“Ecstasy, or letting go of your hold on life, is paradoxically the Way of life, the Source of Life, an enlivening Source of life-practice.”
—Adi Da Samraj, Always Enact Fidelity To Me
There’s plenty to fear about aging—grizzly medical procedures, heinous nursing homes, those walkers with the tennis balls on the legs. But long before all of that, I fear turning into a zombie. That is, I fear my thinking getting stiff, predictable, rigid and repetitious.
Avoiding (or undoing) mental calcification is a crucial part of Spiritual practice. In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki tells us that, “The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” Similarly, Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I was thirteen or so, I was captivated by the Spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, who wrote and spoke eloquently about the need to think in pristine, unconditioned ways.
“It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.”
“We carry about us the burden of what thousands of people have said and the memories of all our misfortunes. To abandon all that is to be alone, and the mind that is alone is not only innocent but young — not in time or age, but young, innocent, alive at whatever age — and only such a mind can see that which is truth and that which is not measurable by words.”
Here’s the first Krishnamurti book to blow me out of my THC-drenched, adolescent mind.
Stuff you can do
So how do we keep our thinking free, new and spontaneous? Or get it that way if it’s gotten old and boring? Let us count the ways.
Conventional ways to avoid mental rigidity
Conventional advice tells us to avoid mental ossification by introducing lots of new behaviors and experiences into our lives. Travel to exotic places. Try new things. Take up new hobbies – oil painting, violin, Salsa dancing. Learn a new language. Deliberately break up your routines and habits. Read widely. Meet new people. Take up juggling or a life of crime.
Another conventional—but often irreplaceable—way to break up our stiff mental programs can be therapy. Buried trauma creates tremendous rigidity in our thinking and feeling. And, in my opinion, most people have way more buried trauma than they’re aware of.
A third conventional way to break up our inner tape-loops is through the body. Mental fossilization is always expressed physically—in our tissues and movement patterns. Look at how freely children think. Then look at how freely they move. It’s not a coincidence. As Advanced Rolfer Jeffrey Maitland, PhD puts it:
“…our defenses are structured as conflicted spatializations. These muscular and neural fixations become our habitual ways of being…they can become all but cemented into place…[causing us to] become machine-like and maddeningly predictable in many situations.”
—Spacious Body, Jeffrey Maitland
So you can add more pliancy to your thinking by getting Rolfed. Experiment, too, with movement practices that open and free the body—Natural Movement (MovNat), Feldenkraise, Tai Chi, yoga, Brazilian Jiujitsu.
A forth conventional approach is to examine our beliefs and life-stories. These narratives can lock us into all sorts of lifeless, repetitious patterns. (This, too can come from undigested trauma.) Much mental agility can be gained by simply inspecting our core beliefs, life-stories and tacit presumptions about things. Byron Katie’s work can be helpful for this.
The non-conventional way: The ecstasy of transcending mind and thought
Adi Da says that our thinking gets arthritic over time simply because we are so identified with the mind. Consequently, we just accumulate more and more of it. As the years go by, experience builds up like layers of plaque over our true nature—the timeless radiance of pure, mindless Being. We become constipated with mind, freighted with the fossils of past experience that we never learned how to release.
No human being is new. All human beings are patterns of mostly unconscious memory (or pattern itself). The body itself is memory, for memory is not merely in the mind. All the forms that exist are conditioned by previous influences.
—Adi Da Samraj
So get into what is not mind, pattern, body, time and memory. The real secret (the non-conventional one) to keeping our thinking wild, is to spend as much time as we can in the free space of luminous mindlessness!
“Real and intense practice can and must be done at any age. Otherwise, you accumulate destiny and become fixed in it. As the years pass, you become more and more rigidified in your social-personality pattern, which you have manufactured by repetitions for decades.
“Ecstasy, right practice, requires that you go beyond that. You cannot afford to let it rigidify. You cannot afford to allow patterns to become fixed. Real ego-transcending practice is an enlivening process…
“That pattern is a persona, a character, a role…To be that pattern is non-ecstasy. To go beyond it is ecstasy. And doing so is a moment-to-moment matter. Otherwise, the pattern of your own ‘self’-contraction simply tightens around you, and eventually turns you into a corpse.
—Adi Da Samraj, Always Enact Fidelity To Me
I know a lot of you Zen folks don’t like words like ecstasy. They sound ostentatious and Makyo-ish to you guys. I was a Zen Buddhist for years. I get it. So forget about garish words like ecstasy and instead just consider the “mindless spontaneity”—the lack of mental rigidity—suggested by countless Zen exchanges like this one, from The Blue Cliff Record:
Zen master Chung Kuo-shih calls upon his attendant. The attendant appears and the master says, “Thank you for coming, but I don’t need you now.” A little later, the same thing happens. The text reports:
“Since the attendant was a veteran monk, the second call was fresh and new and so was the third call. He never became dulled by repetition because he was no longer oriented to sequence. Every impulse from the vernal universe was of interest to him.”
Chung Kuo-shih’s seemingly purposeless calls to his attendant continue thus for eighteen years (!), until his attendant’s enlightenment! How can we become “no longer oriented to sequence?” How can we “never become dulled by repetition?” How can we “let go of our hold on life?”
William James said, “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.” But by living more and more in the mindless depths of being, we can stay ever “in the plastic state.”
You know who else really gets this stuff? David Bowie, that’s who really gets this stuff. “Things that happened in the past only happened in your mind, only in your mind. Forget your mind and you’ll be free…” (I know he didn’t write the song, but he brought it to life and imbued it forever with his most magnificent Bowie-ness.)
So hurl yourself into your meditation or prayer or visionary practice. Tumble into mindlessness as often and as deeply as you can. If your meditation or prayer practice is not moving you in this direction, why isn’t it? As the great poet Rilke told us, live in the question: How does the mind become or stay fresh, spontaneous, and new? There are worst questions to hang out with.
Incase you’ve not gotten enough music on this post, here’s Van Morrison singing to us about how he will never grow so old again:
You know one fine thing you could do to work against your mental rigidity? Why, you could subscribe to my email list! That’s what! I mean, how often do you sign up for Open Hand email lists? Amiright?