Since it is the Friday before Father’s Day, and I wanted to dedicate a post to all the devoted fathers out there, I thought I’d share passages of a very cool book that my mother-in-law bought for Eric awhile back, since he’s an avid golfer (well, if he were independently wealthy, he would be): “Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game” by Dr. Joseph Parent. Not that all of you are golfers.
The book connects the exercise of disciplining your mind with the game of golf, because golf is really a mental sport. It’s organized into small meditations or insights about both cognitive work and golf. Here are some of my favorite lessons:
1. Empty your cup.
A young man had read all the books he could find about Zen. He heard about a great Zen master and requested an appointment with him to ask for teachings. When they were seated, the young man proceeded to tell the master everything he had understood from his reading, saying that Zen is about this and Zen is about that, on and on. (This person blogged, by the way. Not really.)
After some time, the master suggested that they have tea. He performed the traditional tea ceremony while the student sat at attention, bowing when served, saying nothing. The master began to pour tea into the student’s cup. He poured until it was full, and kept pouring. The tea ran over the edge of the cup and onto the floor. Finally, the student couldn’t contain himself any longer. He shouted, “Stop! Stop pouring! The cup is full–no more will go in!”
The master stopped pouring and said, “Just like this cup, your mind is full of your own opinions and preconceptions. How can you learn anything unless you first empty your cup?”
Strangely enough, Dr. Smith said something similar to me when I first began seeing here. Because I brought in a new self-help book every week. She told me in a very tactful, doctor-like way, that I’d be better to lay off the books for awhile until my mind was able to learn what was in them.
She was absolutely right.
2. You are not your thoughts.
The student respectfully approached the master, bowed, and requested instruction.
“My mind is very difficult to control,” he explained. “When I want some thoughts to go, they stay. When I want others to stay, they go. How can I control my mind?”
The master said, “The mind is like a high-spirited wild horse. If you try to control it by locking it up, it will be agitated and restless. If you try to force it to be still, it will kick and fight even more.
“Take a bigger view of control. Within the big meadow of awareness, let the wild horse of your mind run here and there. With nothing to struggle against, it will eventually settle down on its own. When it has settled, you can tame it; when it is tame, you can train it. Then you can ride the horse of your mind, and it will swiftly take you wherever you want to go.”
I get what he’s saying here. As a concept, it’s beautiful. But boy do I have trouble executing this. I grasp at a tiny bit of peace, I think, when I’m so exhausted that I just stop chasing the thoughts. They still land, and make massive nests in my mind. Birdies make their homes there and poop. But I don’t let all the bird activity bother me after awhile.
My version doesn’t sound as pretty. Scratch that.
3. Basic goodness.
A young man had a clay statue, a family heirloom. He’d always wished that it were bright shiny gold instead of plain brown clay. When he began to earn a living , he put aside a little now and then, until he had enough for his special project: to have his statue covered with gold.
Now it looked just the way he wanted it to, and people admired it. He felt very proud that he had a gold statue. However, the gold-plating didn’t stick to the clay very well, and it wasn’t long before it began to flake off in spots. So he had it gold-plated again. Soon he found himself using all his time and resources to maintain the gold facade of his statue.
One day his grandfather returned from a journey of many years. The young man wanted to show him how he had made the clay statue into a gold one. However, clay was showing through many spots, so he was somewhat embarrassed.
The old man smiled and held the statue lovingly. With a moist cloth he gently rubbed it and gradually dissolved some of the clay. “Many years ago, the statue must have fallen in the mud and become covered with it. As a very young child, you wouldn’t have known the difference. You forgot, and thought it was just a clay statue. But look here.”
He showed his grandson the place where the clay was removed, and a bright yellow color shone through. “Underneath the covering of clay, your statue has been solid gold from the very beginning. You never needed to put more gold on to cover the clay. Now that you know what its nature really is, all you have to do is gently remove the clay and you’ll reveal the gold statue you’ve possessed all along.”
I guess I interpret this story as a way to think about self-esteem. As much as I think I need to win and earn self-esteem, I’m loved by God just as I am. No heroic deeds or Presidential medals or Pulitzer prizes needed. I’m already loved. I always have been. And I always will be. Not getting that through this clay head of mine … that’s the hard work.
4. More curious and than afraid.
A Native American man by the name of Ishi, the only surviving member of his tribe, had been hiding on an offshore island for some time. He was discovered and brought to an anthropologist at a nearby college who befriended him and took him under his care. The anthropologist taught him English and many things about the modern world while learning as much as he could about Ishi’s tribe and their way of life.
One day the anthropologist wanted to take Ishi to San Francisco. They went with some friends to the station to get the train. As it pulled into the station, Ishi slipped quietly behind a column. As the others were boarding the train, they noticed him peeking around the column and they motioned to him to come along. He slowly came out and climbed aboard with the others.
Later the anthropologist asked Ishi how he enjoyed the train ride. Trains of that era belched smoke and made a lot of noise. Ishi and his tribe thought trains were iron monsters that roamed the countryside and ate people. The anthropologist expressed his surprise that even though he thought the train was a monster, Ishi got on board with little more prompting than a wave from his friends. “How did you have the courage to do that?” he asked.
“Well,” said Ishi, “since I was little, I was taught to always be more curious than afraid.”
That’s interesting, because I was always taught to be more afraid than curious. I mean, to a certain extent. Or maybe I just have always been more afraid than curious. I certainly am today, and that is why I need friends around me to assure me that the train isn’t a monster–than a passing bout of anxiety isn’t going to land me in the psych ward again–and that I can live a meaningful and productive life even if I suffer from bipolar disorder.
5. Getting out of the way.
Many years ago in Japan, an artist was doing a brush painting that some patrons had requested. A Zen master who was an expert at this art was visiting the area, so the artist eagerly asked him to come by and watch him execute his strokes.
When asked his opinion of the painting, the Zen master said, “To be honest with you, it’s rather mediocre.” The artist took another piece of paper and made his brush strokes even more carefully. “What about that one?” he asked. “Sorry, but it’s not even as good as the first.” Again and again the artist tried harder, being ever more careful to make the right strokes. To his dismay, the master’s comments were growing more discouraging.
Finally, the master said, “Excuse me, I need to step outside for a bit of fresh air before we continue.” When he had gone outside, the artist was delighted to have the chance to do a painting without the self-conscious feeling he had from the master looking over his shoulder. He went right at it without thinking about it so that he could finish before the master returned.
As he made his last stroke, the master came in and said, “Perfection.”
Man is that true not only in my writing life, but with regard to my mood, as well. When I burden myself with a toxic kind of perfectionism–of coming up short of being a perfect mom, and wife, and blogger–I can’t do anything well. And when I’m trying so hard to write a blog that has legs … and will be e-mailed all over the world … seldom do I come across as my candid self. But ah, the art I can make when I get out of the way … that’s when God can use me, and when anxiety no longer stifles my every move.