|Photo: Solveig Larsen|
First and most importantly, I am learning that I am not an epidemiologist, I am not a virologist, I am not a doctor. I am learning that I have no medical training.
Yet, I have joined in social media debates a few times, arguing about the whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs - of what coronavirus is, or isn’t, what it can do, and what we do to overcome or live with it.
I have offered my opinions.
But, as time has gone on I have learnt something else, something far more important.
I have learnt that I know nothing.
In times like these, when the world appears topsy-turvy, I (as I suspect many) am tempted to look for, and grasp at, certainty. We can look for that certainty in the proclamations of our governments, in social media, or in conspiracy theories.
Yet nothing in this world is certain.
So, I am learning that I know nothing.
In learning that, I accept that perfect certainty is impossible to obtain. Then, with that acceptance, it becomes possible to discern with greater clarity what is more likely and what is less likely.
In that learning, I recognise that, in fact, I am remembering something that I thought I’d learned some time ago. I thought I had learned the Zen Buddhist concept of “Beginner’s Mind.” It seems I had forgotten.
So, now I re-member, re-learn, and re-apply this simple Zen concept.
The Japanese word shoshin in Zen Buddhism suggests an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions.
Just as a beginner.
Just as someone who knows nothing.
However, knowing nothing does not mean I am helpless, or lacking in motivation. Knowing nothing does not cast me adrift in a sea of relativism. Nor does it mean that every wind that blows is worth setting my sails to. Nor does it mean I do not know what to do.
The other Buddhist word that is useful at this time is the Sanskrit term shunyata, often translated as “emptiness.” Emptiness though does not do the term justice. The Buddhist scholar David Loy1 comments that the word comes from the root word shunya meaning
“…’to swell’ in two senses: hollow or empty, and also like the womb of a pregnant woman.”This coronavirus is providing me with an opportunity to learn the meaning of shoshin and shunyata. It is providing me with the opportunity to learn what it is like to approach life, and my role in it, as a beginner with a mind that is empty, yet full of pregnant promise.
I am being offered the chance to look forward with eagerness to what may emerge.
I am being offered the chance to let go of my preconceptions, my prejudices, and perhaps even my “knowledge.”
I am being offered the chance to become open to differing points of view, yet also noticing when a point of view is simply that – an opinion.
I am, in the words of Shunryū Suzuki2 being taught that,
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”With a beginner’s mind and with pregnant emptiness I come to learn that understanding how I arrive at what is good, healthy, and real is more important that knowing what is good, healthy, and real.
Because, if I focus on the what I fall back into grasping on to certainty.
Attachment to what says “I know” and negates my Beginner’s Mind.
1. David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, Humanity Books, New York, 1998.
2. Shunryū Suzuki is a Zen monk who helped popularise Zen in the western world and is credited with founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia. He is well known for his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.