The Beginner's Mind
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Our task right now as individuals and as a society is to adopt a beginner’s mind – to both learn and not learn.
This post has been the hardest for me to write this year. I considered not writing anything at all this week. And then I reminded myself that it is in times when you believe you can’t that you must take action. So I sat down to write. I tried my best to free myself from any attachment to writing something smart or good or valuable. And just wrote.
Here’s where I’ve landed over the past few days. There is so much I don’t know. So much I have yet to learn about the issues we face as a society. I am reminded of the opening words of Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few." So I have declared myself a beginner on the issues of racial and social injustice. I give up the need to defend, to be right, to know. Instead, I seek to understand. I am willing to be vulnerable, to feel uncomfortable, to be confused. I go forth with a deep commitment to learning. I am reading. I am having conversations with a different quality of listening. I am observing by opening up the aperture of my perception and slowing down my processing of information.
But here’s the paradox. While Suzuki seemingly invites us to seek knowledge from a beginner’s mind, he later reminds us that the very seeking of knowledge stands in the way of true understanding.
Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind. If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours....Sometimes we think it is impossible for us to learn something unfamiliar, but actually there is nothing that is unfamiliar to us.
So while I am learning, I am also seeking to empty my mind -- to “not learn,” if you will. To resist the temptation to figure it all out. From that place, I am tapping into wisdom that is already mine. That is already all of ours. What it is showing me is very simple. All that remains when the ego, or self, is left behind is love, compassion, and kindness. Fred Rogers had it right when he said, “The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound and can be shared.”
I also want to acknowledge one other paradox that I am experiencing – the tension between Being AND Doing. I am drawn towards being, but I am feeling the imbalance that comes with simply learning without doing. So I choose not just to learn but to act. Not in some reflexive way that makes me feel good or that seems like the right thing to do simply because everyone else is doing it. I am taking action in a way that is deeply personal and right for me. Anyone can take action. Courageous action comes from honoring and knowing who you are.
I am reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Here’s my favorite excerpt so far. “What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist.”
I just watched the Ted Talk, How to Deconstruct Racism, One Headline at a Time, by Baratunde Thurston. It’s equal parts funny, serious, smart, and enlightening.
Apropos of learning, I recommend reading "The Erosion of Deep Literacy" in the recent issue of National Affairs. It is an unsurprisingly long-form article that makes a strong case for deep reading!