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.

40 Days: Presence

Present: of a person, in a particular place; existing or occurring now

Right now, the streets of Houston are flooded, and the students that actually made it to school are telling me stories of alligator gar breeding in front yards and crazy neighbors coming outside in their swimsuits and breast-stroking down streets past submerged stop signs and almost getting hit by kayakers.    The streets were flooded this morning, and the streets are due to be flooded again in an hour or two.  I am between the floods.

This Saturday, my local yoga studio, YogaOne, will be starting their 40 Days to Personal Revolution Program, like they do every January.   Among other things, it’s a challenge to practice yoga every day for 40 days.  The program came from Baron Baptiste’s book 40 Days to Personal Revolution.  Baptiste adopted the time frame from the Kabbalah, as well as other popular religious belief systems.  Word on the mystical street is that it takes 40 days to reorganize and rewire your neurons effectively enough to create a new habit.

I have attempted the 40 days of yoga before- let’s say four or five times before.  At least.  My best attempts have always dropped off in week three, the week of equanimity.  I have started out multiple Januaries of my life failing this first goal and personal test of commitment.  And, in the face of all these past failures, I’m going to try again this year.

Failure doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.  Teaching has taught me that mistakes and failure are the beginning of all true learning.  As long as the classroom environment is on point, that is, as long as the teacher creates a place where mistakes aren’t punished in some kind of horrifyingly public shaming, every mistake becomes a learning opportunity.   And I now know, if no mistakes are being made and no failure is happening, the classroom itself has failed because no learning is happening.  Learning happens when a person increases her ability to do or understand a thing, and with newness comes failure.

The first week of the 40 days focuses on presence.  Baptiste begins his chapter with an anecdote from the life of Buddha.

Someone once asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?”

“No,” he replied.

“Are you a saint?”

“No.”

“Then what are you?” they asked.

“Awake.”

There are dangers in being awake.  When you are awake, you don’t get to shut out the existence of the person on the other side of your car window begging you for money.  You don’t get to shut off the news when the mangled pictures of Syrian refugee children show up on the screen.  You don’t get to pretend that your t-shirt wasn’t put together by a person.  You don’t get to hide from the horrible existence that a chicken went through before it became a part of your flesh.  And, I’ve read Kate Chopin.  Waking up slowly seems to be the order of the day.

I’m going to start by tasting and eating some radishes.  I’ve known these radishes since they were seeds in a $.33 packet from the Dollar Store.  I planted them in dirt in a terra cotta pot, and they have lived through Houston winter.  The leaves suffered some from the wild swings in the weather, but they are still alive.  And now I will harvest and eat them.

There is a kind of humility that comes with presence, with struggling to realize that you are one person in a vast sea of people alive at one time in a vast universe of time.  And there is a kind of humility that comes with eating radishes.  I will dig up these radishes, and I will clean these radishes, and learn, or remember, that my physical body is sustained by my food, and everything I eat ultimately comes from the dirt and the sun.  And the rain.