“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T.S. Eliot
It’s many years ago, and a much younger Stefan is in the cockpit of a high-end London restaurant bar. It’s late night, the place is closed and I’m doing what I normally do: polishing glasses and cleaning up for the night. I used to have a certain enthusiasm for this kind of work and being part of a strong team in a great venue. But now I’m hating every moment of it…along with the people I work with and the guests I serve. And like never before, I’m teetering between different interpretations of my misery. Because, you see, I’m now meditating everyday and learning about Yogic philosophy. And quite recently, these fairly newfound tools of self-exploration began revealing to me that perhaps I’m not ultimately meant to bartend for a living. This path has been losing its charm at a staggering rate and some pretty fierce “I’m capable of so much more” feelings are creeping in. But I remain suspicious of anything my mind is telling me and default to “everything is perfect as it is and I’m just failing to appreciate it because I still have so much work to do on my ability to be present.” I then pivot to the competing idea: “I’ve allowed my personal and professional growth to stagnate and meditation has just made me more lucidly aware of the agitation this causes.” Either way, everything sucks, and I don’t know if I need to adjust my circumstances or my inner reality. This conundrum continued to define the many moments of existential discomfort I would have in the coming years.
Throughout the years, these forward-seeking tendencies of mine have delivered me from of so many bad situations and into great places…but also deprived me of plenty a present moment experience. The first spiritual community I became deeply involved in probably didn’t do much to temper this restless nature of mine. It was a branch of Maharishi Mahesh’s tradition of Yogic meditation. Although I presently operate independently of any institution, I’m thankful for receiving that entirely fresh perspective on what it means to live consciously. Because originally I had thought that meditation made people calm, placid, and somewhat non-striving. But Maharishi’s sensibility sees meditation as a means of dissolving what is holding you back, making you more fearless, energized and dynamic. And a greater sense of calm certainly comes about, but this is not the be-all-end-all. Calm is just one quality of the clear, strong, authentic sense of oneself that you will become more established in. Calm is a platform from which to do very un-placid things, living a life that is more creative, intelligent, and just generally effective.
You get better at “just being”, but without surrendering the love of “doing” – in fact, the more thoroughly we dial into being, the better we get at the doing part. The key is to just not define yourself by your doing and remember that it’s just an instrument of your being.
I relished this. It was the perfect antidote to my fears that meditation would make me somehow nondescript and non-desiring (as though being fulfilled meant being neutered of all inspiration to do, learn, create, or explore). So rather than abandoning the seeking process, I just had to improve the seeking process.
Modern spirituality often has this more aspirational flavor: most of us don’t seek the simple life of monks, who may need little more than a garden and a quiet place to sit to live a profound and fulfilling life. Modern practitioners want a more dynamic existence – always learning, experiencing, evolving, and re-inventing. Since our practices make us more mentally and physically equipped to thrust ourselves into exciting new contexts and make positive change in the world, why waste our capabilities on solitary life? However, this sensibility demands a certain amount of moderation. We may find ourselves drunk on it, requiring the sobriety of life’s simple moments.
Early in my practice, I often found myself thinking, “Having endlessly new and exciting experiences must be the measure of an evolved person…the more of this I’m doing the better.” Which meant that when I wasn’t doing these things then I was prone to frustration and melancholy. Meditation was supposed to make me happy being me, but I misappropriated its philosophy to find new things to feel I was lacking.
When a practice like meditation makes our minds more clear, nimble and resilient, we certainly are capable of leaping headlong into novelty and challenge. We more thoroughly know who we are and the potential power of our lives in this world. But true self-understanding means not thinking we need something like novelty to be satisfied. It can apply its sense of wonder and creative potential to any moment, no matter how quotidian. And, in this case, can be a greater source of growth than the more dramatic ways we’d been previously challenging our ourselves. As Maharishi’s teacher Guru Deva famously stated, the spiritual journey is the art of going where we are not – which means that sometimes the most adventurous thing we can do is stay still and honor the seemingly dullest of experiences.
This is the salvation of the lacking mind. Because, usually, most of life is not an orchestra of new and exciting challenges – at least not in an obvious way. So much of each day is the repetition of what appear to be dull, mechanical activities: eating, cleaning, dressing, driving, errand-running, and at least three quarters of our job’s daily responsibilities. It’s these moments that are just as incredible as that “challenging new experience“ thing that we may consider the typical “growth medium”. And noticing their power sometimes requires the same fearlessness we’d embody when leaping into “new challenges”.
I still sometimes find myself pulled from the present by that fickle, self-elevating inner voice: “Is this moment profound and fresh? No? I am bored, then.” But circumstances in my life call me to apply this love of novelty to things that remain rather unchanging in content and rhythm:
- I share a home with my father-in-law who suffers from dementia. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are essentially states of anti-learning, where the same problems, questions, and stories are repeated to sometimes exhausting extremes.
- I teach meditation. Which is deeply rewarding, but requires that I honor that most of it involves repeating the same basic principles and correcting the same basic problems over and over again.
- I moonlight at a restaurant where I serve tables. This one is really key and resulted in re-directing the application of my spiritual knowledge on the art of service. Service and hospitality demands that we treat the moment (and those that occupy it) as extraordinary and special, even though it often involves repeating the same questions, menu descriptions, and other procedural conversations many times a night. Being great at it involves never making any such repetition lose the luster. No one ever feels like they are getting the tired end of a repetition. Every moment must be new.
And if I were to continue listing all the sources of repetition in my life, it would go on for some time. Most people’s lives are like this. Few can probably say they’re entrenched in new challenges and conversations for more than the minority of their day. Finding joy in these routine moments would be an “awakened” thing to do. But so would breaking out of their oppressive sameness. So which do we pursue?
I don’t know if a choice has to be made. Though Guru Deva’s principle of “going where you are not” may imply that you might be prioritizing things like adventure over stability in different phases of life, you’re always getting better at both at the same time. You just need humility and presence. This means that you don’t imagine yourself entitled to a better moment than what you are experiencing. You are always entitled to exactly what you are experiencing. The only thing you can effectively do with any moment is engage in it fully, not attempting to escape it by imagining a potentially better one. Whether it’s a routine chore or a fascinating new adventure, you’re always “going where you’re not” if you leave the spinning narratives of your mind and enter into the moment. Leave whatever is blocking you from having a full experience, and have that experience.
Our minds can have a very complicated relationship to these routine experiences. Although some like routine and sameness, others resent it. Yet even in a state of real loathing, the ego depends on the comfort of sameness. Routine experiences build up very structured ideas of reality, allowing us to convince ourselves that we already know the score and have nothing new to learn. The ego, whose job it is to ensure our safety, loves the sense of security this confidence brings. Needing to learn something new is scary because it suggests we don’t know something. So the mind may sometimes perceive a very familiar experience as dull and dreary, the ego wouldn’t have it any other way.
However, we can delve into a familiar experience with that open-hearted enthusiasm we might lend to a new one. But to see it as new means surrendering our structured idea of it that keep us safe. It requires a break of conditioning that involves just as much courage as defying your “blocks” and galloping into some fresh and exciting challenge. You are breaking out of an egoic safety net, just as you would if you suddenly took a job at not-for-profit in Botswana. To have that loving enthusiasm for a familiar experience will dissolve that false resentment of it and allow us to master our lives. This is what’s at stake when attempting to embody Zen refers to as “the beginner’s mind.” This is something that I innately sucked at, but was tossed a lifeline from the Way of Tea.
Tea Teaches Me Everything About Zen & The Beginner’s Mind
The most profound antidote to my constant seeking of novelty was my discovery of Wu De, a Zen monk that teaches self-cultivation through Cha Dao (The Way of Tea, which is essentially the art, culture and spiritual understanding of serving tea). For Wu De, there are those whose “cup is empty” and those “whose cup is already full.” Empty cups are empty minds. Not mindless, just open and available to be filled by whatever the present moment offers. Full cups are minds blocked by their ego feeding them an idea that they know better. Someone with an “empty cup” embodies the Zen ideal of the “beginner’s mind”. Though this state of innocence sounds perilously un-savvy, it is a product of wisdom and self-possession.
The beginner’s mind doesn’t shut down when it hears a story a second time. It would consider this second or third repetition a chance to pick up nuances it didn’t notice before. Or if they are hearing it from someone else, then it can be considered an opportunity to learn about the perspective of the person telling it. There are endless aspects of newness available. I apply this to my job in the service industry.
In service, it’s important to approach a situation using good judgment. Though this sometimes involves entertaining certain preconceived notions about a situation (i.e. “Hmmm French people…they might be snooty, I better be very formal with them”), they will only aid you insofar as you’re willing to surrender them in an instant. It’s fine to have expectations, as long as your primary expectation is for reality to be much more complex and nuanced than that. Maintain the beginner’s mind, lest you both limit the amount you can learn and how effective your role can be in a situation. My assumptions always turn out to be at least partially wrong. And the more beginner’s mind I rest in, the more the “partially wrong” becomes “almost entirely wrong.” A familiar situation then becomes unique and extraordinary. You see, someone that is truly geared to evolve wouldn’t be dependent on a modern paradigm of constant travel, career and relationships changes to truly grow. The potential to challenge oneself doesn’t always present itself in dramatic form. Sometimes the most profound growth springs from the subtlest layers of experience and the subtlest refinements in our understanding.
Your Greatest Ally In Your Hero’s Journey: The Beginner’s Mind
There is a greater tendency to occupy the beginner’s mind when traveling to a new country and much less when doing something that you do almost every day. And, in today’s world, experiencing novelty like this is easier for anyone to achieve than any period in known history. I relentlessly pursued a life of travel-work for years. And profound growth resulted from it…until I thought it was something I needed for growth. Too often I experienced life through the lens of “What growth am I getting from this?” This warped my relationship to reality into a transactional one. I was not honoring where I was with a beginner’s mind, but using it. In expecting growth in return, I probably got less than I could have.
Eventually, constant travel lost its color and I asked myself the question: People of 1000 years ago didn’t need such a privileged life of travel to achieve self-mastery…so why do I? The problem was that I had it backwards: the feeling of novelty is an outcome of good self-cultivation not a means of it. And good self-cultivation means not needing peak experiences in order to even engage in self-cultivation to begin with. In fact, all you need if your own cup, empty and held out to wherever you are.
A great aid was Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, where he attempted to build a map of human self-realization drawn from the stories of ancient and modern cultures. For Campbell, these stories display the universal “hero’s journey” we experience in our daily lives, providing a source of wisdom throughout its great tests (as he would say, “a myth is something that never happened, but is always happening”). In these metaphorical stories, the hero leaves home to break out of the rigid, routine pattern of their reality. They have experiences that provide growth and understanding that would not have been available to them in the little container of their birthplace. But the hero always seems to return home at end, bringing with them their new perspectives, tools and treasures. However, before arriving home the hero often has to face a final adversary.
The battle is often near their home, or even right in it. And it serves as the ultimate test of what they learned. There are many ways this narrative relates to major rites of passage in our lives, but I think it also applies to very routine everyday moments. In attempting to experience the familiar as something new, we face the resistance of the ego. The shackles of the old, safe paradigm of viewing the world make a final stand. The hero overcomes this challenge using the wisdom they gathered in their journey into new realms of experience. Their wisdom is basically used to defeat obstacles to the beginner’s mind, which is our very means of acquiring new wisdom. The reward for this is passage back into the familiar, but with a new appreciation for it. So the triumph of the hero means getting the best of both worlds: the familiar and new simultaneously – and the means of experiencing the familiar as a place of ever-flowing newness.
You’re Always Serving, So Serve Like A Pro
So ironically, my over-commitment to novelty ended up depriving me of it. Without really sinking my teeth into every avenue of my life, I wasn’t preparing myself for the bigger leaps. To this, I refer to two key Zen principles that Wu De applies to cultivating the way of tea – and, ultimately cultivating yourself:
- Advanced techniques are simple techniques mastered.
- You’re always serving tea.
This reveals the interrelated nature of everything we do. My tendency is to compartmentalize the “important stuff” and de-prioritize “trivial things.” With Zen & Cha Dao, that hierarchy is not invited to the party. How you do anything is how you do everything. If the only thing you do with presence, purpose and pride are the things that you consider “important”, and starve everything else of your attention, then you cannot be said to be living life with mastery. If you focus intensely on excellence in your job or passion project, but absently cook, eat, and interact with others, then you are not living with presence and intention, but a fickleness of attention. And, as a result, the things you really care about are also not firing on all cylinders.
I really like being good at my job. Professional hospitality is the art of making people feel good via relatively brief encounters. But this doesn’t mean that you enjoy just the moment where you’re “connecting with people.” In fact, those moments are just a component of the day. The majority of the job consists of all the mundane chores around the actual point of contact with the guest.
If it’s simply the “hanging out with people” that you enjoy, then you’ll resent the other parts of the job. And you’ll be needy of your guests to give you the nectar of pleasant interactions. You may then require them to be interesting or charismatic, which usually turns out to be a small percentage of clientele. And even the period of guest interaction can involve tremendous repetition, confronting you with the same questions, conversations and problems, day in and day out.
For monks, the most mundane chores are the most sought after positions at the temple. Those simple tasks are considered the highest honor since cultivating appreciation for them a powerful practice of equanimity. The belief that one kind of work is more important than another is a product of conditioning that must be broken to properly engage in the needs of the moment and not the needs of the ego. This is the all-inclusive view of an awakened mind. Too often we miss the interrelated nature of our reality by saying “I don’t have time to do my dishes, I have to get back to making art that changes the world”. In a restaurant, you need to prepare your mindset so that you are happy doing every task and serving every person, no matter how “unexciting.” The joy and satisfaction of the work is not found in the integrity of the people you’re serving, but the integrity of how you have set up your space to serve anyone to your fullest potential.
This is the beginner’s mind driven by its vision of the bigger picture of self-mastery. That doing anything with presence and care accelerates your growth on every level. This means embracing the same question you always hear, responding to it not with boredom, but delight in that you are familiar with their query and can offer a knowing response.
Conclusion: How Living With Non-Attachment Means More & Not Less
So when asking yourself “what’s most evolved” between always raising the stakes of experience or honoring the simple moments in life, the “most evolved” answer is of course the most inclusive. Evolved perspectives can hold many seemingly disparate principles in one awareness. You benefit from always maintaining both, just sometimes on different levels. There’s the macro level of how you’re orienting yourself and the micro level of the journey. If on a macro level you’re in a state of moving forward and seeking new experiences, there always remains the obligation to its micro level, where you patiently dial into and appreciate every moment around it. As long as you always move away from the question of “what am I lacking” and into the question of “What am I simply not noticing?” or “What do I already have that I’m not claiming or appreciating?”
Hence the idea of non-attachment. If you remain too committed to one paradigm, then you miss the bigger picture. The Buddha was so keen on non-attachment that he even applied it to every principle he ever taught. His Heart Sutra is famous for broadsiding his students with the concept that the most Buddhist thing one can do is abandon all rigid paradigms we hold onto, including all Buddhist principles. In the existential sense, this sounds scary (it isn’t nicknamed “The Heart Attack Sutra” for nothing). But when applied to daily life, it just means constantly examining the present moment and being completely adaptable to it. Being adaptable means not being attached to how we were doing things before. This brings new light to often unattractive idea of non-attachment. It doesn’t involve indifference to anything, but a passion for nimbleness, always ready to pivot when life calls us to.
Now isn’t this what we were speaking about from the beginning? Always leaping into the new? Exactly. Just understand that “the new” may often manifest itself as everyday humdrum experience. And, as I once experienced, constantly leaping into the new can become a rather dull and quotidian experience. It’s at this point that the greatest novelty is experienced in slowing down the consumption of (and requirement for) novelty. Our friends humility and non-attachment help us maintain this fresh, expansive relationship with life.