A phrase you hear a lot in Buddhism, especially Zen, is “beginner’s mind.” It’s a good thing to have. The way to gain wisdom is to approach everything with a beginner’s mind. That goes for the most senior priest as well as the newest lay follower of the Buddha.
On another level, we don’t really choose to be a beginner, because we are always beginning. We begin every day, every hour, every minute, every second. With every moment, with every breath, we change, the world changes, and everything is new again. Once we recognize that, we also then recognize that every moment gives us a new opportunity to choose our path.
We are always beginning.
December 1 will be the six-month anniversary of the death of my son Thomas, 29, in a skateboarding accident, and I’ll estimate that I’ve lived more than 10 million waking seconds since then. I’ve seen Buddhist estimates for the number of moments in a second, but let’s just leave it at seconds. I’ve had choices to make in each one of those seconds. That’s 10 million opportunities to choose how I want to live.
The choices to make each second — whether to smile and how wide, whether to walk, stand or sit, what to look at, and so on — are almost infinite, but one stands out for me over the last six months: whether to dwell on my failures as a father.
I’ve had 10 million opportunities to wish I had been kinder and more supportive to Thomas. Although I did fail him in many ways, I’ve spent very few of those 10 million seconds wallowing in my regrets. I was fortunate, because I feel the spirit of Thomas helping me to stay focused on the present moment and on my writing. I know that not everyone has that kind of help, and some people feel as though they just can’t find a way to turn off the “monkey mind,” another term often used in Buddhism. That’s the chattering voice inside your head that doesn’t allow you to calm your mind and let it be.
So I don’t mean to add to anyone’s pressures, but it’s by stopping, breathing and accepting what is that we can begin anew in the next moment. We all have that choice every moment, but calling it a choice will sound harsh to you if you feel that you can’t stop your monkey mind’s chattering.
I’ve had 69 years of life, a long series of traumatic losses, years of therapy, several good Unitarian Universalist ministers, several good Buddhist teachers, a half dozen Buddhist retreats, and an occasional clonazepam that all have helped me get to the point where I understand that I’m a beginner in every moment.
One thing you can begin is a spiritual practice. In the new year, I plan to post some recorded meditations, but don’t wait for me. Choose the spiritual discipline that feels right to you, find a teacher, a minister, a spiritual leader. You may need to start with a good therapist to slow down that monkey mind.
But start now, in this moment, or in this one, or in this one. You can choose to start feeling good.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine