking! On every side of every ideological spectrum, people are so sure of themselves and ready to alienate themselves from others. People close themselves off. Beginner’s mind asks us to step back, to say, “What do I see and what am I projecting?” This radical honesty bridges the gaps between people and ideas and allows us to communicate compassionately first with ourselves and then with others. People are different; they don’t have to agree, but they do need to work to understand each other. If people are repressed, angry, and isolated, they don’t listen, and they don’t learn anything new.
It’s important to expose yourself to new ideas and new ways of thinking, and to be scared by something and then approach it with mindfulness instead of slinking back to your comfort zone. People today need to remember this, no matter what they believe or whose side they’re on. Beginner’s mind reminds us to be open and compassionate, not hostile and ready to pounce on the first thing we disagree with. It reconnects us with reality; many people are living in a virtual fantasy world and need to remember this.
What’s something someone can do right now to feel more Zen?
Sit back, close your eyes, and let your breath be your anchor. Let your thoughts come and go, but don’t serve them tea (an old Zen proverb). That’s all meditation is. Good luck!