Are We Free From a Fixed Mindset?

A Monarch butterfly visited me on my run in the park.

I have recently been thinking a lot about something called “fixed mindset.” In her audiobook, Walking the Walk, Pema Chodron discusses the attitude of this state of being, which is characterized by closed- or narrow-mindedness, absolute thinking, judgment, a sense of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and ultimately an inherent inability to be present in a meaningful way.

So what about the opposite, what she calls “freedom from fixed mind?” Well, this is an attitude of openness, open-heartedness, ease, curiosity, generosity, and kindness. Pema states that this freedom can emerge as much from quiet moments of experiencing beauty as it can from trauma–times when we’re suddenly caught off guard, scared, worried, or surprised by something troubling.

This is what I wanted to reflect on here. I can, for example, recall with great precision the moment Sean was diagnosed. I remember the events leading up to it, as well as the arrow to the heart, so to speak, when the ER doc told me from across Sean’s bed, rather matter-of-factly, that he had to be transferred immediately to another hospital. Of course, this was just the beginning of a long journey, comprised of many large and intricate parts. Many of these elements are still influencing our lives today.

What I came to understand and for which I now have specific language, is that it was in fact this trauma that invited me, launched me, into “freedom from fixed mind.” Just as encountering a beautiful butterfly on a walk (which just happened to me yesterday) can capture our attention for a few moments and focus us into presence of mind, so can suffering do the same. Of course, the thoughts are usually dissimilar, as are the initial emotions. At the moment of the onset of suffering, there is most likely acute pain. But as we become more practiced at consciously witnessing the ebbing and flowing of our feelings, we can actually experience and evening-out, an opening, of these emotions, which translates into freedom, loosening of constriction, and even curiosity and kindness.

It is in this space, as we’re sitting at the bedside of our child, waiting for a test result, or even driving to the hospital for treatment, that it is possible to detach from the clenching, choose to breathe into the “trenpa,” or presence of mind, and find the spaciousness within us, which quite literally allows us to connect to the love and goodness around us.

In other words, the energy of loving-kindness flows from us outwards, touching others, and inviting them to experience this freedom themselves. If we choose, we can become the initial drop in the still water that creates ripples of goodness and wonder and love. We, even in our pain, can become a conduit of wholeness and possibility.

Does any of this resonate with you? How do you feel about the idea of freedom from fixed mind?

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