Jan 29, 2008
Muhammad Ali: “Children make you want to start life over.”
Probably all of us have looked at a child and wished we could start our lives over again. We can’t erase the past, but can we find a way to start over? Bodhipaksa, Buddhist practitioner of 25 years and a parent for one year, looks at the art of starting afresh.
I find something touching in the image of Ali, a giant of a man whose career involved a brutally physical sport, looking at a the joy and innocence of a child and wishing to start life over again.
I’m sure we’ve all had those thoughts — “Wouldn’t it be great if I could go back and erase that error? Wouldn’t it be great if I could erase all those mistakes, make better choices, start over, create a better life?” We all have those moments of regret, of wishing that we could right the wrongs of our past.
And yet here we are, trapped in this eternally-unfolding present moment. The past is out of reach because it doesn’t exist. Certainly we have memories of past events and an imagination that can visualize our returning to past events and re-running them so that they unfold differently, but those memories and imagined episodes take place of necessity in the present moment. There really is no going back.
Ultimately those regrets, those desires to create a new past amount to our unhappiness with the present that we find ourselves in — the present that we, and events outside our control, have created. We look at the present, at our circumstances, our feelings of unhappiness, the absence of experiences we desire and the presence of experiences that we would rather not have, and the answer seems to lie in the past. In somehow changing the past. In changing a past that is out of reach and immutable.
And those feelings or dissatisfaction with the present, of wishing for a different present, can become awakened when we are with a young child. There the child is, full of potential. And children, although by no means blank slates or free from negative emotions, lack many of the unhelpful learned habits that we have accumulated over the years.
I look at my 14-month-old daughter and I see a being who is completely free from hatred. She has no regrets, no baggage. She doesn’t label herself, doesn’t judge herself. She doesn’t think of herself as being successful or a failure, popular or unpopular, good or bad, rich or poor, lucky or unfortunate.
And to her everything seems new and fresh. Today’s 20th reading of “Pat the Bunny” or “Barnyard Dance” is as delightful to her as the first (I wish that were the case for her parents). When she falls down she simply picks herself back up. She doesn’t lie there saying “I’ve tried walking. It doesn’t work. I’m just not a walking kind of person.”
The simplest things are intriguing. She’ll take immense pleasure simply from moving her hands. A leaf picked up on a walk is a world of fascination.
She has, in short, what Suzuki Roshi called “Beginner’s Mind.” And that’s something we all, certainly at times, want, and even crave.
There’s no chance, of course, of finding our child-like wonder and freedom from baggage by transporting ourselves back in time and literally starting life over. Such magic is for another universe, not the one in which we find ourselves. But we can find another way to start over. And that way is through mindfulness.
When we long to start over we are, paradoxically, doing the exact thing that has caused many of our problems in the first place. We’re unmindfully getting caught up in longing and craving. We’re caught up in an aversion to our present-moment experience, fleeing to an imagined past in order to escape the present moment.
But the freedom of the child lies in being entirely in the present moment, not being caught up in thoughts, fantasies, and regrets, but simply experiencing and staying rooted in actual experience: experience of the body and its sensations, in the heart and its emotions, staying rooted in the senses. That’s the key difference, in this regard, between us and young children. We have learned to spend more time in our thoughts than in the full range of our experience. We become lost in thinking. Thought becomes a kind of alternative reality — like the Matrix of the popular movie — in which we live out our hopes and fears.
To escape from this Matrix we need the Red Pill of awareness. We need to become mindful of our thoughts. And this requires experiencing the parts of us that are not thoughts. We need to learn to stay grounded in the body and its physical sensations, to remain alive to the senses and the rich impressions that flow through them into the theater of the mind. We can do this by immersing ourselves in the sensations of the breath flowing in and out, in the sensations of the body as we do walking meditation, in the heart’s feelings as we cultivate lovingkindness.
And in doing so, the power of the Matrix — our inner alternate reality — becomes less strong. We’re less drawn to becoming lost in thought.
And we begin to see how our judgments of ourselves are part of the Matrix of illusion. Our sense of ourselves as successful/failed, good/bad, rich/poor, blessed/damned starts to fade away. We’re no longer as fooled as we were by those categories, which we start to see as extraneous to reality and artificially imposed upon it by the mind.
Increasingly free from judgment, increasingly rooted in our present-moment experience, we find that we are “starting life over.” In every moment we are starting life over. We’re starting to experience Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind, not trapped in the present moment but free in the present moment.