By John Lee Pendall
Thought isn’t the problem; zen isn’t about silencing all of our thoughts. Mindless, self-absorbed thoughts are the problem.
Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the way.” We don’t usually have ordinary minds, we have extraordinary minds—big deal minds. If we’re paying attention, it’s easy to spot the distinction between them. The No Problem Mind is tuned in; it deals with things in calm, reasonable ways. It works with the facts of life and uses thinking as a problem solving tool.
The Big Deal Mind doesn’t solve problems, it dwells on them. It obsesses, second guesses and gets lost in imaginary worlds. Then it forms feelings and wants based on the stories it tells itself. It plucks attention from the here and now and turns it inward to the point that we totally space out and forget what we’re doing.
The Big Deal Mind’s main focus is enhancing life, not seeing things as they are.
Most of the problems in the world are caused by the Big Deal Mind, by living from a self-referential perspective. People harbor these imaginary worlds and then suffer until they can bring them to life. But these make-believe lands always come at the expense of someone else’s make-believe land, no matter how benevolent our ideals may be.
And, no matter what, the Big Deal Mind is never satisfied for long because “good enough” is never good enough for it. It needs extraordinary, and if it doesn’t get extraordinary joy, it creates extraordinary pain. Either way, it has met its goal.
I’m probably going to have to move in with my grandma soon. She has Alzheimer’s, and her caregivers—my aunt and uncle—are being evicted, so I need to be there for her. I said, “Yes,” without hesitation since there didn’t seem to be any reason for me to say no. It was simple. The next day, I started thinking about it a bit more. I started pondering what it’ll be like being a caregiver. I started contemplating my responsibilities and all the changes I’m about to go through.
That’s when I started to experience a little anxiety and self-doubt. Before those Big Deal thoughts showed up, I was fine. The problem was clear, and the solution was obvious. Suddenly, the waters started getting choppy, which unsettled the mud at the bottom of the pond. The moon’s reflection grew distorted, and instead of recognizing that this was all in my mind, I started thinking that the moon itself was out of sorts.
That’s the lie that ruins our lives, and it’s caused by self-referential pondering, contemplating, analyzing and introspecting. When someone’s mastered a craft or sport, they don’t think about what they’re doing anymore, they just do it. If they stopped to think about it, they’d probably fuck up. The No Problem Mind just does what it needs to do from moment to moment, always making the best use of whatever situation comes its way. It doesn’t deal in daydreams, abstractions, or hypotheticals.
This is the mind we uncover through practice. It’s not actually a totally different mind, it’s just our ordinary, everyday mind that’s been trained to handle life in ordinary, everyday ways. If there’s a bill, ya pay it. If that means you have to cut back on some things, then you cut back. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, then you do what you can to fight it. If you can’t, then you get your affairs in order and spend time with family. This is ordinary mind. It deals with birth, life and death without throwing tantrums because the “self” isn’t part of the equation.
We don’t need self-referential thought to live fulfilling lives.
In fact, that’s what prevents us from ever feeling fulfilled. Without self-reference, the body tells us what we need. We no longer do things in the name of seeking a reward and avoiding punishment, we just take the obvious path.
All that said, emotion isn’t the enemy either. Emotions are the brain’s way of telling us what we need. But when we take emotion out of context and plop it into our imaginary worlds, that’s when it gets out of hand because our needs become unrealistic. Instead of feeling lonely when we’re alone, we start to feel lonely even when we’re with others. Instead of being happy with having a roof over our heads, we get pissed off because we want a mansion.
In the end, mindfulness is remembrance. We train ourselves to remember the way things are, and then we monitor our thoughts, always checking to see if we’ve forgotten the lay of the land or not. If we did, then we just remember it again. It’s no big deal.
Buddha didn’t learn anything new under the Bodhi tree, he just remembered who he was: no one in particular. Just a boring old monk who always lived life on its terms.
He walked when he was on land, and swam when he was in the water. Most of us try to do the opposite because we disavow reality in favor of our own illusions. Whose illusions are they? Who’s the storyteller? Buddha gave us a straightforward answer: the story tells itself. The book is the writer.
Looking up at the Morning Star, he realized that he wasn’t an outsider. That whether it was him, Venus, a petty thief, a king or a pile of dog shit—their nature was the same: dust motes in a sunbeam. The No Problem Mind is perpetually rooted in that realization. That’s why, even when there are problems, they’re not really problems.
So, just eat what’s in your bowl. When you’re done, rinse it out and put it in the dishwasher. Living the good life is a simple as that.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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