Yesterday a friend asked if I would accompany her to the Opera, since her original companion's plans had fallen through and there was an extra ticket. It has been years since I've been to an opera at the Met, and it was to be Carmen by Bizet, an opera in which I actually participated years ago as a child in the chorus. So I said yes, informed my family, shifted out of the plan to have dinner together, scavenged my closet and headed out just as everyone else was coming home.
As disruptive as this was, it was a joyful change in my day. I rarely get out for entertainment of an evening, as a fair amount of my work takes place then, and I've cultivated a pattern of family dinners since I first had children (24 years ago!). As my friend spoke to me on the phone, I felt a moment of hesitation, as my mind scanned how I felt about disappointing other people, adding to their responsibilities and burdens, and missing out on an opportunity for closeness before heading out of town for a few days. Discarding these projections only took a few seconds. I was totally open to the idea of dropping everything and heading out for the unknown in the form of an experience with the Metropolitan Opera.
Shunryu Suzuki, a revered Zen master and teacher who came to the United States in the late 1950's, put beginner's mind at the core of practice. It may seem strange to equate this profound concept with my decision to go to the opera, but my choice came out of the understanding that the mind contains everything. Beginner's mind is an empty mind, an open mind, a mind that holds all the possibilities. He described that "If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. ... If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves."
My scan of false concepts and my acceptance of a new path took place in a space of non-judgment and non-attachment. I could have been happy or resentful having dinner with my family and catching the news analysis of the day, thrilled or guilty sitting high above the beautiful set designs, peering into the orchestra pit and floating on the vibrations of the human voices filling the hall. Neither of these experiences could actually be predicted. Both offered the full range of possibilities. The open space of an empty mind gave me room to be fully in that moment of choice-making. I was able to eliminate the "should" and "shouldn't" from the equation, and by letting go of my "if-this-then-that mind," the dualistic mind, I was free to make a real choice, to act honestly. My early morning obligations did not cost me any more dearly for having rolled in late the night before, since I was not weighting them down with that mental/emotional baggage. I did not have to charge myself something in exchange for my choices.
When Suzuki-roshi spoke of lies and stealing, at first I thought, "I don't do that." But in the act of choosing the opera, I noticed that flashing impulse to support saying no by making an excuse to my friend. I sensed a desire to feel important in my family structure, as if I was critical to the evening. In this way, I felt myself denying my family members respect for their three-dimensional selves, in essence stealing their freedom to be whole and self-determining and binding them into the falseness of my own projections, just as I was inflating my own sense of self by making myself indispensable. In a matter of seconds, beginner's mind released me from those patterns that limit my own life, and deny others' their possibilities as well.
I have learned this from my yoga on the mat, where there is always this possibility of beginner's mind. The clarity that comes from not assigning value has given me freedom to be more fully myself. I urge my students to eliminate "hard" and "easy," "good" and "bad" from their way of thinking about asana and themselves, and give themselves the space for the inquiry "what is this?" and "who is this?" I rarely second guess my choices anymore, perhaps because I am free now to take responsibility for them. Just as I place my foot in alignment with my knee in an asana, the emptiness of non-attachment/non-judgment supports my mental clarity.
It is no small consequence that I had a great time at the opera, enjoying the late night trains coming home and walking under the waning moon, sneaking into my apartment of sleeping people, and sleeping with a heart full of song.