Decades ago (you'd be surprised), my mother gifted me the book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki. As a middle aged adolescent, still endowed with infinite growth capacity for abstract thought, the book rocked my world. At this pivotal age, while my friends were absorbed in quite 'different' activities, I was fascinated, riveted and curious beyond words; filled with an insatiable appetite for these philosophical explorations.
While I can't recall exactly how I was experiencing the book at that age, it made an undeniable impression. The phrase Beginner's Mind has echoed through the many decades, constantly reminding me to stay supple in all ways. And thus, as we enter a new year, Beginner's Mind is our topic of exploration for January. I'll be weaving in related conversation points like forgiveness, ego, wonder, what is 'real,' innocence and more throughout practices. If you're inclined, please pick up the book to read along throughout the month.
“Sometimes, you just have to start all over differently.” ― Bernard Kelvin Clive
What is ‘Beginner's Mind?’
Beginner’s mind is an absolute freedom that can sweep through every micro-moment, presenting the unique opportunity to consider, and then reconsider, how we interact with the world at large and ultimately our own mind without any preconceived thoughts to alter the experience. Is that possible? Yes. In the most miniscule sliver of time, with patience and persistence, we can retrain the mind to see everything anew, a brave new way of existing where all things do become possible. Is it easy? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends.
There's a whole lot of 'stuff' that gets in the way. Yogis and sages of old would call this 'stuff' our samskaras, or the residue of our past thoughts, actions and deeds that create habitual patterns, ways of doing and conditioning that bind us to previous experiences. Basically, everything (EVERYTHING) that came before leaves an imprint on our mind and influences how we experience reality. Here's a simple example to make this crystal clear. Let's say you eat something once that makes you sick, let’s just say it was a mango that had gotten a little too ripe. Now, every time you see a mango, or even think of one, it will conjure up that memory and then make you resistant to trying a mango again. Meanwhile, if you could somehow erase that story, that imprint, you could then give yourself the freedom to lay on a hammock with a juicy, organic fresh mango experiencing the sensational bliss as if for the first time.
Now let’s go deeper and see how these past experiences could hold us back. Perhaps as a child, at some point some ‘adult’ said you shouldn’t sing because your voice wasn’t ‘good.’ At this point, you’ve carried that story around with you forever and let it even be reinforced over and over. But wait! You could, with patience and persistence, unravel that story, take singing lessons and courageously develop your voice to sing out and let it shine. Do you see how previous experiences can color current ones? It’s as if we wear glasses with tinted lenses and are missing the full spectrum of light pouring in – the real beauty of infinite opportunity in front of us. What a shame!
Some would even say that these thought residues are carried with us from previous lives! So how do we empty these imprints out and make space to see anew? How do we start to fumble through the dark recesses of the mind and root out what no longer serves? We burn them out with the fire of yoga that helps us cut through the mind ‘stuff’ to see what is real and to see our true nature. We practice. We build this like a muscle over time. We develop razor sharp discernment to notice the tricks the mind plays, the stories it latches onto, the fears and insecurities that grip us and slowly start to choose a different way of relating to the world, and our thoughts.
Let’s talk about forgiveness. Are you familiar with the term ‘grudge’ or ‘resentment?’ Yes, me too. Ugly mind residue that keeps us so small and tightly held that we hold ourselves back from loving more deeply, embracing more openly and experiencing more enthusiastically. When we hold on desperately to our stories of what has ‘happened’ to us then we start to restrict and tighten up to a point where we see the whole world as out to get us, where nothing will go our way and where there’s hardly any room for joy. Grudges and resentment are miserable ways to exist. Forgiveness is the antidote. I’m not saying it’s easy to forgive, dear God I’m not, however I’m encouraging the importance of working through it before your last, final exhale. It will keep you from seeing the twinkle in the eyes of someone new, the delicate wonder of life itself. Can you see how this residue would keep you from seeing everything as brand new? Sometimes our past suffering is what we hold onto most, letting it define and reinforce who we ‘think’ we are. Which brings us to our next point of exploration.
Ego. This one gets a bad rap sometimes, even though it has it’s important role. Let’s look at how it can hold us back from the beginner’s mind. I know this one all too well. For years I’ve held myself in various iterations as the musician, the rapper, the yogi, the surfer, the teacher, the vegetarian, the guy who lived on a sailboat, the professional, etc. All of these ‘labels’ may be beautiful, even admirable, but if the pride of maintaining them may hold me back for one second from being the child, the sculptor, the artist, the dancer, the chef, the curious human, the [insert anything] in the next moment, then I’ve held myself back from a new experience that could have brought boundless joy, learning and deep absorption into life itself – which is spiritual awakening. What labels are you constantly trying to uphold that keep you from being something or someone else in the next moment? Can you see how this impedes spontaneity and possibility? Throughout my journey I’ve made conscious choices to completely let go of who I was just so I could begin again. There have been many iterations, and I hope many more will come. A beginner’s mind.
“As long as you're still alive, you always have the chance to start again.” ― Emily Acker
All of this simply points to staying in the seat of wonder and curiosity. We could spend our entire lives hiding in fear, at the whim of mind ‘stuff’, looping back over past regressions and ultimately missing the gift of this world: to behold the absolute beauty and harmony around us, that is us. My hope is that through practice and developing self awareness we can begin to notice our samskaras and how they keep us from seeing the world as infinitely possible. This is the beginner’s mind. This is how to stay free. This is how to stay present and in love with life. Sounds good to me. Pick up the book if you’d like, or simply practice along. We’ll try to empty out what no longer serves as we begin over and over again.