Millions have found mindfulness to be a powerful practice for reducing stress, enhancing attention, and instilling tranquility. But it can offer so much more—it can transform you, make you more fully awake, alive, and aware of your connection to all beings. In Japanese, the character that best expresses mindfulness, 念, consists of two parts—the top part, 今, meaning “now,” and the bottom part, 心, meaning “heart.” Using stories from his own life as the son of an Irish father and a Japanese mother, a professor in Japan and America, a psychotherapist, a father, and a husband, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu describes eight “heartfulness” principles that help us realize that the deepest expression of an enlightened mind is found in our relation to others.
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If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. ... When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. ... Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
— SHUNRYU SUZUKI
Fresh out of college, without a job, and needing some money to pay the rent, I reluctantly became a substitute teacher in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools. Substitute teaching in inner city public schools in the United States was a taxing job, with the goal of simply surviving to the end of the day. The tough city kids were too much for me. They ate me up from the ring of the opening bell and spit me out when it mercifully rang after last period, signaling that the punishment was over. I was desperate for anything that would help me to do more than just make it through the day, and one morning while walking to a new school I got a brilliant idea.
I strode confidently into my fifth-grade classroom, though only a few kids seemed to notice or care. I faced them, told them to sit down and be quiet — in Japanese. They all turned and stared at me. I repeated my directions. Their incredulous looks turned to smiles. They peppered me with questions:
"What did you say?"
"You okay, mister?"
"What language you speaking?"
I looked at them, feigning disbelief.
"I'm speaking Japanese. Don't you understand?"
They shouted back, "No, man; teach us Japanese!"
And so I did, and the day flew by. I taught them how to say "hello" and how to write their names. I had their interest and attention. They were curious and eager learners. And they were fresh, all beginners with many possibilities.
I got a steady job shortly after that and forgot about that glorious day. But a few years later as I was walking through that same part of the city I heard someone call out, "Hey, mister!"
I turned and faced a smiling young teenager.
"You're the guy who taught us Japanese!"
I suddenly realized that it was Ricardo, now an adolescent, the student who had been most excited and enthusiastic about learning Japanese from me years earlier. I recalled the note the teacher had left for me warning that Ricardo was one of the kids who would be "oppositional" and "hostile" to learning. But with me he had had a fresh start and was simply being there — attentive, aware, awake, and appreciative. He could leave the past behind and not worry about the future. For me, it was an indelible and unforgettable experience in understanding how we learn and how we teach.
I understood Ricardo's experience through Zen. He had "beginner's mind"; he was on fire. The sky was the limit. He was not held back by others' perceptions of who he was and what he could or could not do. There were infinite possibilities. He was mindful.
My experience in schools was different. I was rewarded by teachers and felt great pressure always to score high on tests and maintain top grades — that was more important than learning. School was oppressive, heavy, memorizing facts for tests, and listening to lessons that were not taught in a way that was fun and exciting. I rarely experienced the joy of learning that Ricardo must have felt when learning basic Japanese.
I had learned about beginner's mind at home. My mother was always reminding me to wake up, focus, stop dreaming, pay attention, not be forgetful, and do what needed to be done, now. My storyteller father's way of teaching was different, calling on me to pay attention to the wonder and mystery of life, to joy and sorrow, demanding full engagement with human encounters. He was forever childlike, always asking his kids to look at something with a beginner's mind, with feelings of curiosity, levity, and fascination. He embodied joie de vivre, proclaiming Albert Einstein's view that one could live as if nothing was a miracle, or as if everything was a miracle.
But out in the world, when I acted mindfully by being patient, silent, listening, and being nonjudgmental, I was regarded as strange. I was often teased for being mindful, for example, reflecting on another's view rather than asserting a strong opinion of my own, and even for being a slow, conscientious eater. It seemed that other kids were already moving on to the next thing while I was still sniffing the flowers, rolling around with the dogs, or wanting to play baseball even when it became too dark to see. A high school teacher who noticed the joy with which I experienced being one with the natural world had nicknamed me "Nature Boy."
I realized that American society regards being mindful as weird and even laughable, while rushing around busily with a mind full of thoughts is considered normal. People found it strange that I reveled in the beauty of whatever was transpiring in the moment.
As I grew up I saw that public displays of beginner's mind and mindful living could draw unwanted attention from the wrong people. One warm, sunny spring day when I was a college student and the cherry trees were in full bloom, I was rushing through Harvard Yard on my way to class. I suddenly paused to appreciate a beautiful pink cloud, reminding myself to be mindful. I stopped by a tree, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. The delicate fragrance of the blossoms was intoxicating. I focused my attention on my breath and being in the moment. I took another breath. I must have taken a few more because I was suddenly startled by a voice.
"What are you doing?"
I opened my eyes and turned around to find a policeman eyeing me suspiciously.
"What are you doing?" he repeated.
I was completely caught off guard and felt unsure how to explain what I was doing.
"Nothing," was all I could say.
"Are you on drugs?" he asked.
I wanted to say, "No sir, I don't need drugs, I am high on just being mindful — fully present, aware, awake, appreciative" — but I didn't. I just mumbled, "No," and walked away.
Mindfulness brings tension, as it is out of tune with the dominant current of busyness, putting you out of sync with all those people rushing madly through life or tuning out. Throughout my youth, people found my patience annoying; my silence made them anxious. They wanted me to talk more, and often asked: "Why don't you raise your hand?" "Why are you so quiet, so shy, so reserved, so slow, so accepting?" "Why aren't you more brash, outspoken, argumentative, quicker, more demanding?" These societal and cultural pressures confused me at a time and in a place where mindfulness was unappreciated. I may have been naturally mindful, but I came to disrespect it in a world in which it's considered better to be constantly busy.
Remembering Ricardo's story renews my appreciation for the richness and freshness of living with beginner's mind. I recall the many ways I have found of exploring mindfulness — including yoga, meditation, aikido, macrobiotics, qigong. I even took up the study of East Asian medicine with a feeling of wonder and awe.
My grandmother's teaching about Ichi-go, Ichi-e — cherishing each moment — held special meaning. I sought to bring full awareness to the life-and-death struggle of every human encounter, treasuring meetings with people as one chance in my lifetime that will never happen again. Though at first I had a hard time appreciating the tea ceremony, it was where I experienced Ichi-go, Ichi-e most strongly. Seeing the host conducting the ritual with true sincerity, taking care and devoting herself entirely to every detail, instilled awareness and presence in me. When offered a cup of tea, to truly appreciate it, I needed to be mindful, concentrating on it, so that it could reveal its fragrance and taste to me.
Applying this to daily life, Ichi-go, Ichi-e told me that all we have is the present moment. We should not miss the opportunity that is given to us now. If we can consider the reality that every encounter is one of a kind, and therefore something to be treasured as if it is the one time in our life, we will value the time. Approaching life in this way, we will have an abundance of enriched moments.
Immersion in Japanese culture renewed my respect for mindfulness as a way in which I could be truly alive by continually touching life deeply in every moment, even in the most mundane of activities. I sensed that life is in the here-and-now, that we can discover peace within ourselves simply by being aware of our breath, by realizing the miracle of being alive. While mindfulness is rooted in meditation, it can be practiced in our ordinary daily activities: making a little time in our life for being still, not doing anything, and tuning in to our breathing. Every moment is an opportunity for practice and development. In this way we cultivate appreciation for the richness of each moment we are alive.
The experience with Ricardo awakened me, at the time, to the possibilities in education if we could be fully present and attentive, though this transformative event was forgotten and lay dormant for years. It was years later that I remembered, when I was first asked to lecture at the Stanford University School of Medicine. As I pondered how to instill the most important lessons of culture and medicine in my listeners, I recalled that amazing experience. It had worked then with fourth graders, so I decided to give it a try.
To my delight, I found that it was as effective with medical students as it had been with children. This time I followed the mini-performance by explaining that I was disrupting their expectations as a way of bringing their attention to the present moment. I assured them that I was "mindful" and hoped that they, too, would be as fully present in the moment as they could be. This experience was a way of reminding them to be mindful in their work as future health professionals — attentive, listening, seeing the uniqueness in each patient.
I was presenting them with a "disorienting dilemma," an experience that does not fit their expectations and forces them to consider new possibilities as they attempt to make sense of what is happening. This creates openness to learning by challenging assumptions of what is supposed to happen.
My brief performance of speaking Japanese, in other settings, has become a useful way of inducing mindfulness, drawing students and listeners into the moment by experiencing rather than being told. By presenting myself in a performative, playful way, I invite students to bring themselves fully into the classroom, with attention to what is happening in the moment, with awareness, acceptance, and appreciation. And the attention they give to me will then be extended to themselves and to their classmates.
Speaking to students in a language foreign to them is a way of inducing vulnerability — a key to education — as a lifelong commitment to self-reflection rather than as a detached mastery of a finite body of knowledge. Vulnerability means appreciating mystery as much as mastery; being comfortable with not-knowing, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity; cultivating awe and wonder that deepens our knowledge.
This is the lightness of beginner's mind, rather than the heaviness of needing to be competent. Feelings of vulnerability may be unsettling, but they are a way of understanding the importance of balancing a sense of competence with humility, remaining open to complexity despite our desire for simplicity.
Beginning encounters with this type of exercise enhances the sense of Ichi-go, Ichi-e, as students at every level come to regard each class as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Research shows that students become more focused, more self-aware, and more aware of and less judgmental of self and others. This creates greater opportunities for learning from the teacher as well as from fellow students.
As a teacher, from preschool to medical school, I've seen how attention is essential for learning, and so I continually integrate mindful practices in my teaching to achieve presence.
Focusing our attention connects us to our inner knowledge — what we already know — and brings it forth so that we can engage in new learning. This knowledge of seeing and thinking with the heart might be called presencing or emotional intelligence. Being mindfully in tune with this knowledge leads to positive, affirming acts, saying "yes" to the present moment, saying "yes" to life.
The Heart of Education
While I find great wisdom in kanji, I also discover deep meaning in the Latin origin of words. The Latin origin of "education," educere, means to lead forth. This spoke to me as a high school student disillusioned by education as practiced in American schools. As a young man, I hungered to move beyond traditional learning that values rational knowledge, scientific methods, and information about that which is outside us. Now I seek to respond to the desire to integrate learning with our lives, by enhancing wisdom that comes from self-reflection and expressing it in actions for self-care and compassion for others.
A heartful approach calls on students to actively situate themselves within the content of what they study, deepening their understanding of the material by discovering it in themselves, and then applying the concepts learned to their own lives. Our focus on compassion and connection to others satisfies the desire for inquiry into the nature of their minds through personal meaning, creativity, and insight, providing guidance in living a more spiritual life.
Heartfulness is guided by feminist scholar bell hooks' view of education as "an act of love ... as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth." Studying things in this way brings refreshing forms of knowing that go beyond the knowledge that values rationality, detached objectivity, and facts that we can't actually apply to our lives. Students continually remind me that mindful inquiry and the development of awareness is not a purely intellectual or cognitive process but part of a person's total way of living their life.
Similarly for the physicist Arthur Zajonc, the true heart of education consists of loving what we study, as we come to know best that which we love the most. "We pause to reflect before speaking, quietly engage the issue inwardly before acting, open ourselves to not-knowing before certainty arises, and so we live for a time in the question before the answer emerges. ... Only under such conditions can imagination work. ... Poetry, indeed all art as well as science, flows from such restraint."
This kind of education can be practiced at every level of school. More and more educators are integrating various mindfulness practices into their classrooms to help students focus and calm themselves, cultivate greater emotional intelligence, and develop their creativity. These practices enable deep introspection into meaning, ethics, purpose, and values, encouraging students' reflection on their internal experience as well as their connectedness with others.
A number of studies of programs that directly train students in mindfulness have collectively demonstrated a range of cognitive, social, and psychological benefits to elementary, middle, and high school students. This research shows positive effects in many areas related to learning, including attention and focus, as well as creativity, memory, and cognitive capacities like retention and autonomous learning.
School programs that focus on achieving benefits of behavioral control and cognitive focus often stop there; a heartful approach, by contrast, extends mindfulness to include benefits of increased compassion and responsibility. Research shows that mindfulness is correlated not only with focus on self and subject matter, but also with focus on others. It seems to enhance flexible thinking, openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to different contexts, and implicit awareness of multiple perspectives — all qualities essential for developing diversity and inclusion. Mindfulness also enhances social skills by improving our ability to realize our deep connectedness with others through empathy and kindness. Useful in maintaining classroom control, it has far greater benefits for the learning and well-being of students.
Beginner's Mind in Health Care
My experience in education ranges from caring for 18-month-olds in day care to adult learning. I teach in medical schools because I have also had a career as a clinical psychologist, training and working in hospitals, clinics, and schools. These experiences have nurtured my appreciation for the role of mindfulness in health care. One formative experience I had was with East Asian medicine. Having given up on Western medicine, I underwent acupuncture treatment for nagging headaches and failing vision that had occurred from a traumatic injury. A few months later, the pain was reduced and I threw away my eyeglasses. I also received treatments for a gastrointestinal disorder and vowed to become a practitioner of East Asian medicine, abandoning the mainstream path to becoming a doctor.
Excerpted from "From Mindfulness to Heartfulness"
Copyright © 2018 Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of ContentsPreface
1. Beginner's Mind