Beginner’s Mind

“Lucky” rabbit, Zhaojue Temple
I’ve bought several cheap (pirated) movies on DVD recently. I now own Sunset Boulevard, The Misfits, an early Antonioni film Il Grido, Kill Bill I & II, and even a live 1991 performance of La Traviata at Covent Garden under Georg Solti. These can be purchased virtually everywhere. They also make great classroom tools. I got a whole week’s worth of class activities from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I collected my classes’ first homework assignments this week. Sitting at my desk this evening, I suddenly realized that I now have 250 essays to read. As a wise person once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. First essay, please….

Inscription on stone marker, Zhaojue Temple

I became a teacher. I came to China. In both cases, I knew a little about what I was getting into, but not a lot. In this wacky and wonderful and scary process of adapting to my new life, I am able to encounter many things with a childlike sense of wonder, and to be a beginner. Sometimes I’m also scared out of my f-ing mind. Don’t underestimate the power of ignorance. Sometimes it makes you do things you’d be terrified of doing if you knew better.

We never graduate from first grade. Over and over, we have to go back to the beginning. We should not be ashamed of this. It is good. It’s like drinking water; we don’t drink a glass once and never have to drink one again…Over and over, we begin.

Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind, p. 9

Darkness to light – tower, River Viewing Park

Each day my students do some “freewriting.” It’s an exercise in practicing beginner’s mind: we go back to the origins of our thoughts, impressions, and primal instincts without editing them. We just keep our hands moving across the page without stopping. It’s simple, and it’s complicated. It’s kind of like Zen.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Thus, if you’re empty of expectations you can be open to joy and wonder.

Its’ kind of exciting to be empty, because then you have something to fill. These are the things at which I’m currently a beginner:

– Teaching English in China
– Teaching university post-graduate students
– Learning Chinese
– Playing the classical guitar
– Practicing Buddhism
– Living in a new culture

Life is in the details – tower, River Viewing Park

With all of this new stuff, is it any wonder I feel depressed sometimes? Here’s an entry from my journal:

I retreated into depression and let it settle onto me. By now it conforms to me like a well-tailored suit.

Being an absolute beginner also means learning from trial and error, and occasionally feeling, well, like this:

I felt like a failure today. Actually, I feel like a failure most days. Doesn’t mean that I am one, just that I feel that way. It doesn’t help that I’m a perfectionist and that I try too hard and that I feel I have to justify my move halfway around the world by being the greatest teacher who ever lived. There I was, halfway through a lesson, and I realized that I was talking too much. I was pontificating. I was boring myself, a sure sign that I was probably boring at least a few students. The lesson felt over-planned, and way too long.

Fortunately, feelings like this are normal (I think), and they are coming farther apart. It’s all part of being a beginner.

In closing, here is one of my favorite opening sentences from one of my student’s writing:

They are all wonderful days.

Walk through a mysterious door – Zhaojue Temple


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