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#10: This is Not a Pipe: Discovering New Possibilities Through Mindfulness



During my senior year of high school, my English teacher Mr. Ault did something unexpected. On the first day of class, he took us all out to the football field, not to play sports but to experiment with mindful walking. He encouraged us to walk around and get curious about our experience - our gait, speed, the sensation of our feet touching the ground, the way our arms swung by our sides, and the rhythm of our breath. He had us play with walking backward, sideways, and extra slow, noticing how these changes altered our perception of this ordinary act.


At the time, I didn't fully grasp the significance of this unusual lesson. But looking back, I realize he was planting a seed—a seed of curiosity, wonder, and mindful attention to the present moment. He was showing us, in a simple yet profound way, how even the most mundane activities can become a rich source of insight and discovery when approached with a beginner's mind.


Beginner's mind, a concept often discussed in Zen Buddhism, refers to the practice of meeting each moment with fresh eyes, as if encountering it for the first time. It means setting aside our preconceptions, judgments, and habitual patterns of thinking to fully engage with the raw experience of the present.


“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. ” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

This notion of beginner's mind is beautifully encapsulated in the famous painting by surrealist artist René Magritte, "The Treachery of Images." In this painting, we see an image of a pipe with the seemingly contradictory caption, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - French for "This is not a pipe." Of course, the painting clearly depicts a pipe. So what's the deal?


At its heart, the painting points to the gap between reality and the language and concepts we use to represent reality. The painting of the pipe is not actually a pipe itself. It is a representation, an image, an idea of a pipe - but it is not the real physical object.


Ever since I was introduced to the work of critical theorists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard, I have been fascinated by the distinction between reality and our mental constructs. Baudrillard's concept of the "simulacrum" – the idea that representations and symbols have become more real to us than the things they originally referred to – resonated deeply with me. It highlighted how easily we can mistake our ideas and interpretations for absolute truth. Similarly, Foucault's exploration of how our experience is always mediated through language and ideology made me question the foundations of my own perceptions. These thinkers inspired me to look more closely at the ways in which my own thoughts and beliefs shaped my reality, often without me even realizing it.


As Alan Watts eloquently put it: 

"A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusion."

So much of our stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction in life comes from confusing the map with the territory.


Mindfulness invites us to return to the raw data of our present moment experience beneath the layer of concepts and language. When we connect with our senses - seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting - we step into a world of open-ended possibilities. The pipe becomes so much more than "just a pipe" - we appreciate its colors, textures, curves, and its essential "pipeness" – its suchness – beyond the label.


In a recent Everyday MBSR class, we experimented with this concept by mindfully exploring ordinary everyday objects as if encountering them for the very first time. Participants engaged in mindful observation by closely examining their chosen objects without relying on labels or preconceived notions. They explored the sensory aspects – sight, sound, touch, smell – with a childlike curiosity. People discovered new dimensions to their objects. For example, one participant explored their everyday coffee mug by feeling its smoothness and weight, listening to the whoosh of air across the opening, and even licking the ceramic to taste it! After this initial exploration, we practiced letting go of the ordinary to discover novel uses for our objects, tapping into our innate creativity and imagination.


While this might sound ridiculous, it only seems so to the expert mind – the egoic mind that clings to established perspectives, providing us with a sense of safety and stability in the familiar. Ironically, it's this grasping onto certainty and established order that often keeps us stuck.


When I was struggling with intense social anxiety some years ago, it was this practice of meeting the world with a beginner's mind that helped me begin to unravel the knots that had been tightly woven around my sense of self and open up new ways of experiencing life. Instead of remaining trapped in the mental story of "my life as an anxious person," I learned to engage with each moment as it unfolded and savor the simple joy of being alive.


The more I was willing to let go of my assumptions, judgments, and preconceptions about myself and others, the more I could experience each interaction with fresh eyes. I started to question the limiting beliefs I had accumulated over the years - beliefs like, "I'm not good enough," "People don't like me," or "I'll never be the person I truly want to be."


Finding freedom from those kinds of confining stories didn't happen overnight. It was the culmination of an intense period of dedicated beginner's mind, which started with recognizing just how often I was living inside of stories. Our minds are meaning-making machines – constantly making sense of our experience. When we're young, with limited life experience and accumulated knowledge, our minds are fairly creative and flexible. But as we grow older, we start to develop more fixed patterns of interpretation.


Through our interactions with family, friends, society, and culture, we absorb beliefs and assumptions that can become deeply ingrained. We form narratives about ourselves, others, and the world that shape our perceptions and reactions, often unconsciously.


For me, it was a gradual process of learning to catch myself in the act of storytelling. Each time I noticed my mind fall into a spell of thinking, no longer connected to the here and now, I practiced simply acknowledging it as a thought and letting go into the present. I did this through meditation and then in everyday life, realizing there was no partition separating the two. There was just this moment. And when limiting beliefs or self-judgment arose, they too were treated as just another thought pattern, like all others, rather than an absolute truth.


With greater space between me and my thinking mind, I began to see that these stories weren't serving me. In fact, they were clearly holding me back. With mindfulness, over time, the space created around these habitual patterns loosened their grip on my mind.


I'll never forget when presence started to sink in so deeply that the present moment became more real than the stories in my mind. I remember walking down the street of "The Ave" in the University District of Seattle. I was just a few blocks off the edge of UW's campus. I was so deeply present, so tuned into being alive and experiencing the vibrancy of life in that moment. I looked around and saw everyone zooming around me. Darting here and there, just barely – if at all – aware of their present-moment experience. I could see in their glazed eyes that they were nowhere near the present moment. Lost in the stories of their mind. Barely scraping the surface of this profoundly vivid experience of being alive. I remember feeling a wave of sadness. I thought to myself, this being alive is so incredible, and so brilliant, so ecstatically awake… why can't they see it?!?!


As I continued to practice, I discovered that beneath the layers of conditioned beliefs and assumptions, there was a deeper wellspring of creativity, resilience, and connection. This discovery was both exhilarating and isolating. There were moments of feeling so alive, so connected, that I felt waves of ecstasy wash over me. In the midst of one of these moment, I called my parents to share my experience, and they responded, "That's nice, Ryan… um… are you on drugs?" Their response was a stark reminder of how challenging it can be to convey the depth and richness of mindfulness experiences to those who haven't had similar insights. It left me wondering, who can I share this with?


The next time that depth of aliveness and appreciation came over me, I thought to myself, who the hell can I share this with?? Most everyone I know will think I'm crazy, drugged, or ill. And then it dawned on me… MR. AULT!!!! My English teacher. That seed he planted all those years ago during my senior year had been quietly growing, waiting for the right conditions to sprout. In my ecstatic state, I dialed 411 (remember that?!! 🤯) and asked to be connected to San Ramon Valley High School and then to Mr. Ault’s classroom. They patched me through and Mr. Ault's voice came through the receiver. 


“Hello?”


“Mr. Ault! It’s Ryan Kenny!! You probably don’t remember me, but I was a student of yours many years ago and you knew my sister Meredith who was nine years older.”


***long pause***


“Meredith….oh! Ryan - yeah. I remember you!”


I went on to try to explain my paradigm shifting discovery to him. I could feel him listening intently on the other end of the line. In a few short words, he responded affirmatively. I knew that he “got it” and that more than enough. (And, he didn’t ask me if I was on drugs). Our whole chat lasted maybe five minutes, but that moment of connection and coming full circle is still one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had.


The “Mr. Ault” seed stayed with me as I continued to navigate the challenges and pressures of adulthood. It was a quiet and persistent reminder that there was always a different way of relating to my experience – one that was more open, more flexible, more alive. And when I found myself stuck in patterns of anxiety and self-doubt, it was this seed of mindfulness that helped me find my way back to a place of greater freedom and possibility. 


As we continue to water the seed and return over and over to the beginner's mind, we find ourselves blossoming in unexpected ways. We rediscover the world anew, with all its richness and complexity. This growing awareness allows us to tap into a deep well of resilience and vitality, to connect with others more authentically, and to find joy in the simple moments.


Of course, our concepts and categories are useful for navigating the world. When we commit to a beginner's mind, we don't actually lose our acquired knowledge. That's the brilliance of the human brain – we can grow our beginner’s mind AND still have access to our library of knowledge. But when we take our thoughts too seriously, we limit our horizons.


In the years since those pivotal experiences, my understanding and practice of beginner's mind has continued to evolve. Each moment, each interaction, each breath offers a new opportunity to meet life with fresh eyes. It's a journey of continual unfolding, of letting go of certainty and control, and of opening to the boundless possibilities of the present.


So the next time you light up your pipe (or drink from your coffee mug!), take a moment to really see it, feel it, smell it. Turn down the volume of the discursive "labeling" and turn up the volume of the real-time data. Allow yourself to be amazed by this object, this moment. And then carry this clarity with you wherever you go, remembering that this is not just a pipe, this is your life – and it's full of infinite, unfolding potential.


With love,

Ryan

"Ceci n'est pas une Ryan"

😉


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