Tonight I’ll give the ninth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter, entitled “The Gift of an Open Mind,” begins with a quotation from Groucho Marx: “Now there’s a man with an open mind—you can feel the breeze from here.”
Jack says that just as the lungs expand and contract, so does the mind. When the mind is open, we see clearly and enjoy responding to life’s wonders. When the mind is closed, the world seems small, frightening and rigid. Often we forget that whatever perspective we hold, it is just one view among many, seen from a limited angle.
We can choose a viewpoint that is conservative, liberal, scientific, or fundamentalist. We may see the world as a fearful place or as an opportunity for creativity. Jack cautions us that what matters most is to remember mutual respect. Each perspective represents only a partial truth. Whenever we hold beliefs rigidly, we suffer. As the Buddha taught, “Those who cling to their views, go about the world annoying people.” Open-mindedness is the antidote.
Much of my Buddhist chaplaincy training involves scrupulous self-examination of how views of self and others interfere with intimacy and compassion in relationships. Each time I am able to recognize that I am clinging to a viewpoint, I break its spell and regain the possibility of interpersonal connection.
Depending upon our perspective, we can see a cow as meat, leather, a milk producer, a farm animal, a mother, a Hindu holy being, or a living mystery. The same is true with viewing people of different cultures. We can see through the filters of our fears and opinions, or we can look with fresh eyes and free ourselves from fixed views. Since most of our preconceptions are really projections, we may also change how we think about ourselves. According to the Talmud, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Meeting the world with an open mind is not only a gift of freedom to us but also a blessing to others.
Yet seeing clearly can be painful. Most of us have ignored some areas of life in order to avoid conflicts or overwhelming feelings. By turning away from our inner truth, we may deny loss, injustice, addiction or intolerance. It takes courage to see clearly.
When Ram Dass was teaching a class on compassion and service in Oakland, California, he asked students to pay attention to their responses to suffering around them. One woman reported that she had given money to a neighborhood homeless man, but she had not dared to look him directly in the eyes. She admitted to fear that if she truly connected with him, he would end up sleeping on her living room couch.
Although we don’t have to bring homeless and oppressed people into our homes, we must learn to see them clearly and to hold them in our hearts. As I have witnessed wrenching images of refugee children being separated from parents on the southern border of the USA, my heart is moved to speak out on behalf of those who are seeking asylum from dangerous situations in their unsafe homelands.
Many years ago, my ancestors arrived on the shore of our country in search of freedom to practice the religion of their choice. Until recently, the United States has been a beacon of hope and refuge for those seeking asylum. Now compassionate people are transcending religious and political differences to protest the inhuman policy of family separation.
In her pertinent poem “Shoulders,” Naomi Shabib Nye writes:
A man crosses the street in rain,
Stopping gently, looking two times north and south,
Because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him,
No car drive too near his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
But he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
[The man’s] ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
Deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
To live in this world
If we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
With one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
It is natural to espouse views. However, we can question whether they close the mind and heart. If we wish to be free, we must ask ourselves, “Why am I holding this fixed view? What else might also be true?” Jack quotes the renowned essayist Charles Lamb referring to a man he disliked, “Don’t introduce me to him. I want to go on hating him, and I can’t hate a man I know.”
Try looking with fresh, innocent eyes at the next people who cross your path. Allow yourself to wonder, “Who are they really? What are their dreams? What do they hold in the depths of their hearts? What does their future hold?” These kinds of questions can change the way we think about others.
When you meet people, make an effort to actually see them as they are in the present moment. When you talk to someone who has a different perspective, try to listen openly and see how you connect. If you encounter each moment with wonder and gratitude, you will find that it’s never too late to open your heart and mind. Bob Dylan sang, “He who’s not being born is busy dying.” How can we live fully and freely?
As Jack states, “Words have enormous power. They start journeys, marriages, movies, lawsuits, and wars. And they end them…. Words can injure and separate or connect and heal.” When Jack was working to support peacemakers in Palestine and Israel, he visited an organization that brought together teenagers from both sides. After forming friendships, the teens invited their parents to visit. Observing her child sitting peacefully with an Israeli friend, a Palestinian mother confessed, “For 20 years, the only Israelis I’ve seen have been soldiers. I forgot that they had mothers, too.”
Any time that we drop expectations, demands, and stereotypes, we create opportunities to connect. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication workshops cultivate sensitive listening and caring expression of feelings, needs and requests. This form of communication builds resonance and trust between those who have been in conflict. Listening in this way seeks to touch the soul— the long-lost innocence in others—no matter how unconscious and destructive they have been beforehand.
Rosenberg suggests being willing to listen and learn rather than reacting defensively. With empathic listening, we can foster understanding no matter how great our differences. While we require mutual respectful treatment, we do not have to agree with one another. But we can practice using open-minded speech that is true, useful, caring, and attuned. We can enter into conversations with an honest desire to comprehend unfamiliar circumstances and perspectives.
Open-minded listening allows us to learn others’ perspectives. Deep listening does not negate one’s own experience, feelings, needs or preferences. Instead, it offers an ambience of mutual compassion in which problems can be identified and multiple perspectives can be understood. Open-minded practitioners attempt to keep a beginner’s “don’t know” mind in order to see more clearly how a situation affects everyone involved.
Jack states, “The world is bigger than it seems to a closed mind.” It is bigger than any individual’s memory and opinions. While treasuring our own values, we can make room for others. Everyone has views and opinions. Clinging to them is what keeps us stuck. As Lao Tzu noted, “the philosopher is welded to his opponent.”
The wise Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, taught that, to be free, we can simply step out of the battle and rest in the loving awareness that is our true home. Such graciousness serves us in all the inevitable changes of this mysterious world.
On retreats, Jack instructs meditators to sense how the body responds when we breathe and open the heart and mind. When I follow these instructions, my body relaxes. I feel more present, loving, curious, and caring.
Now let’s try an adapted form of “Is This True?”—a guided meditation at the end of chapter nine (p. 168):
Sit in a comfortable posture with eyes closed.
Breathe into the area of the heart.
Tenderly and respectfully, ask yourself,
“Whom do I meet with a closed mind? How do I hold the world closed-mindedly?”
Now, choose a person, situation, or perspective that you view with a closed mind.
Try reversing your perceptions, asking yourself:
“Am I certain that what I believe is absolutely true?
What if what I normally believe is not true?
Is there another way to see this? What if the opposite were true?
How can I be sure that the opposite is not true?
What kind of suffering comes from holding this view as fixed?
How does it feel to drop what I think and to look again, freshly?”
Take a moment to return to the sensations of breathing, and slowly open your eyes.