Black Belt

You were a precious gift, our joy, our dreams
You were a sparkle through the darkness;
Our hope for a brighter tomorrow
You warmed our hearts, gave light to our minds and beauty to our spirits.
We gave you our love, wrapped you in our care, caressed you with our smiles.
Now you are gone.
We grieve.
We miss you so much.
The loving memories of you will keep you forever close to us—in our hearts, our thoughts, our souls.
~ author unknown (offered by Sara Marks)

mary linn and chloe
As some of you have heard and some of you must now hear, Nia Black Belt teacher Mary Linn Bergstrom’s 6-year-old daughter, Chloe was killed in a car accident on the night of December 22, 2014. This is an inconceivable loss for which I, frankly, have no words. I do, however, believe in the invisible net of love that surrounds us all and in times like these, we need to pull that net close around Mary Linn.

We have set up a meal brigade via the Take Them A Meal site. Please follow this link if you’d like to offer food.

We’ve only set it up for two weeks, but we undoubtedly add to that when we get a clearer idea of what they need and want.

If you’d like to make a donation to help Mary Linn with the upcoming expenses, please write a check to Anne Wolf with “Mary Linn & Chloe” in the memo. Anne will consolidate donations and get them to Mary Linn. You can hand Anne a check at acac or mail it to her at 5030 Rutherford Road, Charlottesville VA 22901

The funeral for Chloe will be Sunday, December 28, 2014 2 pm at Hill and Wood Funeral Home (across from Lee Park).

Please also send prayers for Krishan’s mother in law, Ilina Singh who was also in the car last night. She is in critical condition at UVA hospital.

Above all, please please know that your love and care in all forms make a difference. And in honor of Chloe and Mary Linn be an agent of love and peace in your own family and community.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me at with any questions.

May There Be Peace on Earth,

BeginnersMind2“Beginner’s mind = many possibilities; expert’s mind = few.” — Shunryu Suzuki (paraphrase)

Being a “Black Belt” doesn’t mean that you know everything.  Being a Black Belt means now I am a student.

What are you a “Black Belt” in?  Maybe a career (being a lawyer) or something practical (how to change a tire).  What if you approached “Black Belt” activities with Beginner’s Mind?  An attitude of openness, eagerness, and without preconceptions, as a beginner would.

Beginner’s Mind bucks the culture of expert worship.  If you do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm like you’d never done it before, what would be different?

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BeginnersMind2“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki (see link to original lecture)

In 2006, when I was preparing to go to the Nia Black Belt training (the highest level of teacher training in Nia), I went to a martial arts demonstration led by a Black Belt Kendo Master.  At the beginning of the demonstration, he asked, “What does being a Black Belt mean?”  Others in the group said, “It means you are an expert,” “It means you know everything,” and, “It means you could kick my ass.”


I groaned internally.  I was deeply anxious about doing the Black Belt training for these very reasons:  I knew I didn’t know everything and certainly didn’t feel like an expert who could kick anyone’s anything.  I was hit with a wave of insecurity about even thinking about becoming a Black Belt.  I felt like a fraud.

But the Kendo Master smiled kindly and said, “No, being a Black Belt means … now I am a student.”

Now I am a student.  Yes, this was it exactly.  I wasn’t purporting to know everything, but Nia was something that I was passionate about and wanted to learn in depth.  This definition helped me see that by becoming a Black Belt, I was saying that NOW I was really ready to study and learn.

This definition of Black Belt connects with the idea of Beginner’s Mind.  Beginner’s Mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism and is defined as an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.


Our American culture is replete with expert worship.  There is a pervasive idea that if we don’t know something, that we should turn to experts to know what to do (or buy or think or be).  And, so this line of thinking goes, whatever the expert says is exactly what we should do (or buy or think or be).

There are two main drawbacks to the expert worship approach.  First, if you are the one turning to an expert, this approach elevates those with experience to an untenable and unrealistic place of all-knowingness.  Second, if you ARE the expert or experienced one, expert worship encourages you to feign that you know all the answers rather than approaching everything, even things you’ve done 1,000 or 10,000 times with the inquisitiveness and freshness of beginner’s mind.


While it is important to gather information from experienced sources when wanting to learn or understand anything, it is important to approach all expert information with a discerning mind and an awareness that no one can know everything about anything.  The greatest teachers are always learning themselves and are willing to be surprised.  I took a wonderful on-line poetry course this fall (see Coursera for their offerings).  The professor, Al Filreis, has been teaching poetry in the Ivy League for 35 years.  More than once, he said, “I’ve been reading this poem for decades and I’ve never thought about it that way before.”  His approach is that we are figuring things out together with all of our experiences and insights as resources.  Beginner’s mind empowers both expert and novice to be open to new information and perspectives.


So what are you a Black Belt in?  What do you love to know/learn/do?  What would you be willing to approach with fresh eyes and an open mind every time?  Whether it is playing the cello, or learning about the Civil War, preparing healthful meals for your family or mowing your own lawn, you are an expert in something.  Beginners mind invites you to do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm as if you’d never done it before.  As we enter into the holiday season, do you feel like you’ve “been there done that”?  Or have you “always” done things this way and feel entrained to those choices?  Whatever it is (especially if you find yourself resisting change or resisting letting go of the idea of yourself as an all-knowing expert), see if you can step in next time with the energy, wonder and excitement of a beginner and see how that changes your experience.  And of course, as always, I’d love to hear all about it.  Do post a comment below!

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