…because some thoughts are worth remembering
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”
~ Alfred North Whitehead, from An Introduction to Mathematics (Chapter 5)
With quotes and thoughts like the above, it is no wonder that Alfred North Whitehead is considered both a mathematician and a philosopher. Others have echoed this sentiment, such as Josh Waitzkin, in his book, The Art of Learning, where the techniques and rules must be practiced to the point they become integrated with the rest of you.
But what if the important operations Whitehead speaks of were so embedded in a culture that they were simply passed on, accepted and practiced without deliberate effort?
Being mindful, or deliberate with one’s actions, is an underlying virtue in the Japanese culture. Parents are fond of encouraging the kids to do better by saying, “put your mind in it”, and remind them to “receive with both hands” when someone is handing you something, whether it was a precious gift or a simple refill of water in your glass. Doing one thing at a time with your mind focus on that one thing is understood to be better in Japan, just like “Supersizing” is better in the U.S.
When I practiced calligraphy as a kid in Japan, I had to make my own ink first with repetitive strokes I made in circles with an ink stick against the ink stone that contained water in its well. As I made circles, drawing my full attention to the water tracked by the ink stick, getting darker with each stroke, my mind cleared. It’s something I did before I could put my calligraphy to paper. I didn’t realize that something I did as a 6 year old as a matter of course was considered meditation and mindfulness.
I didn’t know until I wanted to study meditation as an adult in the U.S. that integrating meditative state and mindfulness into one’s daily life was considered the next step to sitting meditation. I savored dharma talks on podcasts and articles about Buddhism in English. I felt like going through a museum of my own personal culture, identifying different pieces as artifacts carefully analyzed and put in historical context by curators and anthropologists. All of a sudden, the little quirks I knew I had, made sense. Disagreements I had with friends were easier to accept when understanding that there were certain assumptions I was making that were foreign to them. There was a rush of emotions accompanied by empowerment that comes with solving mysteries that you didn’t even know existed.
Perhaps I could learn more and be more mindful if I learned meditation as it is taught in the U.S. because I can study the theories behind what works and why. Start from how to sit, meditate and then integrate that mindful state into daily activities.
Now I know what it feels like to be a native speaker of English and your grammar and spelling being corrected by a foreigner who had to learn English as a second language. It’s frustrating and embarrassing. Yet a native speaker is equipped to tell you if you got some preposition wrong (you go “on a trip” and not “to a trip” even though you are not physically above anything). A native speaker can tell you that the right idiom is “like shooting fish in a barrel” to mean that something is quite easy, but they can’t tell you why you would kill a fish with a gun (or why the fish would be in a barrel in the first place)…but I digress.
Even though I knew what to do when my parents told me to sit on my knees and reflect on what I did as punishment (a Japanese version of “time out”) and I could sit for a long time, I had great problems with sitting meditation when I was taught it. Now, I was concerned about my posture, how long I should be sitting for, and if I was “doing it right”.
I had to learn formally and unlearn everything to arrive to the conclusion that simple is best. Just as my father taught me to concentrate on the circle my ink stick would trace on the ink stone (and everything else fell into place: from my breathing to posture), my American friend who has been practicing Buddhism for a while taught me that sitting meditation is simply about getting to an alert, relaxed state. Recently, I figured out that physically, it meant having my back straight and taught and relaxing my tummy.
That’s all I think about physically, to get into the correct posture and the rest follows. Mindfulness can now be a practice I don’t have to overthink.