Tag Archives: Beginner’s Mind

Still a Beginner’s Mind

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. Continue reading

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Beginner’s Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner's MindWhen 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. Continue reading

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