Lessons Learned From Zen Monks: The Power Of Perspective

put your life in perspectiveThe Power of Perspective – See the Big Picture and Live Fully

If anxiety-producing and depressing thoughts are constantly harassing you, you may want to learn about “Big Mind” and “Small Mind.”

These are terms that Zen Buddhists use to distinguish between one’s natural and true mind and one’s deluded mind — the one that tortures the vast majority of us on a daily basis. This mind is limited.  It thinks categorically and is pressured by time.  Small mind disturbs us with unpleasant thoughts that are useless and self-defeating and often lead to destructive speech and behavior, as well as poor decisions.

So then what is “Big Mind”? Here’s an analogy. In sports, it is commonly understood that the athlete who can “see” (sense) the whole field will perform better than the athlete who has a narrower perspective of the game.  This analogy merely scratches the surface of where Zen wants to take us consciousness-wise.

How does one cultivate Big Mind?

Just prior to New Year’s Eve, I wrote an article that encouraged people to add meditation practice to their New Year’s resolutions. In a way, writing that article was a promise to myself that I would return to a meditation regimen. In my twenties, I was so deeply involved in Zen Buddhism, that I nearly became a monk. Ultimately, life yanked me in a different direction, but the insights that Zen provided for me have never faded. Meditation is the best way to experience Big Mind. It’s not something that can be fully explained intellectually, though we can entertain some questions and ideas that help us begin to comprehend this powerful level of consciousness.
If I were to tell you that you are absolutely amazing and also completely insignificant, how would you respond? Your DNA confirms that you are completely unique, and your social security number reveals that you’re just another person in a sea of others who exist or have perished. How does one reconcile being special with not being special at all?

If this question is hurting your brain, hang in; it gets worse.

What does one do with one’s mortality? If you’re currently delusional about the subject, let me remind you that you are definitely going to die some day. The comedian, Steven Wright, once said that he knew the exact day that he would die, because his birth certificate included an expiration date. If your insignificance and your inevitable death depress you, your perspective on life is flawed.

When properly understood and employed, one’s mortality and diminutive existence is powerfully liberating and motivating and allows you to put all of life’s challenges into proper perspective.

To better illustrate this, let’s dabble with some rhetorical questions.

What is bothering you right now?

Why is it bothering you?

Why should it bother you?

Why shouldn’t it bother you?

Would it still bother you if you knew that your life would end tomorrow?

How many other disturbances in your life would lose significance and power if you knew your life would end tomorrow?

Why does the idea that your life could end tomorrow change your relationship with matters that currently disturb you?

How can you use the awareness that your life could end tomorrow to help you better deal with matters that currently disturb you?

When one is aware of life’s finality, the value of the moment increases, and one must decide how one wants to spend that moment which will quickly end and never return.

In the reality show, “Amish in the City,” a young Amish girl said that her life was just a vapor. I’ve heard Zen Buddhists say that form is emptiness. Christians embrace Jesus’ directive to avoid storing up treasures in this life, because every physical acquisition in it is subject to destruction. Eckhart Tolle revealed that Christ’s struggle on the cross symbolizes every person’s struggle to “surrender to form.”

All sources of spiritual wisdom want to provide us with peace, happiness, and personal power. They accomplish this by harping on the fact that our physical lives are fragile and temporary — a concept that can and does depress people. Not me. This perspective does not annihilate life’s actual problems but does diminish and even dissolve the ones that our minds fabricate or blow well out of proportion.

At big events like weddings, the participants are usually determined to have a good time and contribute to everyone’s good time. If the best man makes a bad speech, everyone has a good laugh about it, and he is quickly forgiven. The focus is on the big picture: ensuring that the party is fun.  A rock dropped into a soup bowl filled with water creates a sizeable splash and ensuing mess. That same rock dropped into the Atlantic Ocean hardly disturbs the water.

Zen Buddhists say that the unenlightened life is a dew drop and a flash of lightning. A painful and delusional thought hardly disturbs “Big Mind” but completely displaces “Small Mind.”

Whenever something upsets you in this life, “Big Mind” will remind you that no one lives forever. Each moment counts.

How do you want to spend this one? The choice is yours.

By Vincent Corvino

About the Author:

Vincent Corvino’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, among them The Quarterly, New Letters, The Crescent Review and The Blue Moon Review. He is currently the lead singer of the New York City hard rock band, Urbansnake.  He is a former student of Zen Buddhist Roshi, Rich Hart, and has trained as a boxer under former WBO Middleweight Champion, Doug Dewitt.  He possesses an MA in Education from Columbia University and a Post-Graduate Certificate in School Leadership. He has been an English teacher since 1996.