By Carol Russell
Delivered as a Dharma talk July 9, 2019
There is a well-known saying: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
We admire those who are experts, accomplished in their field, who have spent many years honing a skill or knowledge of their subject, who break new ground in creativity or research or scholarship or athletic ability or spiritual wisdom. And they deserve our admiration. We seek guidance and inspiration from such accomplished people.
Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way. The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
Clearly every one of us is pretty good at a few things, maybe even an expert. We began at the beginning, knowing nothing. ‘The steps to maturity are necessarily immature’, says Richard Rohr. And yet sometimes there is a resistance to being a beginner. Maybe resistance comes as we age. We are more willing to be a beginner when we are kids.
Maybe it’s cultural. There is a pressure in our society to know the answer. Stephen Jenkinson, in his book, Die Wise, writes that our culture suffers from an addiction to competence, and that this addiction is “part of the inheritance from our hard-scrabble immigrant beginnings on this continent, rooted in self-reliance, mastery over the environment around us, autonomy. It is the shadow side of our convictions about limitless possibility and ‘be all you can be.’”
Alvin Toffler said, The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
Here is one definition of beginner’s mind, from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.
Such a juicy definition…such an intriguing collection of phrases: Empty, accepting, doubting, open to all the possibilities.
“The kind of mind which can see things as they are…” If you have a mindfulness practice, I imagine you know what it is like to come into the awareness of beginner’s mind: the open spaciousness of the present moment, the beginning of freedom from habitual reactivity and judgment. Neuroscience says we have a neural network for everything we do, and our environment triggers those networks. We are creatures of habits. Our brains and bodies love the familiar. It’s one way we maintain our identity. I once heard a talk by Will Duncan where he described this continual maintenance as reification or thingifying, making ourselves and our world defined and concrete. Every morning we wake up and reify our world.
Beginner’s mind is that state when we are free of the unconscious descriptive mind and unconscious patterns of activity. It’s not that our disturbances disappear or our self dissolves. We are simply observing it all. Things are not so solid. That state is available to us anytime. We simply step back into awareness and experience our life as it is right now. Anytime. Right now.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.” So how do we cultivate our openness, our fluidity, our willingness to stay at our edge where we don’t know, where we are a beginner, where the possibilities lie? How do we retain beginner’s mind?
As I said earlier, neuroscience shows we like the familiar. We are wired to develop habitual behaviors and patterns of thought. In fact, of the 70,000 thoughts we have in a day something like 90% are the same as yesterday’s thoughts. Wash, rinse, repeat. We are comfortable in the known. And I’m not saying being comfortable in the known is a bad thing. Reflecting on the lasting goodness in your life is a wholesome practice. Rick Hanson writes:
All around, and under our noses, so many good things last. Recognizing them lifts the heart, and enjoying them for at least a few seconds in a row helps turn passing experiences into lasting psychological resources woven into your own brain.
As our mindfulness practice teaches us, life itself is ever-changing. Most of us will encounter the experience of life shaking us up, usually from loss or unexpected change, sometimes in very big and painful ways, sometimes in more subtle shifts. Life seems to unfold in a series of ups and downs, comfortable times followed by difficulties, endings followed by beginnings.
Paul Ricoeur describes this as a repeating process of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Orientation is the stage of belief and certainty, disorientation is the stage of doubt and loss of meaning, and reorientation is the stage of faith.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan elder, describes similar stages. He writes:
If you are not trained in a trust of both love and mystery, and also some ability to hold anxiety and paradox, all of which allow the divine entry into the soul, you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. In fact, you will often run back to stage one (Orientation) when the going gets rough in stage two (Disorientation). The great weakness of much Western spirituality is that there is little understanding of the necessity of darkness and “not knowing” (which is the transformative alchemy of faith). This is what keeps so much religion at stage one.
Perhaps these moments of disorientation are a very good opportunity to cultivate beginner’s mind. These moments are life itself inviting us to let something new be born, to enter a world of possibilities. The path of descent is the path of transformation.
In her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Chapter 1, Pema Chodron writes:
Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all others behind. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape.
One the journey of the warrior-bodhisattva, the path goes down, not up, as if the mountain pointed toward the earth instead of the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward turbulence and doubt however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover healing water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is our heart—our wounded, softened heart. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. This love is bodhichitta. It is gentle and warm: it is clear and sharp: it is open and spacious. The awakened heart of bodhichitta is the basic goodness of all things.
In my experience these moments of not-knowing, of descent, of groundlessness, can be accompanied by discomfort and confusion and the last thing my brain wants to do is let go into disorientation. It wants to get ground as quickly as possible, swim back to shore, so it is crucial at these times, as it is always, to cultivate loving-kindness towards myself. Loving-kindness is essential to being open to possibility, and to trust this liminal space.
The elegant truth of impermanence is that this is how life continuously rejuvenates itself. This is true of life on every level: endless endings and new beginnings.
I like to imagine the Buddha as a real human being, rather than an idealized being. I like to imagine that he told jokes and sometimes felt bummed out and wondered if he was a good enough teacher and that he hurt people’s feelings and maybe he apologized and sometimes he just wanted to zone out and all those things we experience as a person on planet earth. From what I know about the story of the Buddha’s life, it looks like he hit a couple of serious periods of disorientation. One happened when he was living with his parents and his wife and baby in the royal compound. As the story goes the young man was protected from seeing any representation of death or decay. When he was unexpectedly confronted with images of illness, old age and death, the horror of it upended his world. He left his whole life behind in order to seek freedom from the reality he saw. He wandered about and eventually entered the life of the ascetic, practicing rigorous meditation and renunciation of worldly pleasure. After six years of this extreme self-discipline he hit another shake up, when he realized what he was doing was not giving him what he sought. Once again he left his whole life behind.
In both instances it seems the Buddha was shaken to the core, and entered a deep and complete surrender to not-knowing, to becoming a beginner again, to not trying to recreate anything. There is the cycle of orientation, disorientation, reorientation. Knowing, not-knowing, faith. Faith becoming knowing, and around again. Each time the Buddha came closer to the freedom he was seeking.
In our everyday mindfulness practice we find the freshness of this moment just as it is. Beginner’s mind is the refuge we are seeking amidst the ever-changing river of experience. Open-hearted present-moment awareness is available to us any time we remember to awaken, both on and off the cushion. Think of is as a fundamental quality of being human. Think of it as coming home.
The simple state of awareness holds a powerful potential to change us. Thich Nhat Hanh says: We will see how our fears and lack of peace contribute to our unhappiness, and we will see the value of loving ourselves and cultivating a heart of compassion.
This is the power of seeing ourselves just as we are that the Buddha discovered for himself. As we see clearly how our very human habits of thinking and behavior cause us pain, we will develop compassionate insight into our nature, and we will naturally change, like pulling our hand from a hot stove.
Whether the invitation to beginner’s mind comes from life changes or when we awaken to simple presence in our day, may we relax - relax! and let be. May we be gentle and kind with ourselves and nurture self-compassion, joy, love, and gratitude, which are essential to changing our brains and to changing our lives.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission