Give Big Mind a Chance

 “When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship. When everything exists within your Big Mind, all dualistic relationships drop away.” 

Rev. Shunryu Suzuki

Our recent ancestor, Shunryu Suzuki, talked all the time about Big Mind.  He used other phrases – Buddha Nature, True Self, etc – but he most often referred to Big Mind. Here’s another quote:  

“We cannot see the Big Mind, because it is always with us, right here. If you reflect on yourself, that self is not your true self anymore. You are projecting “you” as some objective thing. Do you understand? And your true mind is watching the mind outside of itself. This mind, which is always on your side, is not just your mind. Its universal mind, which is not different from other’s mind. It is big, big mind.”

In my early days, I tried to connect with a Big Mind that was silent and still as the night sky.  Vast emptiness, no holiness.  That was my idea about it, and I tried to connect with something like that.   

As time goes by, I feel much more connected to a Big Mind, or a Big Heart-Mind, that’s turned towards what’s happening, with a friendly respect and appreciation. And deep, deep listening.  This is what I come back to nowadays to when I am able to remember Big Mind.

In a special Zen ceremony, I had a chance to ask a close friend, “Does Big Mind care?  She answered, “Well, it holds everything.”  That’s what I’m talking about.  Big Mind holds everything.  It holds EVERYTHING. 

Big Mind Holds Everything

This highlights one potential drawback with Big Mind – it’s impartial. Our usual way, our human way, is to feel like someone cares about us when they care more about us, right?  You hold me especially, you’re turned towards me especially.  It may be hard to feel the love of Big Mind if it cares about every being equally. 

Another Zen friend shared an experience her family had on vacation. She described how each day they would walk down to the lake. The first day there were a couple of geese swimming serenely on the lake with seventeen goslings.  And the next day there were twelve goslings.  And the next day there were two.  So let’s just say they were scooped up by an eagle to feed its babies.  Does Big Mind care more about the eaglets than the goslings?  And if not, does it seem like it cares about either, or any of them?  Or does it sort of seem like it doesn’t care at all?

It’s nature’s plan for the geese to care more about the goslings and the eagles to care more about the eaglets, right? 

We humans have babies, too, and we are partial to our own babies, our own pets, our own pet projects. It’s nature’s plan, and it’s the human realm.  But actually, you may start with a natural partiality for your own whatever-it-is, but the problem is, even this tends to evolve and devolve and quickly get pretty dicey. 

The Shin Shin Ming, an ancient Zen text, says, “Picking and choosing never stays within bounds.”  That’s the problem with human preferences, human likes and dislikes.  They tend to quickly go out of bounds and cause harm, for self and others.  We see this tendency everywhere, unfortunately. Even though it’s completely natural and human to have preferences.

For example, what if you have two kids? What if you liked one more than the other? Even if you don’t like one of them better than the other, they feel like you do; they are always watching you.

And then what if your kids have friends? Even if you don’t have kids, you might have dogs or cats or sisters or brothers or nieces and nephews or several grandchildren.  What if you have neighbors and your neighbors have kids or pets?  It just gets dicey pretty quickly if you’re partial to one being over another.  You might start in a wholesome human realm, but before you know it, you’re bribing someone to get your kid into college by being on a sports team for a sport that they don’t even play, or something like that. 

Where Are the Beings?

Where are the beings that I most need to turn towards with Big Mind? Is it the many beings, plants and animals including humans all over the world in difficult circumstances? No, though they are important. Is the people in our home towns, our own neighborhoods?  Is it our friends and family, who are so good at getting on our nerves? 

These are all important beings, but there are some sentient beings that we need to turn towards first – the sentient beings of our own minds. As our 6th Zen ancestor Huineng said, “Sentient beings of my mind are numberless, I vow to save them all.” Save the sentient beings of our bodies, hearts, and minds.  Without picking and choosing, holding all of them equally. 

I am writing this in the midst of the corona virus, and as my own community (along with everyone else) began to cancel our public events, I slumped for a little while into a sad lost feeling.  Then another part of me – one who is afraid of feelings – criticized that, saying that it was unenlightened to feel bad, and I slumped a bit further, feeling like a failure as spiritual person.  The critical voice pointed out – Where’s your Big Mind now? (Because that part will use anything!) All this took place over a few hours.

Finally I remembered, the point is not to try to switch the current train of thought/feeling to the “Big Mind” train.  No.  Just take that very feeling/thinking, whenever and whatever I am noticing, however lost or low-brow, and turn towards it with friendly respect and appreciation. And deep listening. And when I do that, I often think, yeah, it makes sense that I’m feeling this very feeling, thinking these very thoughts, under these circumstances.

Suzuki Roshi also said,

“Big Mind is the mind which is always working on small mind. If there is no small mind, there is no Big Mind.”

Big mind belongs to the sentient beings of our mind, the sentient beings of our mind belong to Big Mind.  They belong together.

How Does Big Mind Manifest?

The other thing that’s sort of hard to accept about Big Mind: it can’t DO anything.  WE are the arms and legs, we are the hands and eyes, we are the voices of Big Mind.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s up to us to connect with Big Mind and bring it into manifestation in our daily lives, as best we can, with our current understanding.

Part of what it means that Big Mind can’t do anything is that Big Mind can’t keep bad things from happening.  It couldn’t keep bad things from happening to us when we were children, and it can’t keep bad things from happening now.  This is really hard to take. It seems foolhardy to even give it a chance; what would be the point?  We can’t depend on it to keep bad things from happening.  However, it will always be there for us, no matter what. It’s always holding us. We can let ourselves be held, and whatever we’re thinking or feeling can be held too.

We somehow have a choice, we humans, to express or block this Big Mind.  It seems like plants and animals are just always purely being held by and expressing Big Mind, and I guess in an ultimate sense everything we humans do is also an expression of Big Mind.  But it really seems like we humans can choose to block Big Mind OR express it.  And blocking means picking and choosing, which just never stays within bounds. And expressing it means, first, turning towards what’s happening, with a friendly appreciation and respect.  Towards exactly whatever is happening. This is a response that’s always available to us, whenever we remember. And then, as best we can, bring something forth, give Big Mind a way to become visible, audible, tangible, in our world.

Turning things around

“When any of the three poisons [greed, aggression, delusion] happen in your life, don’t see them as a problem or as a promise. Instead, say, “May this aggression [greed, delusion] be a working base for me. May I hold it to myself and may all beings thereby attain freedom from aggression.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I recently worked for someone who, to my eyes, had very poor boundaries. He seemed to be constantly questioning me and suspiciously commenting on my behavior in a completely unreasonable way. Our styles and cultural backgrounds are very different, contributing to the confusion. I’ve always been very lucky with bosses and co-workers, so this took me aback. Internally I reacted defensively, while outwardly trying to be reasonable and understand what he really needed from me. At a deeper, more unconscious level, I was weighing my own safety in the situation, urgently debating fight, flee or freeze, while trying to figure out how to get things to go differently.

Suddenly I remembered Trungpa Rinpoche’ s teaching, and I just stopped and thought, “May this dilemma provide a working basis for me and all beings to wake up.” Immediately I relaxed inside. It no longer seemed dangerous. I didn’t have to solve it or resolve it, get out of it, stay in it, or make it change; I just had to remember my basic intention – my “prime directive” – to wake up. When I vow or pray that this situation provide a basis for waking up, I open to a wider world that goes beyond success, failure, blame and praise, and encompasses both inside and outside, the possibilities and the mysteries of change.

Neuroscientists have coined a term: neuroplasticity. The brain is incredibly malleable and is always changing. Everything that we do and everything that happens changes our minds, moment by moment. This can mean digging even deeper the ruts of unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, or it can mean changing and growing towards healthier ways through insight and training.

We tend to do the same things over and over, feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, not because we are weak or bad or shameful, but just because that’s how the brain works. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Neuron firing sets up chain reactions in the brain, and neurotransmitters (like dopamine and seratonin) add emotional rewards for repeat performances.

How can we use our neuroplasticity instead of being used by it, to paraphrase a Zen slogan? How can we learn to work with the flux that the mind and brain actually are?

One of the key ways we can influence our brain is by learning to set intentions effectively. There are things that we want to change. But we may be trying to change ourselves or the situation before we’ve taken the time to understand and appreciate, and this gives rise to an internal (or external) power struggle. We need to find words, phrases, intentions and vows that we connect to, that don’t lead to beating ourselves up when we can’t make it happen.

To set an effective intention is to introduce a new train of thought that is reality-based and more in accord with our deepest values, and then to keep bringing it up as often as possible, memorizing phrases and slogans, talking about them, firing new neuron chains, and creating associations to happiness and to other positive feelings. Not in an attempt to gain any control over our brains or over the situation, but rather to create a parallel track and encourage the conditions that would allow our brains to “jump the track” to a new way of thinking.

Actually, this happens to us all the time, as individuals and as groups. Frances Moore Lappe (World Hunger: Twelve Myths) points out how people used to believe in the divine right of kings. Then we stopped, and it’s doubtful we would ever go back. There were things we believed in our teens (invincibility?) our twenties, our thirties (depending on how old we are!). Our attitudes and beliefs change quite naturally as new information enters our brain. That is, unless we get stuck in an old pattern that causes us to ignore new information.

For the new understanding to take hold it has to be more true than our former view, like seeing through the divine right of kings or the emperor’s new clothes. “I’m a failure” can give way to “I’ve learned how to do a number of things and there are other things I would like to learn.” “I can’t” can give way to, “I’m scared but with enough help and support I would give it a try.” “This situation is hopeless” can give way to, “May this very situation be a working base for me, and may this effort bring benefit.”

Trungpa’s slogan is an effective intention par excellence. It gets completely away from trying to change something in ourselves or in the outside world that may or may not be ready to change. Just, “May this difficulty provide some basis for benefit, I don’t know how, but may I find a way.”