"Nothing will ever be as exciting as it was when we were children." That's what I was thinking the day after Christmas as I sat down to reflect on the excitement of the previous two days. Christmas was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper and the ecstatic squeals of children as they opened their presents. On Christmas Eve, my stepdaughter was so fraught with anticipation that she could hardly sleep. One of my nieces greeted me at the door when I arrived at my parents' house on Christmas morning. "Come see my new doll!" she exclaimed, barely stopping before taking off in the opposite direction to lead me to see her new doll. The unbridled joy of my nieces and stepdaughter made me smile again and again. It also made me feel a bit envious. As I reflected on this the next day, I concluded that nothing is ever as exciting to me as it was when I was a child. But why?
Most of the world's major religious and spiritual traditions talk about approaching life with a childlike mind. It must be the childlike mind that enables the kind of enthusiasm and exhilaration I saw in my nieces and stepdaughter on Christmas. What is it we possess as children that makes this kind of vitality possible? When do we lose it? And why?
After thinking about it, I realized that it is not what a child has but what she does not have that allows her to fully immerse herself in a pleasant experience. As we grow, we develop mental filters that help us to better understand the world we live in but that also inhibit us from fully engaging with the present moment. Included in these mental filters are social and cultural rules about what people should and should not do and what behavior is and is not acceptable. Our sense of self and our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving are also mental filters. Our personal values are mental filters. Even our memories of past experiences serve as mental filters, in that they influence how we perceive and interpret similar experiences in the future. Most importantly, our beliefs are mental filters; this includes beliefs about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.
Mental filters explain why one person reacts positively to a given event while another person has a negative reaction. The events are the same; the interpretations and perceptions are different.
The creation of mental filters, I believe, is an inevitable part of human development. Mental filters serve an essential function in helping us make sense of the world we live in. Without them, we would probably be inundated with information and stimuli from our environment with no way to decide what is important and what isn't. We would quickly become overwhelmed. Still, it is always useful to be aware that we experience the world through our filters and that our perceptions are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality.
How does this relate to having a childlike mind? If we are able to recognize and identify our mental filters, we can begin to look beyond them for brief periods of time. We can be conscious, for example, of our belief that, "Christmas is for the kids." We can then take the time to turn our attention inward, to focus on the sensations that accompany the emotions we are experiencing. We can intentionally observe certain aspects of our environment, mentally describing, for example, the sounds we hear or the smells of Christmas brunch. We do this without judgment. These brief efforts enable us to make complete contact with the present moment without interference from our mental filters. These efforts will allow us to notice and accept the feelings that arise; because we attend to the sensations associated with these feelings, we can briefly bypass the mental filters that might otherwise change our emotions. Small steps like these, repeated over time, will gradually help us to more frequently adopt a childlike mind.