When my yoga teacher asked the class to set an intention for the day’s practice yesterday, the words “beginner’s mind,” floated into my head. It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since I began mindfulness meditation a year-and-a-half ago, but being a meditation novice, it hadn’t meant very much to me. Here it was making an appearance on my yoga mat, a place where I have spent many hours and developed more than a beginner’s mentality.
Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist notion that encourages a person to constantly look with fresh eyes. The famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Suzuki Roshi seen above, opens with this saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
While trying out beginner’s mind, I experienced a different yoga class than I expected. I practiced as if I had never done it before, asking myself questions like, “What is this pose trying to get me to do with my body? Where should my foot really be? How is my breathing now? What does this feel like?” At one point I looked over to the clock and the 75 minute class was almost over. It felt like I had been there for half the time.
From Suzuki Roshi’s book:
In the beginner’s mind, there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.
To my surprise, the intention carried forth outside the yoga studio and throughout the rest of my day. When it came time to cook dinner, I considered ordering Chinese food because I felt fresh out of ideas and inspiration. Then “beginner’s mind” popped up and I went to the pantry, pulled out a jar filled with orzo, and decided to make something with it precisely because it was an ingredient I had not used much before.
Forty minutes later I sat at the table with my two kids eating steaming bowls of orzo risotto and peas. I like this beginner’s mind. It feels spontaneous, open, and curious. Suzuki Roshi says the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner,” he writes. “Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”
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Last spring, I stood in the parking lot of my child’s school talking with a friend and explaining that while I consider myself Jewish, I am not religious. “If I want to pray,” I told her, “I’ll take a yoga class.” It was a quip designed to ease the awkwardness that arises when people talk about religion, but later it occurred to me that what I said was true enough. I don’t know what it means to pray, but in my busy life, yoga is where I go to experience calm.
But what is also true is that I can’t seem to walk away from the heritage of Judaism that I was born into. It would be like walking away from my parents and my grandparents. The candles, wine, and bread of Shabbat. The Passover seders that I giggled through as a kid. And the fact that, as my friend Joel’s father said, when (not if) they come for you, and they will come…
I turned forty last year and suddenly it seemed that time was running out. Would I go on for the next forty years doing the same guilt-inspired trek to synagogue for the high holidays? Would I keep going to yoga classes, ever trying to spring my legs back out of crow pose and into plank position, chanting in Sanskrit about compassion for all living things, but never really knowing where all this comes from and if I even agree with it?
The main question I have for Jubuhoo is how to live. Is there a path better than the one I am blazing out here on my own? Can Judaism be a source of soul comfort and wisdom for me even if I don’t believe in God? Can I be a Buddhist and be skeptical of reincarnation? (Yes, I am aware that yoga comes from the Hindu tradition, but there are many overlapping concepts. Here’s an interesting article on that topic.) Can either help ease the terror that my time is passing? What do I want to teach my children about who they are and what it means to be human? What should I eat? What should I do? Can I still curse?
I am beginning this blog on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and a time for renewal. There are many Jewish Buddhists who have wrestled with the same questions I am asking. Their writings will undoubtedly inform and inspire me. I hope you will bring your own questions and insights to the conversation as well.
Shalom and Namaste
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