Beginner's Mind

Beginner's Mind

March 15, 2019: Beginner’s Mind


“Today’s my first day,” I said to Emma when I hugged her Monday morning. “New job. Any advice?” She thought a moment and then instructed me: “Be nice, sit next to someone and say hi. Just say, ‘Hi, I’m Julia.’ and be sure you smile.” Good advice!  When I hugged Jack, I asked him the same thing.  He thought a moment and said, “I usually just watch for a while before saying anything. But after a while you’ll know what to do.” Also good advice.

 This week I’ve done both of those things. I’ve also gone home with slight headaches from concentrating so hard trying to learn a new organization’s structure, needs, and power dynamics. Not to mention the database and office culture and my predecessor’s filing system.

 Years ago, when I started my first waitressing job I said, “You’re my first table!” and then, “This is my first day!” and then, “This is my second day!” and then, “This is my first week!” to buy some time and some kindness for my nervousness.

 A lot of the uneasiness comes from feeling incompetent in the new environment, and it’s compounded if I felt competent in the old. This blog post from Seth Godin felt particularly relevant this week.

 At some point, grown ups get tired of the feeling that accompanies growth and learning. We start calling that feeling, “incompetence.” We’re not good at the new software, we resist a brainstorming session for a new way to solve a problem, we never did bother to learn to juggle…Not because we don’t want the outcomes, but because the journey promises to be difficult. Difficult in the sense that we’ll feel incompetent.  Which accompanies all growth. First we realize something can be done. Then we realize we can’t do it. And finally, we get better at it. It’s the second step that messes with us. If you care enough to make a difference, if you care enough to get better–you should care enough to experience incompetence again.
— Seth Godin

I guess I care enough to get better. Because this organization is totally worth the effort. This, too, is one nice part of aging. I’ve ridden in this rodeo before and can anticipate the feelings of displacement.  In my best moments, I can even enjoy the challenge.

 I’m not as good as my friend, Alex, who said, “Transitions are always a thrill for me. I thrive on change.”  I’m not there yet, but this week I’ve been trying to embrace the concept of beginner’s mind.

 Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.  In the book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher. Suzuki writes "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”(Wikipedia)

 This reminds me of that great passage in Matthew’s gospel when the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

 It’s a great comfort to me that the disciples are such endearing doofuses sometimes.

 Why Jesus doesn’t just abandon the whole save-the-world enterprise right then at the beginning of chapter 18, is beyond me. In the preceding chapter, Jesus (1) is transfigured before the disciples’ eyes, (2) heals an epileptic that the disciples had too little faith (apparently less than would fit in a mustard seed) to heal themselves, (3) foretells his betrayal, death and resurrection, and, as a final flourish, (4) pays the temple tax with a coin he told his disciples they’d find in the first fish they catch from the Sea of Galilee. All that in 27 verses! And the only thing the disciples can wonder is who’s greatest in heaven??  Poor Jesus.

 Looking around at the kids playing, Jesus calls one over and says to the disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

 Become humble, have beginner’s mind, be nice, say hi, and smile.

 I’ve received a lot of good advice about switching jobs and starting a new adventure.  A lot of good self-care tips and admonitions to be kind to myself, not to expect too much too soon. Also, to be open to the questions, like the ones my friend, Ruth suggested: “What am I being called for, at this place and at this time? How will God use me here uniquely, what do I have to offer?”

 Those are pretty much the questions for Lent, too. Lent is a time of preparation. Like Advent before Christmas, Lent is the expectant waiting before Easter. These are such familiar stories. So familiar that I often gloss over the highs and lows because I know the outcome. Also, when I take the time to hear the story for the first time, it’s really painful and personal. It’s overwhelming and can feel hopeless. That’s why it’s important to hear the stories, to feel the stories within a community of faith

 How many of us were taught how to feel our feelings? Or, if feeling them was okay, were we taught how to act (or not act) on our feelings? I was more prepared for how to cope. I was talking about this last night with my Faith Formation group, and true to character, the Good Lord provided a perfect object lesson first thing this morning.

Jack had a regular doctor’s appointment, so I was going to take both kids and save Mark a school drop-off. The morning started well, but within 45 minutes, I was yelling, Emma was crying, and Jack was glowering.  In the car we were all fuming.  I decided, reluctantly, to be the adult. I went first. I apologized for yelling. Explained how I was feeling and then why I was feeling it—both the legitimate reasons and the knee-jerk reactions. Acknowledged that those feelings were not an excuse to yell, and then brainstormed what I could have done differently. Then I asked them to do the same. It was hard.  And as is often the case, it was easier to be brave in a community of love.

 In the context of a community I can be brave enough to embrace beginner’s mind. Brave enough to feel incompetent, because there are riches to be gained on the other side of learning new things, and of hearing familiar things in new ways.

 That’s the challenge of starting a new job. It’s the challenge of being a good human.

 It’s the message of Lent. We’re new at it each year, even if we know the patterns and what’s going to happen.  But if we feel safe in our family of faith, we can listen to the scriptures with beginner’s ears; we can respond with a beginner’s heart. And know that we’re not alone.

 Accept the challenge to walk the Lenten path.

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Walk!  Walk your own path. But try to walk with some friends who check in on you during your first week of a new job.

Comfort and Joy

Comfort and Joy