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Beginner’s Mind: Practice

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Beginner’s Mind is a special series from Buddhistdoor Global of thoughtful, insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning-based courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhdharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.

When I first viewed the Spring 2020 course catalog at Williams College, I gave Buddhist economics only a cursory glance. Instead, I sat there eyeing courses from Soviet history to macroeconomics. These—well, at least those two—were subjects that lay well within my comfort zone; I knew I would be interested in learning about Stalin’s rise or national economies. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized how many opportunities I was denying myself by neglecting to consider classes outside of my comfort zone. I looked over the course catalog once more and contacted Prof. Kerekes to learn more about her class.

When I found out that Buddhist economics offers a more profound, experiential exploration of the subject matter than a traditional lecture or seminar, my sentiment toward the class changed dramatically: a sense of trepidation transformed into one of enthusiasm. This course offered greater practicality than more “traditional” courses, such as political theory or statistics. It would help me grow as a person and gain wisdom through a multi-faceted approach, teaching insightfulness toward myself and toward that which exists around me. 

Over the course of the semester, Buddhist economics presented many surprises. One was how enjoyable I found shifting to an “offline” mindset. Notably, I experienced this when I created a personal journal and wrote in it, drew pictures of photographs at the Williams College Museum of Art, and engaged in a month-long social media cleanse. Performing tasks by hand provided a sense of simplicity and a presence of mind that was much more satisfying than the mindset I found myself with when completing assignments electronically. Sitting behind a computer, the temptation to open a new tab, to browse social media, and to procrastinate was much stronger; my mind would wander and with it would go any semblance of mindfulness. Completing tasks by hand and resisting the urge to turn to social media when I felt bored or uncomfortable forced me to live in the moment and simply be with myself and my mind.

My relationship with social media changed greatly over the semester. A month of abstinence provided me with fresh insights into how social media can be carefully used as a tool to increase my contentment, or, unchecked, can become a hindrance and decrease my satisfaction in life. Social media, in fact, does not need to be checked and rechecked as often as I felt compelled to do so; I missed out on practically nothing during my month-long detox. I stayed just as connected—if not even more so—with my friends during this period. It laid bare the fact that much of what I viewed on social media provided only a fleeting sense of immediate satisfaction followed by a lasting, subliminal discontent. A great amount of what I viewed was superficial—it didn’t add to my life and provided nothing but mindless distraction. 

Phoning friends every couple of weeks and modifying my social media habits to use apps such as Instagram and Snapchat as tools proved to be a far more satisfying way to maintain connections and keep in touch. Today, my social media habits, while not nonexistent, have dramatically altered. Previously, I followed hundreds of people whose faces I knew only from their profile pictures and whose photos I was not especially interested in seeing; I followed them only because they had followed me. I unfollowed all of these people, cleaning out my feed to leave behind only the small number of close friends I care about. With much less content in my feed, the ratio of valuable to superficial content improved considerably. I am able to use Instagram as a tool to maintain connections and see what’s going on in my friend’s lives on a more “micro” scale than that which we talk about on the phone every couple of weeks. These calls remain my priority—I find them far more meaningful than interacting over social media—but carefully controlled social media use proves to be complementary.

Buddhist economics enhanced my meditation practice. In particular, I am working on shifting from guided to unguided meditations, and I continue to enjoy finding a “flow” state in runs, where I am one with my body and nature, allowing my mind to escape the endless trains of thought it normally rides.

The focus on cetanā (Pali: volition) in Buddhist economics led me to more closely examine my intentions. I often find myself reflecting on my underlying motivations. I’ve learned to recognize the distinction between acting for personal gain, resulting in a karmically poor outcome influenced by greed, and doing that same action with the kusala (wholesome) objective of helping someone else, creating a karmically prosperous outcome. 

This class has led me to rethink my career path and question whether law and politics are fields I want to work in; perhaps there are better ways to help others. Both of these fields offer high salaries, but they also rest on, at times, making ethically poor decisions. It may be that I would take greater satisfaction from work that involves helping more people more directly—as a teacher, firefighter, or social worker—albeit without making as much money. Money, as this class emphasizes, does not lead to contentment.

I’ve learned that adopting new habits is best done by attacking the roots of the problem. I remember suggesting to Prof. Kerekes that it would be an interesting experiment to delete everything on my phone except for calling, texting, the camera, and some other very basic applications, with the aim of using my phone less. Prof. Kerekes reminded me that this would not address the underlying delusions driving me to pick up my phone rather than sitting with my thoughts. Forcing oneself to avoid constantly picking up one’s phone without deleting or blocking social media or other apps may be a far greater challenge, but doing so successfully yields much greater benefits and concrete, long-term change. This is a concept that I apply to many areas of my life as I build new habits.

The unique pedagogical experience of this course was what made it so powerful. Given that so many practices of Buddhism and Buddhist economics are just that—practices, designed to be implemented in one’s everyday life—the importance of being able to carry out those practices and share the experience and knowledge gained from them cannot be overstated. These were my favorite parts of this course. In fact, this is one of the most useful courses I’ve taken at Williams because I gained insights that are universally applicable to my life and studies outside of the classroom and academia. Whether it is developing mindfulness, reducing screen time, learning to investigate the roots of a problem, considering how our actions affect those far away from us, or being aware of the intentions driving our actions, this course gave me a toolbox chock-full of tools that I can use on a daily basis. Few other classes can offer the same; it is this that makes Buddhist economics profoundly special, and, above all, practical.

Will Titus wrote this essay for his course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Will is a member of the class of 2023, and is studying political economy. He runs cross-country, is a firefighter and an EMT, and loves his cat, Shebah.

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