40 Days: In Defense of Beginners

Do not say “It is morning,” and dismiss it with a name of yesterday. See it for the first time as a new-born child that has no name.

                                          -Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds


Quite a few years ago, somebody gave me a book Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  The book has survived at least three book purges, and it is slated to survive the next one.  I nibble on the concepts in this book from time to time, quite a few of which do not translate at all from Suzuki’s mind into my own.  But I can rally around at least one of Suzuki’s concepts, the importance of the beginner’s mind.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

One of the biggest challenges of being present is seeing the world as it is without the ghost of the past rising up to cloud the present with assumptions, in other words, constantly experiencing life with a beginner’s mind.   Being open-minded and willing to learn from reality as it happens is not easy.  I have noticed that a sense of wonder can cue humility, and all true learning happens when a person understands that not only are there many things that she doesn’t know,  she is also grateful that there are so many things that she doesn’t know.

Neurologically, there truly are many possibilities in the beginner’s mind: infinite possibilities of connections of neurons that can fuse together.  Once the neurons create a pathway, it’s much easier to do certain tasks, but it becomes much harder to wander off the pathway.  Like how, when I’m not paying attention to my actual destination, I will automatically drive myself to work.

“So, the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

I am still in the first week of my 40 days of yoga, the week of presence, so I have been challenging myself to have a beginner’s mind. Here are some ways that I’ve been cultivating my own beginner’s mind.

Asking “how” questions.

When my sense of wonder goes dormant, exploring the answers to how questions wakes it up again.   Some of the things I have been wondering include, but are not limited to:

  • How does movement happen in the body?  
  • How do changes in sentence structure affect the experience of readers?
  • How do people heal from grief?
  • How does learning actually happen in the brain?
  • What are the mechanics of baking bread?

Seeing things in a new way.

I find it easier to learn how to see things in a new way when the object being viewed is constantly changing.  Looking at the sky every morning, for example, and conscientiously noticing the changes.  Or maybe watching a beta fish.

It’s also possible to learn how other people see the world and try to incorporate their eyes into your own perspective.  This is what Alexandra Horowitz did in her book On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation.

Trying to conscientiously taste coffee in the morning.

The yoga teachers are always pontificating about paying attention to the breath because the breath connects the mind to the body.  I would argue that paying attention to the taste of food is as important as paying attention to breath.  And it can be very difficult to pay attention to the taste of food.

A luxurious, idealized cup of coffee, that is so difficult to realize in daily life. Especially on a weekday.

I remember a story I heard about a monk who took one hour to eat a grape in order to experience that grape to the fullest.  Instead of the whole meditation dimension of the 40 days program, I have been challenging myself to take 20 minutes in the morning to taste my coffee and only taste my coffee.  And, tasting coffee with the mind of a beginner is really the most difficult thing.  Even for a person like myself who has been known to go into raptures about coffee drinking and production.  Life happens, and life is never happening as insistently as  on a weekday morning at 6:15.

Beginner ballet mind. Photo credit: http://duduadudua.blogspot.com.es/

Actually Becoming a Beginner

Just because I am no longer a beginner at yoga, doesn’t mean that I can’t be a true beginner at something.  I signed up for an Introduction to Ballet class at a local studio at the beginning of January.  Since my classes overlap with the 40 days of yoga, my Tuesday night ballet class has become part of my 40 days of yoga.  I am definitely a beginner at ballet.  It’s exciting and silly, and it gives me the opportunity to laugh at myself.  And it’s new.  Beginnings are fun because beginners always get to learn the most.

Medellín, The Land of Coffee

“Coffee was considered a medicine.  It was prescribed for tuberculosis, smallpox, scurvy, dropsy, and eye inflammation. But doctors warned their patients never to drink their coffee with milk because the mixture was believed to cause leprosy.”

-translated from a blog entry from El Laboratorio de Café, which was translated from Heinrich Eduard Jacob’s Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, 1935

This Christmas, I am visiting familia in the land of coffee, the Antioquia region of Colombia.  They don’t mess around with local food around here, and coffee is taken seriously around these parts.  Coffee thrives here in this mountainous climate so close the equator.  The weather fluctuates between 60 and 80 degrees all year long.  El Laboratorio de Café is one of the most serious local coffee peddlers.

Coffee growing country.

I drink a lot of coffee these days.  At home, I have a stovetop Italian-style espresso maker that makes six cups of espresso at one go.  And these days, I drink it with milk.  Milk and coffee is a new thing for me, mostly because of the Southern-style, Mississippi girl machismo that I’ve been carrying around most of my life.  When I compromised by inner coffee toughness, I wasn’t aiming to usher leprosy into my life and body.  My Italian teacher mentioned that milk helps the stomach handle the acidity of coffee.  Also, milk tastes good in coffee.

Even with milk, six shots of espresso in a morning is pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.  I go through coffee-drinking ritual phases that fluctuate in response the the seasons of the year.  In the summers, I taper off my coffee drinking.  The sun is a good substitute for caffeine, and I don’t have any students to unjustly bear the effects of caffeine withdrawal headaches.  But, come winter time, when the sun seems gone forever, and the wooden floors are so cold in the dark, dark morning, and all I want out of life is to sleep the days away until the sun comes back, then I switch back to six shot Italian espresso maker from the relatively benign summertime French press.


Some kind of steampunk cold brew coffee-making contraption at El Laboratorio de Café

I prefer my espresso maker and my French press.  My methods of coffee brewing are the methods that give me oily, thick coffee.

I bought two pounds of Antioquia coffee from El Laboratorio:  Finca los Naranjos and Variedad Blue Mountain Special Reserve.  On the back of each type of coffee is lots and lots of information about the types of coffee.

I drank coffee prepared in a siphon for the first time in El Laboratorio de Café, even though there are multiple hipster locals around Houston that serve coffee in siphons.

Let’s start with the Finca los Naranjas.  This coffee comes from the Caicedo area within the Antioquia region.  It won 1st place in the Best Cup of Coffee Competition of 2014.  The trillado date for my coffee was December 9, 2016.  My brother explained trillado- it’s the process of separating the dried green coffee beans from their papery sheath.  We call this the hulling process.  Medium acid, intense body, and an aroma of sugar cane and intense chocolate. The flavor is honey, fruit, and brown sugar.  It’s a mix of 80% Caturra coffee and 20% Bourbon.   The coffee process was fermentation, plus water, plus sun.  We call this “wet process.”  The beans were grown at an altitude of 1830 meters above sea level, or 6000 feet.  My coffee is the November 2016 harvest, and it was roasted on December 15, 2016.  I bought it on December 24, 2016.  I should drink it before June 15, 2017, which I don’t anticipate being a problem.  When you drink six cups of espresso every morning for breakfast, you go through some coffee.

The Variedad Blue Mountain Reserva Especial comes from Valparaíso, Antioquia.  It was honey processed instead of wet processed, which has an impact on the amount of acidity.  The honey process results in less acid than the wet process, and El Laboratorio de Café describes the acidity level as “milky.”  Medium bodied, with an aroma of fruit, honey, and brown sugar, and a flavor of red fruit.  It was grown at 1800 meters above sea level, or 5905 feet on the Jardin Real Finca, which is an experimental farm that partners with El Laboratorio.  Blue Mountain coffee, usually the expensive darling of Jamaican tourists, isn’t typically grown in Colombia.  My coffee is the May 2016 harvest, hulled on December 2nd and roasted on December 13th.

I remember a snippet from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis from my childhood.  The Prince is underneath the earth and the dwarfs who live underground and harvest jewels stop him as he is escaping back onto the right side of the dirt.  The tell him to wait, that they can show him what real living diamonds and rubies taste like.  The things that we know to be diamonds and rubies are only the cast-off shells of the living fruits of the earth.  And the Prince is tempted by the prospect of tasting and drinking living rubies and diamonds.

Another steampunk coffee contraption, only this one is over 100 years old.

I keep a mental inventory of the foods that I tasted fresh for the first time, and it felt like I was tasting the living thing.  The first time I tasted fresh olive oil, the first time I tasted fresh green beans, the first time I tasted fresh grapefruit juice, and now this coffee, here in Antioquia.  Coffee here is more alive than other places, even places with a hard and fast coffee-drinking culture, like France and Italy.  Here, there is so much more variety and the drink is connected to the crop.  You can taste the freshness in the coffee.  It tastes alive, and it makes other coffee taste stale, like the cast-off shells of the real coffee.

The milk comes in this bag with this person’s mustachioed face.

And, as a post-script, I’d like to mention that the coffee isn’t the only thing that has been redefined for me as a more alive taste.  The milk is more alive here, and it makes the phantom threat of leprosy worth it.  It comes in plastic bags, and it smells like no other milk I’ve ever smelled, which is to say, the milk here actually has a smell. I can taste the mountain grass eaten by the Colombian cows when I drink this milk. 

Santa Elena, Colombia

On the ride from the airport in Medellín to the finca in Santa Elena, my brother, Josh, pointed out a restaurant on the side of the road.  “I ate there last night,” he said.  “It was pretty good.  Everything I ate came from around here.  And I mean around here.”  He made a circular motion with his pointer finger.  “All these places serve local food, and they don’t advertise it or anything, it’s just the way things are around here.  The food is real simple though.  Not what you’d call imaginative cuisine.”

Patatas Criollas.

“What’d you eat?”

“Chicken with mushrooms, a green salad, and french fries.”

“Was the chicken local?”


“And the mushrooms?”

“I don’t know, but the potatoes were.  I saw them hanging from the ceiling.”

Uchuvas, blackberries, and strawberries.

The locally grown potatoes are small, waxy, yellow potatoes known as patatas criollas.  Santa Elena is 2000 meters above sea level.  Strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries grow here, but they are unlike our strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries.  The blueberries are called mortiños, and they taste like a cranberry-ish blueberry.  Lalo is another local fruit, and uchuvas.  And coffee.  The best Colombian coffee grows here, in the Antioquia region of Colombia.


This is coffee growing country.  Behind the finca, there is a slope that drops away, revealing layers of mountain.  The farther away the mountain, the bluer the mountain gets and the less visible detail.

I remember that lyric, “Everything looks perfect from far away,” from “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service.  Now, after getting to know these mountains, I know that I disagree.  Everything looks smoother from far away and the distance forces the eye to see the form instead of the details.  The farthest parts of the mountain are barely distinguishable from the sky.  Here, the clouds touch the land and run through the valleys.  These mountains respond to the sky.

Bandeja paisa is a typical dish around these parts.  Mine had beans, white rice, fried egg, chorizo, chicharron, and a salad.