Almost exactly one month ago—two months after arriving in Austin—I wrote a post on Beginner’s Mind, that quality of “openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” cited by Zen as critical to engaging with reality. I declared my aspiration to “confident joy in the face of the unknown,” despite the “tiring, disorienting struggle” of settling into a new home and life.
Four weeks later, this aspiration is impaired by fear more than I would care to admit.
It doesn’t help that I continue to feel new every blessed day, at nearly everything I do. A week ago, I had my first-ever dokusan, or private interview with a Zen teacher. Let me tell you, staring at a wall is nothing compared with sitting face-to-face with someone who has roughly a quarter-century more experience with the practice. As distractingly nervous as I was, it went perfectly fine. Now, I realize that whatever one feels is grist for the mill of practice, but it’s still frustrating, this habit of being uncomfortable whenever I’m new or don’t know what I’m doing.
Similarly, my morning meditation was overshadowed the very next day when I was asked, upon arrival, to fill in as kokyo. Granted, I had briefly trained for the role of chant leader, but this was the real thing, and I didn’t really have time to prepare myself. This too went fine, my shaky voice notwithstanding: having done it a second time since, I am beginning to settle in a bit. More importantly, I am beginning to embrace and enter the very experience of being nervous, to appreciate the chance to practice with it in a setting where it’s less threatening and more easily studied.
So Zen as a formal, frequent practice is still very new for me. With my new school and choirs, on the other hand, I am currently experiencing an oddly potent blend of familiarity and novelty.
I’d already been staffing at Sudbury schools for over a decade when Clearview Sudbury opened, and came here this summer as a fifteen-year veteran. This month I was elected Attendance Clerk and Vice Law Clerk, two positions I held for some years at Alpine Valley. The smaller of my two choirs feels, in many important respects, very familiar to the choir I sang with my last nine years in Colorado. Yet with both school and choir, the vocabulary, procedures, and personalities are sufficiently different that I dance in and out of feeling like I know where I am, what I’m doing. (It reminds me of when I went to Europe and found England somehow more disorienting than countries where I knew that I didn’t grasp the language or culture.)
This much practice, this much of the time, is hard. Bad Buddhist that I am, I hate all this fear—the fear of being inadequate, incompetent, not good enough; the fear of being embarrassed, not admired, not loved. Too often I feel too exposed, too clueless. It seems like everywhere I turn these days, a new challenge presents itself. Even playing chess, a game I can’t claim to be new at, can still make me feel anxious, as if I should be much more accomplished. I have a similar feeling with respect to Spanish, which after years of study still makes me feel like an embarrassed beginner.
And now there’s this blog. Can I get away with claiming, after several weeks and a few dozen posts, that I have no idea what I’m doing? Sure, I can spew words and weave them together reasonably well. But what do I know of how long and frequent posts should be, how to build a following, or how to make money through blogging? Yes, I can research and learn these things, but I don’t yet know them, and somehow that bothers me. Even the act of writing, despite all my experience, often leaves me feeling like a novice, struggling for accessible, streamlined posts that are neither too open nor too authoritative. (Indeed, this genre tends toward the opposite direction of Beginner’s Mind. As Robert Pirsing put it, “the trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is.”)
In general, thinking of all the things that, at least for now, I don’t know how to do well is a woefully powerful self-esteem trap. This makes all the more remarkable the undeniable truth that something about me is powerfully drawn to the very things that make me nervous. Why, I’ve so often wondered, am I driven to do that which I find most daunting?
I would hope this isn’t a sign of masochism or perfectionism, a reflection of some lack within me. Fortunately, my Sudbury experience suggests that it is in fact human nature to confront one’s weaknesses. Time and again I’ve witnessed Sudbury students, like it or not, drawn toward that which they most need to learn. Whether it’s pushing their physical limitations on the playground, confronting the subtleties of social interaction, or dealing with the pressures of boredom and angst, for years I’ve seen that young people, allowed to be free, will immerse themselves in those things that challenge them the most.
Unlike them, unfortunately, I didn’t get to practice this growing up, and so I feel somewhat behind, more a beginner at life than I might have been by this point. Perhaps my fear in the face of newness traces back to my being tested and graded throughout my formative years, with approval tied to success on external evaluations. Certainly I was not adequately prepared to navigate a life of this much uncertainty, to carve out a path of my own.
In an upcoming post, I hope to discuss some of the things I believe I need to relearn. For now, beginner that I am at this business of authentic, intuitive living, I will do what I must: continue striving, and remind myself it’s better to recognize and accept where am than to wish things were otherwise.