Friday, August 31, 2007

Beginner's Mind Encounters the Troubled Mind

Encountering the Mentally Ill with Beginner’s Mind.

Leonard Mlodinow in his wonderful wee book, published this side of the Atlantic as Some Time with Feynman (Penguin, 2003) but which is called much more interestingly and provocatively Feynman’s Rainbow in the States, (Warner Books, 2003) states that this famous physicist “avoided learning new things from books and research papers; he was famous for always insisting on deriving new results for himself, on understanding them his way. To him, to stay young meant to retain a beginner’s outlook.” (op. cit., p. 79). What intrigued me with respect to this percipient comment was its linking in my mind with the Buddhist attitude called the “beginner’s mind.” [I will review two of Mlodinow’s books later in these pages, hopefully if time permits me between having to blunder from one crisis to another now that I’m back at school].

The first book of the great Zen Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi was entitled Zen Mind, Beginners' Mind which I recall reading some years back when a friend lent it to me. Beginner's mind is Zen practice in action. It is the mind that is somehow or other totally free of preconceptions and expectations and also free of judgements and prejudices. Beginner's mind is being able to explore and observe and see things as they are in themselves. This is rather like the existentialist approach to therapy and the mind to see the person as they are in themselves here and now, which I described as best as I could in a previous post called Personality 4. We can think of beginner's mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. It is the mind which has somehow learned to jettison all the blinkers (and sometimes blindfolds) that life has insisted on encumbering its pristine vision with.

Medicine, no different from any other science, likes to catalogue, differentiate and label. If this is all that medicine does without treating the patient in a holistic sense as a human being in all his or her dimensions it is nothing short of a scientism or a reductionism and not a real science in my view which would incorporate the humanity of the enterprise as both scientist and patient are in the first place both human. Psychiatric medicine can likewise be blinkered and blinded by hardened preconceptions. However, as a person who has been taking an antidepressant for some 8 or so years I will under no circumstances dismiss nonchalantly the wonderful strides made by modern psychiatry. However, a psychiatry which reduces itself to medication only and which has little time for psychotherapy in all its wonderful forms is not alone blinkered but blindfolded in my estimation. Thankfully, in my experience medication has been good for me, though I hasten to add that I have befitted much from my wide reading in psychiatry and psychology and in self-help books. I have also attended both counsellors and psychotherapists. As well as this, I have also changed my lifestyle. Consequently, healing is always to my mind a question of both/and and never either/or.

To return to my favourite physicist alluded to at the opening of this post, always be suspicious, if not fearful, of those who advocate a simple answer to life’s problems. The greatest knowledge we can possess, Socrates maintained, the only knowledge that matters a damn, is the awareness of our boundless, fathomless ignorance, something his greatest disciple and diligent biographer Plato could never quite grasp, for all his obvious, peacock-like spectacle of brilliance. Feynman always liked rejecting the easy answers similar to our friend Socrates. He was able to tolerate ambiguity and accept his own ignorance. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty,” he said on many occasions during his life and in many places in these letters. “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” (Don’t you have time to think? p. xi.) In 1963 he told a Senate audience that he felt a responsibility as a scientist to know “the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance.” (ibid., p. xi)

Surely then when approaching the most complex organ we possess, namely our brain which is the seat of our mind, an approach called “a beginner’s mind” is not alone useful but a necessary sine qua non – rather like learning Latin before reading Horace in the original. Medicine, I’ve read somewhere, divides the brain into three major medical specialties – neurology, brain surgery and psychiatry and each of the specialists will deal with different sections of this vital organ. We need these specialties to deal with the specific problems nature and living throw up. However, they are also dealing with a person who suffers of course. This is where the wonder of nature and the wonder of humanity come in. Hence, all good scholars are invariably good students who are humble before the mystery of being (I hasten to add that I am speaking metaphorically here to emphasise that all scholars worth their salt never think that they possess all of the truth on any one thing. Indeed, in my book the truth is never singular – it’s more a question of many truths being discovered bit by bit by bit!)

As Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." As an expert, you've already got it figured out, so you don't need to pay attention to what's happening. Surely a real scientist should be constantly observing and not stuck in the mud, or worse still swallowed up by the quicksand of his set opinions! Surely then when we encounter a so-called “mad” or “insane” person we should attempt to practise “beginner’s mind,” the mind that is somehow or other totally free of preconceptions and expectations and also free of judgements and prejudices. Is this possible for us? I think and feel and believe that it may be. With such an attitude the ontologically insecure will be less frightened, and possibly more likely to trust us and indeed to trust their doctors, psychiatrists and psychotherapists who are after all their helpers on the road to healing.

Above I have pasted another shot I took of some dead wood in Newbridge House in summer 2006.

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