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Spring is springing. St. Patrick’s Day is upon us. In my teaching, that means I’ll be sharing the classic Firedance routine (or my version of it, anyway). I’ve been teaching this routine since 2003 and it’s full of things I love: inspiring music, explosive and beautiful choreography, and sweaty fun. But after 14 years, I can get stuck in habit and even boredom with a routine that once brought me to tears. So as we revisit Firedance (and some of the other classic routines from early in my Nia teaching) this week, it seems like a good time to revisit a post from 2012 about beginner’s mind.

(originally posted December 2, 2012)

“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.”

BLACK BELT? ME?

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 would.

EXPERT WORSHIP

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.

“I’VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE”

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.

YOUR BLACK BELT

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.  Beginner’s 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.

what makes it a practice 050916

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

What does it mean to have a practice? By its very nature, a practice is personal, so I suspect there are as many definitions as there are people practicing. Based on my own experience and conversations with other practicers, here are four distinguishing characteristics of a practice:

1. Do it regularly no matter how you feel or how it’s going

A practice is about showing up ~ even if (or especially if) your day is busy or your body feels creaky or it’s not coming out the way you think it should. If I only meditate when I’m on retreat or only when I feel relaxed, it’s not really a practice. A practice is about the consistent attention to the process, not the outcome.

2. Devote yourself to the activity for its own sake

Immerse yourself in the specificity of the activity and commit to it. Learning how to do Crow Pose or a Cross-Front-Cha-Cha-Cha might not seem to have any direct applications to your life. Trust that the gifts lie within the details of the practice. Avoid autopilot: do your heartfelt best every time you practice. Some days you’ll be sharper than others, of course, but keep aliveness in the activity. And especially if you have been doing it for a while, be willing to learn something new. Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

3. What you learn and do in the activity informs and supports the rest of your life

A practice can provide you both foundation and guidance. A practice gives you support that you can rely on and guides your choices especially in unfamiliar or difficult situations. Not long ago a customer at my friend’s restaurant cut himself deeply on a broken plate. My friend stayed centered in the midst of the panic and blood – and she saved his life. After it was over, she realized that it was the presence that she cultivated in her practice that allowed her to keep calm in the midst of chaos.

4. Your practice brings out the best in you

Notice if what you think is a practice is (or becomes) an obsession or a compulsion. It’s not a practice if it takes over and leaves you out of balance. A true practice allows you to step into your true potential. A question I often ask is, Am I leaving the place (be that my body, my life, the world) better than I found it?

That being said, lots of activities can be a practice. Anything from prayer to running, writing to gardening, making art to preparing food are all practices for some people and not for others.

If you don’t have a practice and you want one:

Go shopping. A practice doesn’t have to be formal or religious or fancy. It does have to be something that you are interested enough in to commit to doing it regularly. Working in the garden can be a chore done just for the resulting vegetables or a practice of connection with yourself, nature, your creativity and your impact on the environment.

If you used to have a practice but you’ve fallen away from it:

Begin again. Your practice is a most forgiving friend. She’s always ready to meet you where you are and start again.

If you have an active practice:

Notice what parts of your life are impacted by what you practice. Does your practice change the way you talk to your teenager, what you notice on the way to work, or what you buy at the grocery store? Do you feel more grounded or less rattled by the unexpected? Oddly, it may be challenging for you to see the effects of your practice since change is often incremental. One of my teachers reports that his children notice first when he isn’t meditating regularly. “Dad,” they say, “Time to get back on the cushion!”

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.”

BLACK BELT? ME?

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.

EXPERT WORSHIP

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.

“I’VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE”

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.

YOUR BLACK BELT

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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