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How Keeping a Zen Mind Can Save a Relationship

Rushing to judgment about another may only hurt yourself.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Three Zen masters—one from Korea, one from Vietnam, and one from the United States—have offered powerful teachings to keep us from rushing to judgment about others, teachings that can save a relationship.

Korean Zen master Seung Sahn liked to instruct his students to keep a Don't-Know Mind so that they wouldn't cling to their fixed ideas about the world and about people. He said: "If you keep a Don't-Know Mind, then your mind is clear like space and clear like a mirror."

Master Seung Sahn came to the United States in 1972 and settled in Providence, Rhode Island where he repaired washing machines for many years, even though he was already a Zen master in Korea. As his English improved, students gathered around him. In 1983, he founded the Kwan-Um School of Zen. By the time of his death in 2004, his schools were all over the world, including Moscow and Tel Aviv.

The internationally known Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers his own gloss on Don't-Know Mind. He encourages us to always ask, "Am I Sure?" before we believe our immediate perceptions. He likes to use the example of how we panic if we see a snake in the dark, but when we shine a light on it, we see that it's only a rope. In fact, he suggests that we write "Am I Sure?" on a piece of paper and tape it to a place where we'll see it often.

Charlotte Joko Beck was a pianist and piano teacher who began Zen practice in her 40s, after raising four children. She founded the Ordinary Mind Zen School. Because she taught her students to work with their emotions as opposed to avoiding them, she attracted many people who were interested in the relationship between Zen and psychology. Several of her Dharma heirs are practicing psychologists and psychiatrists. In her book, Nothing Special, Joko Beck recommended a practice to help us keep an open mind about others:

Whenever we say a person's name, notice whether we have stated more than a fact. For example, the judgment, "she's thoughtless" goes beyond the facts "she said she'd call me and she didn't."

When I first got sick, I rushed to judgment about friends who didn't keep in close touch. I didn't keep a Don't-Know Mind. Neither did I ask "Am I Sure?" before judging their intentions. After years of resentment, I realized I was wrong about those intentions. Whether healthy or sick, all of us are experts at spinning stress-filled stories about others. Mine were along the lines of, "She doesn't care about me now that I'm sick" and Joko Beck's "She's thoughtless."

In truth, you don't know what's going on with other people unless you ask them. A friend may not be in touch because she's having work or family problems. Maybe she thinks she'd be disturbing you. Maybe she's uncomfortable around illness. Maybe he has medical problems of his own.

How would you know if you don't ask? Maybe it is time to let a relationship go and move on, but before you do, consider reaching out to whoever is disappointing you. Keep that Don't-Know Mind. Ask "Am I Sure?" Stick to the bare facts ("she didn't call me") before you rush to judgment.

This was a lesson I wish I'd learned before I got sick. One summer, just as I was about to leave town to attend a 10-day meditation retreat, I received an email from the dean at the law school where I was teaching. The subject was my teaching load for Fall semester. I read his words and interpreted them to mean that he was questioning my willingness to teach my fair share.

Instead of sticking to the bare facts in the email, I rushed to the conclusion that I was being negatively judged and so, in turn, judged him negatively. I wish I'd had that piece of paper taped to the wall, asking "Am I Sure?" Then I probably would have contacted the dean before leaving town. Instead, I went to the silent retreat (which turned out to be anything but silent in my poor tortured mind). I spun so many stories about that email, it's embarrassing to recall. I was miserable.

As soon as I got home, I called the dean. It turned out he was concerned that my teaching load was too heavy. When I re-read his email, I could see that it could very well have been interpreted that way. How I could have benefitted from keeping a Don't-Know Mind on that retreat!

Before believing the story you've spun about those who are disappointing you, consider reaching out to them. You need only consider it. It took an illness and some common sense Zen teachings for me to learn how often I'd misjudged the good intentions of friends and colleagues.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of four books:

How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't). Available May 2020

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition) 2018

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon,, and iTunes.

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