I’m Back! To the Beginning…

Hey everybody!  Sorry to disappear like that.  Between the beautiful visit with family and friends in Cali, returning to an almost palpable sense of community in Cambridge, adventuring in DC/Maryland for the inauguration, working for one final 40-hour week, and now packing up to move to Spain in four days, it’s been…busy.

And while the experiences have been amazing (a few even historic), amidst the travel I somehow slipped deep into my own mind.  There’s been a shortage of direct, calm, open experiencing and an overabundance of thinking.  It’s a common problem for me, one that manifests in cycles of anxiety so subtle and slow-building that one day, without warning, I break down crying over dry cleaning or a rotten lemon.

This morning, when I sat down to meditate for half an hour, I only made it for three minutes.

But here’s what I wanted to share about these brooding cycles of mine: they come and go.  Typically peaking twice a year: once in the summer, and once in the winter, after the new year.  And while the faithful regressions may frustrate the logic of linear progression (experience yields greater efficiency; age yields greater wisdom), they also offer something very valuable, which is a chance to practice starting at the beginning.  For the past few years, every major breakdown, once it passed, left me feeling radiant — almost newly born.  Ready to start again.

The beginner’s mind is a concept I’ve been wanting to write to y’all about for weeks.  One of the most helpful essays I read last year (and possibly ever) was Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”  Indulge me for a minute while I quote it extensively.  Then there will be some pretty pictures!

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.”  The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.  Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once.  It might be a very good recitation.  But what would happen if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more?  You might easily lose your original attitude towards it.  The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices.  For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

Now, I know that for some of us, bouncing around from new thing to new thing is our modus oh-lordy: a mind captivated by distractions and, therefore, beginnings.  Ooh this! — Now that! — Hey, how ’bout this thing over here?!  But the beginner’s mind is different in a couple of ways.  One, it implies intention.  We are deliberately setting out as beginners in an undertaking that we consider worthwhile.  We might be real novices at it; we might have been working at it for most of our lives.  Whatever it is, we choose it — it doesn’t choose us.  It doesn’t seduce us.  Secondly, whereas a lot of folks I know judge themselves harshly for being distractable (I can’t focus; I’m unreliable; I’m irresponsible), the beginner’s mind is free of judgment.  After all, you’re just a beginner!  We give it our best shot, and then we move on to what comes next.  We feel excited, engaged, buoyant — not worried about who’s watching, or whether we’ll mess up.  We’re beginning, and it feels fresh and spacious.

When we let go of pride and perfectionism, then we are open to new information, new experiences, and new directions.  Suzuki writes,

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind.  When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners.  Then we can really learn something.  The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion.  When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. . .Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

Of course, the beginner’s mind doesn’t apply exclusively to Zen Buddhism, or spiritual practices in general.  We could just as easily say, “When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. . .Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually [live].”

Well, friends, now it’s back to packing, and stressing, and packing some more.  But just by sharing this idea, contemplating it, I’ve begun to relax.  And when I relax, I can marvel.  So here are some snapshots of a few of the marvelous things that have happened since California…




Update: photo tech’s not co-operating; see here for more marvels!

One thought on “I’m Back! To the Beginning…

  1. kkrahel January 30, 2009 / 12:59 pm


    I just found that you are blogging here (from FB…).

    Oh, Katie!

    Also, thanks for linking to my blog. I have been updating a different site more often now, newsblogging.wordpress.com.

    I can’t believe you are leaving so soon! I will miss you very much. No promises, but I might appear in Boston before Wednesday…!

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