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Embrace the Beginner’s Mind

Embrace the Beginner’s Mind

We live in the Age of Authority where the highest value is placed on expertise, being know-it-alls, and masters of the universe. In this era of achievement obsession, great emphasis is placed on knowledge over wisdom and on information over truth. We look down our noses at amateurs, feel judged when others call us a “beginner”, and view starting over as a form of failure.

Yet, life is a never-ending series of stops and starts, expansion and shrinkage, progress and regress, venturing forward full of hope and falling back in perplexity. In spite of our longing for fixed outcomes, we know that existence is two-steps-forward-one-step-back and that uncertainty rules this realm. We’re also aware, if we are honest, that persevering in spite of setbacks, and starting again when we have been stopped, is precisely what tests our mettle as human beings. In Samuel Beckett’s famous words, “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” This declaration of hopeless hope mirrors our struggle as imperfect creatures on an imperfect planet, wired to strive for more experience and hunger after more life.

Even when we’re knocked to the ground and stripped of the will to go on, when the odds of succeeding are piled against us, when we look behind at our mountains of failure and wonder why we bother proceeding in a world where nothing lasts forever; even then, in the toughest of times, a mysterious spirit will rise up to save us, reminding us that life is for the living and that we owe it to ourselves to keep moving forward, to not give up, to not waste this precious incarnation.

There’s a beautiful poem by Stan Rice that captures this primal experience. “I was lost,” Rice begins,

and sang my broken down songs in
the hell of the hour.
Then in my heart moved an oar,
And I was found by a breeze from a
Door in the sea of forms
And I was rowed to the cherry trees
On the shore.
Selah Selah

In moments of darkness when all may seem lost, we’re saved by this miraculous oar that rows us toward the beauty of life, for no other reason than it is there. The inexplicable will to live, to taste existence even when it’s bitter, is our sacred mandate. This echoes Mallory’s classic response on being asked, “Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?” “Because it’s there,” he said, simply. In our daily lives, the impulse to restart our journey—again and again, in all kinds of weather—mirrors this eternal sentiment. Why do we continue to strive for our dreams? Why do we keep struggling on the path of joy? Why do we rise from our figurative ashes—over and over, in spite of the damage—and continue flying toward the light? Because we can. Because life is short. And because it is there.

This power to begin again is a cornerstone of many spiritual traditions, from the homespun Christian wisdom of William Hickson (“If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again”), to ancient Vedanta (“Take it back to its starting place—the mind—again and again”), to Zen Buddhism (“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”) In fact, all spiritual practice calls on the ability to meet each present moment of life anew, with fresh eyes and a tender heart; to “be here now,” as Ram Dass teaches, engaging intimately with our lives in an attitude of surrender and openness; courage, too, and enlightened desire. As my friend Sharon Salzberg likes to say about meditation, “Each time we remember that we have forgotten—that our attention has strayed—is a moment of enlightenment.” On the cushion and off, this principle is all important. Each time we begin again, leaving the past and its regrets behind, that is a moment of awakening. The more we practice starting over, the more resilient, creative, and empowered we become. We see risk and failure as enlightening steps rather than mistakes to be avoided. We dive into the stream of life and stop clutching, endlessly, at the shore.

So ask yourself, how do you respond to starting over? To the idea of being, forever, a beginner? Do you view each day as a fresh start, an opportunity to wake up, savor your life, experiment, explore, and grow? Or do you see your life as a kind of “Groundhog Day,” with each day blurring into the next, repeating itself, and locking you into sameness? What is your attitude toward risk and mistake making? Do you wear your losses lightly and wisely or drag them behind you like unwieldy garbage, limiting the present by belly aching over the past? Do you believe in the power of starting over or view this as a childish illusion? How do your feelings about being a beginner affect energy and your morale?

Years ago, I talked to the late great novelist Peter Matthiessen about his Zen practice. “I’ve been sitting for 25 years,” he told me. “I’m just a beginner.” Matthiessen wasn’t being coy or ironic; he wasn’t faking false humility or downplaying his own development. He was stating an undeniable fact about what it means to be a seeker. As seekers, we know that we never arrive. We’re aware that there is always more practice. We’re not trying to be masters of the universe; we much prefer being works in progress. We relish the fact that there’s room to grow. We’re happy just to keep on looking.

Mark Matousek
Mark Matousek

Mark Matousek is the author of two award-winning memoirs, Sex Death, Enlightenment: A True Story (an international bestseller) and The Boy He Left Behind: A Man's Search For His Lost Father (Los Angeles Times Discovery Book), as well as When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living and Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life. A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, Huffington Post, he has contributed to numerous anthologies and publications including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others. A popular lecturer and writing teacher, he is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls. His latest book is Ethical Wisdom for Friends. Join him at http://theseekersforum.com/.