When everything is new, it’s often very tiring. While painfully obvious, this truism currently dominates my daily life.
These past weeks, I’ve had to find a new…well, almost everything: apartment, work, choir, Internet provider, library, blood bank, a running path, stores of various sorts, barber, doctors, vet, etc. I’m also new as a practicing Zen student, and even those things that are or were familiar—this humid climate, the local Sudbury school and choirs—have a significant level of novelty to them.
My life right now is an immersion in disorientation; I’m constantly exploring, assembling puzzle pieces (with no picture on the box) as best I can. On a literal level, this involves a good deal of biking, learning my way around much like I did as a boy. I’ve also spent hours poring over maps and bus schedules, working my way into and out of not quite knowing where I am.
However, even when oriented geographically, I often struggle to find my place both in time and the larger scheme of things—to sketch the concrete outlines of a mission and schedule, a personal map for what can feel like a featureless fog, a chaotic sea.
Lately I’ve been working largely from home, with little to distinguish weekday from weekend, enjoying the fringe benefits of a highly flexible schedule and dress code. Of course I’m free to supplement working from home with going to cafes, libraries, etc. But I’ve found public workspaces generally too noisy for me to concentrate or unfriendly to phone calls, food, and drink. Plus, few of them have wisteria-covered windows like the one in my bedroom/office (a.k.a., the Room of Purposeful Activity: working, sleeping, and practicing music).
Working to build up a nonprofit and working remotely for my school in Colorado, I’m trying to balance structure (regular hours which I carefully track) with spontaneity (doing whatever needs done whenever I’m moved to do it). Yet I’m finding this a rather arbitrary and elusive goal. Soon, the rhythms of school year and choir season, along with my Zen and exercise habits, will provide greater definition to my daily schedule. But how much time I should spend working, or even what constitutes work, is largely up for grabs.
But thanks to Zen and Sudbury, I’m working on becoming increasingly okay with this. I’m trying to be mindful of the great spiritual opportunity offered by being so very new, by not knowing. Beginner’s Mind, they call it in Zen, an open eagerness, a lack of preconceptions. As one of the koans in the Book of Equanimity aptly puts it, “not knowing is most intimate.” I must say, though, for someone who didn’t have the opportunity to retain his original beginner’s mind, it’s a real challenge getting back to that point.
I distinctly recall a day in 2nd grade when we were learning cursive with a substitute teacher. Walking into class, her unfamiliar writing on the chalkboard, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: a descending loop from one line intersected with a rising loop from the following line. Of course, this proved to be a coincidence, not a meaningful pattern, but what stands out for me in this incident—the reason I remember it—is the joy that coursed through me initially. I was about to learn something I hadn’t known when I awoke that morning; my world was about to get larger. Far from being daunted, in this instance I positively reveled in confronting a previously hidden corner of reality.
After fifteen years in the business, I can safely say that this is one of the key gifts of Sudbury schooling: that it allows young people to retain just such a confident joy in the face of the unknown. Honestly, I wish I were as fearless as the Sudbury alums I know, adept not only at following the flow of circumstances, but creating opportunities when none of those presently available seems particularly appealing.
Perhaps this helps explain why I’m so powerfully driven to extend this powerful, life-changing opportunity, unavailable to me in my youth, to as many others as possible. And by my own example, I hope to demonstrate that it’s never too late to leap into the unknown and make a new life for oneself.