Dharma Post #1: Open Mind, Open Heart

I’ll be taking a journey on this blog, and I’m not exactly sure where where it’ll all wind up, but there are things I want to explore not only in meditation, day-to-day life, and my life’s work, but also here, in written form, where I can see how it unfolds over time. I invite you, my readers, to come with me.

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Think of this as something like a Dharma Diary. Why Dharma? For me, as a practicing Buddhist, Dharma signifies the teachings of the Buddha, which center around suffering and how to end it. You don’t have to be a practicing Buddhist, though, to explore concepts related to Dharma, such as developing mindfulness and present moment awareness. No matter what your philosophy or religion, mindfulness and present moment awareness are excellent qualities to cultivate in your day-to-day life, since they lead to a gradual growth of wisdom, compassion, and – the subject of this post – open mind and open heart.

Don’t take my word for it, of course. The Buddha said:

“Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,
even though they have been held in honor
for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested
and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”

In other words, you can take the teachings of Buddhism – or mindfulness, if you prefer – and apply them to your life. See what happens. Open yourself to possibilities, and let go of outcomes.

I think that’s a good place to start.

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Okay, now to the open mind. Definitions of what constitutes an open mind vary all across the board. Some people think an open mind blindly accepts any claim one wants to believe, regardless of whether it’s supported by credible evidence, and they denounce skeptical inquiry as closed-mindedness. Other people see an open mind as a vital aspect of rational thinking, in which acceptance of claims requires credible evidence, and they denounce true believers of any stripe as gullible and easily led.

But the open mind goes much deeper than how you form your beliefs. People get very attached to their opinions and their views, no matter how they’re formed. Often, if you disagree with a person who is attached to a particular view, that person will label you as closed-minded. But if that person were truly open-minded, wouldn’t they want to consider all available evidence, or even be open to admitting error?

Attachment to views and an unwillingness to open the mind – to make the mind more spacious and try to understand other points of view, even if you don’t agree with them – contributes to “us vs. them” attitudes which have as their modus operandi judging and condemning other people. To me, the worst kind of closed-mindedness comes in the form of bigotry and prejudice: judging, criticizing, and condemning other people simply because they differ from you in whatever way, whether in their political beliefs, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, background, ethnic origin, you name it.

This kind of closed-mindedness manifests as anger and intolerance, and it arises from fear and insecurity. When confronted by disagreement with their views, many people become self-righteous: “How could anybody disagree with ME?” The ego is affronted because it needs to be right. It’s afraid of not being right. Bottom line: the ego attaches to views and opinions as though they were lifeboats. Why? It’s terrified of uncertainty.

By accepting that uncertainty is a part of life, though, we can do much to open – and free – our minds. Opinions and views change over the course of a lifetime. We are much more than our opinions and our views. The closed mind says “How dare you disagree with ME!” The open mind, willing to expand to accommodate new possibilities, says, “Okay, you disagree with me. Maybe there’s something to your point of view that I should examine.” That doesn’t mean you wind up agreeing with the other person’s opinions. It does mean, though, that you’re willing to examine evidence that casts a different perspective on your opinions and to try to understand why the other person believes as he does.

In Zen Buddhism, we talk about Beginner’s Mind. It’s the mind like the empty cup, instead of the overflowing cup that can’t accept additional evidence. Or you can think of Beginner’s Mind as the mind that refrains from assuming a “know-it-all” attitude or, for that matter, a “my way or the highway” attitude. You can’t get much more open than Beginner’s Mind, which gently and peacefully accepts that there’s always a great deal more that each of us can learn.

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Everyone has opinions and views. It’s part of being human. But if your mind is open, you’ll be less likely to cling to opinions and views as though they were lifeboats, and you’ll be less likely to define either yourself or other people by opinions and views or to judge and condemn simply because someone’s views are different than your own.

A complicating factor of judging and condemning people on the basis of opinions and views is closing your heart. Instead of acting from careful thought or deep insight, the closed mind incites a knee jerk reaction, often steeped in anger and hatred, against any view or any person representing a departure from whatever it’s clinging to. People will disagree about many things. That’s inevitable; it’s part of being human. Part of becoming wise is thinking things through and acknowledging that people can disagree with your views and not become “evil” or “the other.”

It’s no more fair to judge another person by her views than it is for her to judge you. All of us are on a journey. Life is a process of growth. We all have our sets of preconceptions, baggage, and encrusting barnacles to deal with. To criticize and condemn others for having problems to work on is the same thing as criticizing yourself, because doubtlessly, you have problems to work on, too. We all do. We’re all in the same boat, so to speak, and that common denominator of our humanity can serve as a means by which to connect, no matter how widely we may otherwise disagree. The open mind accepts that agreeing to disagree is the sanest option.

What about disagreeing with opinions and actions that are motivated by anger, hatred, or greed? Compassionate, thoughtful people must stand against these things, but the open mind and the open heart allow us to stand against what are known in Buddhism as the Three Poisons – delusion, hatred, and greed – from a place of wisdom and insight, not from a place of hatred going head-to-head with hatred. I haven’t seen any instance in my life or in the world at large where launching hate against hate made anything better. Hate only perpetuates its own pernicious cycle.

When we cultivate the open mind and the open heart, we see life as a flowing, dynamic spectrum instead of a static, concrete edifice. We judge and condemn less, and we feel greater humility. We’re kinder. The open mind and the open heart also make possible a great deal more honesty, both with ourselves and with others. The open mind and the open heart, when cultivated in each of us, can disrupt patterns of fear and anger in today’s world by allowing people, in ever greater numbers, to build bridges of connection, tolerance, and understanding, if not always of agreement.

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Now, a word about my practice. I’ve long been intrigued by Buddhism, but it’s only been since last year that I started a regular, daily meditation and mindfulness practice. Since then, I’ve kept a Meditation Diary, and increasingly, I’ve felt moved to explore all kinds of topics and share insights that I discover, both from meditation and from applying mindfulness to day-to-day life. I’m bursting with ideas for blog posts! After such a long, dry spell on this blog, I think it’ll be a lot of fun. I hope you’ll enjoy my blog’s shift in direction, and I promise I’ll keep posting hiking pictures, and garden pictures as they become available (right now, there’s only a big plowed spot in the yard!).

Next up: a Dharma Post about open mind and open heart as it relates to those with whom we intimately share our lives: spouses, children, parents, and friends.

6 Responses

  1. Leah J. Utas February 7, 2012 / 2:13 pm

    Yes. Excellent explanation of openmindedness. Thank you. I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes you. I think it will be a wonderful journey.

  2. thommalyn February 7, 2012 / 8:22 pm

    Thank you for your kind words, Leah! I’m excited about this — it’s definitely a journey of the heart, and this blog provides a great means of exploring and sharing it.

  3. The Querulous Squirrel February 7, 2012 / 8:53 pm

    I think this a brilliant blog journey and have begun something similar, focused more on coping skills but including methods like mindfulness meditation. It provides much rich material to think about.

  4. thommalyn February 7, 2012 / 9:03 pm

    Thank you, dear fuzzy-tailed one. How cool that we’re taking similar paths on our blogs. Let’s walk together, my friend, and see with greater and greater clarity in multiple shimmering streams that yes, there’s a bright moon in the sky.

  5. Susan Helene Gottfried February 8, 2012 / 7:17 am

    I’m loving this, babe. It’s cool that I’ve known you for years now and never known about the Buddhism part.

    You have much to teach me. Call me Grasshopper.

  6. thommalyn February 8, 2012 / 2:03 pm

    *big smile,* hon! Thank you so much. I’ve been heading in that direction for quite a while in many ways, but it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve become serious about study, and then practice.

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