Beginner’s mind

First Graders Understanding

Zen Buddhism promotes “Shoshin, beginner’s mind” as a way to expand awareness. The word “beginner” labels the unskilled novice and it’s assumed that nobody willingly wants to remain in that condition for too long. Beginner is the frustrating process leading up to an established expert ending. Novices are anxious and yearn to flount special advancement. Even First Graders want to write longer words; dazzle each other with arithmetic; and collaborate with their peers on the fantastic inventions they vividly see in their dreamy togetherness. Beginner mind is the mooring cleat you eagerly abandon, darting off to fantastically new territory (rumored). Beginner is the rudimentary stage and we aspire to be the Grand Master – male, female, or non-binary version.

But the beginner mind isn’t merely a youngster’s hat its wearer will inevitably outgrow. It’s a precious sort of mindfulness that allows for possibilities outside standard conventions. It’s an enhanced sensing with all (six) senses. Ellen J.Langer asserts in The Power of Mindful Learning , “To be mindful is to be confident and uncertain”. The apparent impossibility within such a paradox is too swiftly mocked to foster careful consideration. With a beginner’s stare, hum, tap, sniff, yum, and ah, the magnificent immensity of a world incompletely mapped (in fact, “worlds”- pluralized like a vividly painted nesting wood doll) bedazzles the captivated. We don’t know what we don’t know- until we do, and then we’re either a former beginner with pressing adult ambitions or else a humbled old-timer, belatedly realizing that even infants readily see what common sense and science firewall off as fairy tale notions.

It’s not unheard of when a highly accomplished person, with advice from another highly accomplished person, decides to “start over” in order to improve a fundamental technique. I remember a senior in high school named Billy headed to music college and an enviable professional career. He played the trumpet as if he was singing it until a teacher told him he needed to radically adjust how his lips vibrated at the mouthpiece. Instead of sounding like Dizzy Gillespie, he suddenly sounded like a drunk soccer fanatic blowing thru a vuvuzela. His goal and faith was that the temporary frustration would ultimately be worth it. I lost track of Billy but his dedication to artistic excellence set a standard for my remaining years in the high school band I could only pretend to emulate. There is potency in the beginner’s outlook that gets trampled by accomplishment.

Native people presumably represent an early stage of human development that the modern world arrogantly dismisses as intellectually primitive. It’s the responsibility of their Elders to deliberately ensure that the clan remembers each Pine, turkey, squirrel, and volcanic rock has a personal name and sacred territory. Some things are SO significant, their omission in written records is not because such things are ridiculously nebulous. It’s because their potency is beyond description. Only a humble person practices beginning.

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