Following on from the previous post, I wanted to talk this month about a concept that often gets referred to as beginner’s mind. It’s a simple idea, a way of looking at things as if we were a beginner or a child, seeing them full of wonder and possibility rather than writing them off as something we ‘already know’.
This is a popular idea that makes the rounds in the latest fads from time to time. A decent amount of people I hear talking about this think it means doing new things you’ve never done before and being a beginner again in a topic you’ve never studied, particularly when you are extremely skilled in a different subject that you have been training a long time and are used to being the top dog. I think this idea is super awesome and a definite must for us all – it brings us down a peg if we’re feeling that we’re a little bit more important than other people, and reminds us that pretty much everyone in the world is wicked good at something, even if it’s not the same particular thing we are good at. There is also something really wonderful about the child like innocence of having no idea what you’re doing at all and being bad at stuff and fumbling and making a mess of things. It’s good practice really.
As nice as this idea is, it still falls a little short of my understanding of the beginner’s mind. It’s easy enough to have this curiosity available with topics we’ve never studied before, but for me the beginner’s mind means seeing everything as new. How can we do this with topics we are deeply and intimately familiar with? How can we see a skill we’ve practiced a million times over as being new and wonderous, or the room we are in every single day of our life, or the street we walk down? We can try telling ourselves we we see it as new, but this does not work so well in my experience – the unconscious shrugs the idea off because it’s obviously wrong and continues seeing everything that we know so well. It’s basically a mimicry of a quality rather than a real expression of it.
My tradition solves this dilemma of how to see the new in the old by focusing on what we call qualities, and regarding the skills/practices as expressions of qualities in a specific context. I’ll take a simple example to get the idea across: One of the very first practices we engage with are the ‘lines’ or basic directions. These are simple drills where we move our hand along a straight line. The drill here is not the point, the quality of awareness of the line in space is. Once you have practiced the first drill enough, you can then make it a little more complex: bent lines, combinations of lines, using the lines with varying coordination. We are still working the the initial quality, the awareness of lines in space, but we are seeing it from new contexts with each exercise. As we get into more complex practices, like a tai chi form, we see the lines are actually inside everything we do, although often hidden. The more contexts we see the quality in, the more the quality itself evolves. We start to be able to feel and maybe even see the lines in space. We do partner drills and feel the lines of attack the opponent uses, and feel the lines that they are not defending to be able to sneak in. As we get even more advanced, we learn to project our intention along lines, creating feints and the like, or using it to feel more accurately inside a patients body where a problem is to accurately heal it.
When we get into these more advanced stages of training, we can often return to the humble first practice of doing the simple line and we get to really see it as something wonderous and new, sometimes even more so than the first time we tried it (where our not-so-beginner’s mind assumed it knew what a line was and “why am I doing this boring drill again?”). It’s a bit of a trip really, these simple lines are inside everything we do. It opens up a whole universe of new possibilities, “there are totally lines when I reach for my water glass or cross the street, woah they’re everywhere!!” Suddenly very mundane activities are fused with a new way of seeing them, filled with the humble line. The cool thing is that the quality of being aware of the line will continue to evolve, and the more you notice it in everything, the more it evolves. Because the quality is always changing, improving or getting more details, we have constant opportunities to see its newly evolved form in action in anything we do. We don’t have to contrive to see each moment as new, because it gets more and more obvious as we go on. We are able to relate to our living room, our practice, or the walk down the street, or a chat with someone we’ve known for 20 years in new ways because we’ve never experienced it imbued with this order of quality before.
Of course the lines and the spatial awareness are not the only qualities we are working on, this is happening with a multitude of other qualities too, and at some point we are also layering qualities upon other qualities – a basic up and down line becomes quite tricky when we are also keeping the rest of the posture sorted, doing specific breathing, internal circulations, guiding intention in particular way, keeping our grounding, feeling the environment around us, and so on. Whatever the quality, the same thing is going on – we are getting to train something familiar (the quality) in a new way, with new contexts (either expressing the quality in entirely new skills or layering multiple qualities in existing skills), constantly. We get the best of both worlds: improving the familiar and making it better, while simultaneously seeing it as brand new with googly beginner eyes all the time. If we do it well, we can find that the better we get, the more we are able to be surprised as to what we missed in these simple drills, and they become a constant source of wonder.
The more it works in multiple contexts of the varying practices we engage in, the more it will work in our day to day life too, leading to us eventually being able to practice and improve the quality 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This function is what leads to the possibility of the exponential curve mentioned in the previous newsletter – the more we are able to evolve our familiar qualities by training them in new and varying contexts, the more we can use the latest evolution of the quality to appreciate any moment in a new light, noticing details we weren’t previously aware of as a direct result of our evolved qualities. This in turn prompts the quality to continue evolving, making a positive feedback loop that works better the longer you work with it. It’s pretty cool really!