IWL lessons, part 1: Homelessness and experimentation

This is the first of two posts about how my mind has expanded lately; the next will be about breadth of interests. These insights have come about in large part because of IWL and the people I met there, but they’re not always direct products of what we did in the workshop; some of them are more indirect results of my own thinking and experience. There are so many big ideas here that I’ve had trouble writing these posts — even though I’ve known for weeks that I wanted to — because of my difficulty in translating all my intuitive understanding into comprehensible posts. But I think I’ve done it now… here goes!

Dropping assumptions: People are not what I think they are; the world is not as I think it is.

[When we meet strangers,] we stretch to understand each other and are invigorated by the stretching.
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Most of us don’t question our assumptions about people, even when we think we do. We assume things about individuals (“that person won’t like me”) as well as about “people” in general (“everyone is either male or female”). Assumptions help us get through life without having to relearn everything with each new encounter. But they’re not always true.

My IWL classmates were the most diverse group of people I have ever worked with or hung out with. Generally when people talk about diversity they mean some kind of intersection of race/ethnicity, sexuality, age, and socioeconomic background. We had all that, but we also represented diversity in experience (emotional health, immigration, trauma), geographical origin (even within the US), and physicality (size, dis/ability, queerness). Because of our differences, I’ve had to question or drop many of my assumptions, from the clearly stereotypical to the more basic. Each dropped assumption means a reorganizing of my understanding of the world. Each reorganization brings me a little closer to the not-understanding that is a child’s mind or a beginner’s mind.

Homelessness: There is no “home” but transition, no “normal” except change.

Once I was changing jobs and houses at the same time. I felt insecure, uncertain, and groundless… I complained to [my teacher] Trungpa Rinpoche about having trouble with transitions. He looked at me sort of blankly and said, ‘We are always in transition.’

We train when we’re caught off guard and when our life is up in the air.
-Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare Us

After the early upheaval in our workshop instruction, I felt so rootless and disturbed. I noticed that I relished being at home or among people I knew well; I desperately needed those safe, familiar spaces and souls. A couple of weeks later, after our class had reaffirmed our community and had begun to move on, I rode the train home and practiced standing in the moving car without holding on. While shifting my weight in tune to the motion of the train, it occurred to me that emotionally as well as physically, we all look for a safe place to return “home” to. In our bodies, we seek stability, solidity, balance. In our hearts, we want love and safety and protection. These things are illusory; the earth is always turning, and no place is ever truly safe. But we cling to these “homes” so tightly that we become unsettled in transitional spaces like a moving train full of strangers, or a confrontational meeting.

It’s much easier to develop equanimity — and to keep my balance on the moving train — if I don’t think of immobility and stability as “normal.” If there’s nothing to fall from, then in some sense it’s not possible to fall at all, only to move in and out of different positions. Likewise, if comfort and security are not “normal” but are just states I move in and out of — as are discomfort and insecurity — then I can be mentally and emotionally “at home” no matter what’s going on.

Of course there are limits to this way of thinking: falling can still hurt, and no one should stay in a dangerous situation when there are other options. But for much of life, it’s very broadening to think of “home” and “transition” as the same thing.

To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear.
-Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare Us

I received this same lesson in a different way from an IWL classmate who has been living a rather itinerant lifestyle, moving from city to city, in and out of various short-term housing arrangements. It’s not a comfortable state of affairs, but there is also something very liberating about it, especially since it is (at least partly) by choice. I like to daydream about tossing all my stuff to live super-simply, but it’s hard for me to walk the walk. My upbringing and lifestyle have been all about having a home base and an environment of certainty, from the big things (partner, work, family) to the small (food, new clothes, a car) — I guess those “small” things actually aren’t; they’re the physical hallmarks of a middle-class life. But that’s what I mean. Everyone I’ve grown up with, the whole way I’ve been raised, comes with an expectation that adult life means building up precisely this fortress-like stability and (illusion of) security, so solid they can’t be budged by just removing a brick here or a door here. The idea of not living that way, and doing it as a choice, intrigues me and forces me to reconsider what I do and don’t need. It also pushes me to ask: if stability/certainty is not the goal of life, then what is?

Beginner’s mind and experimentation: Everything is always new, all the time.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
–Shunryu Suzuki

Which brings me to the beginner’s mind. The phrase comes from Buddhist teachings and is the focus of a book by Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (though I haven’t read it). The idea is that the more you know about something, the more you think you know, and the less open and interested you are in the other limitless possibilities. I would add that expertise tends to be highly comfortable, whereas being a beginner nearly always means discomfort, and from that comes growth. This is why the IWL, the way it broke down assumptions (including “home”) and exposed me to discomfort and to newness, helped to grow my beginner’s mind.

Together with the creative work we were doing, the beginner’s mind has led me to feel that experimentation is not just good, but natural. What is experimentation anyway, except divergence from a norm? And what is a norm, if not something created through shared assumptions and directed experience? If we refuse to share assumptions, if we reject the concept of “normal” or a “home” way of doing things, if we don’t direct our experience into established channels, then we begin to experiment. When I think of it that way, experimentation is less the strange obtuse avant-garde, and more the way a child stacks her blocks differently from the way the teacher does. It makes perfect sense.

Tomorrow: an Open Mic guest post from Naveed Ahmad!
On Monday: the follow-up to this post, on breadth versus depth, and charting my own path.