Beginner's Mind
Christine Feldman


The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

A young woman returning from work was involved in a car accident that left her with severe head injuries.  After several days in a coma, she awoke in hospital only to discover that she didn't know who she was.  Not only had she forgotten herself but also everything and everyone in her life.  Her initial panic was eased by the doctors' reassurance that her memory was likely to return.  As the days passed in the hospital, she was much comforted by the visits from many kind people who spent time with her, who seemed to know who she was.  There was one elderly man who spent hours by her bedside, sometimes reading to her, sometimes telling her stories of her life, and often just sitting quietly with her.  In the comfort offered by his undemanding presence, she could share the anxieties and fears so alive in her heart.

Her memory began to return, vague fragments and images triggering greater and greater detail, until her life and story were once again accessible to her.  The recovery of her memory was not only a recovery of herself but also of everyone in her life.

The kind, understanding man she had been so reassured by was her father, whom she shared a troubled history with.  To their amazement they discovered that her recovery enabled them to pick up their arguments at the very point they had left them before her accident.

Soon they found themselves fighting familiar battles and all the old stories were recycled.  The peaceful, intimate moments they had shared during her crisis became distant memories, lost in the intensity of their frustration, impatience, and struggle with each other.  Once in a while they would look at each other and remember those blessed moments when no history stood between them.

Tragedy and amnesia are not recommended ways to cultivate a beginner's mind.  Yet the beginner's mind is a pivotal key to unlocking the peace of simplicity.  It is the simple clarity of the beginner's mind that enables us to enter each moment, relationship, and encounter free of prejudice and history.  The cultivation of the beginner's mind is what frees us to greet every moment in our life with an openhearted welcome, to see ourselves, other people, and all of life anew; to be able to make new beginnings.

We collect, store, and accumulate so much weight in this life.  The thousands of thoughts, ideas, and plans we have are imprinted on our minds.  We have engaged in countless conversations and have replayed many of them over and over again.  We have moved from one experience to another, one encounter to another, and we think about them all.  Information and knowledge has been gathered, digested, and stored, and we carry all of this with us.  This input forms our story, the story we have about people, ourselves, and the world.  Experiencing the chaos and turbulence of the saturated mind and heart, forgetfulness may look like a blessing.  Yet our innate capacity to receive the world, a source of both complexity and of compassion, will always be with us.

The beginner's mind has a simple vocabulary founded upon questioning and the willingness to learn.  There are Zen meditative traditions that rest upon bringing one simple question into each moment:  "What is this?"  Whatever arises in our hearts, minds, and bodies is greeted with a probing investigation.  What is this thought, this body, this experience, this feeling, this interaction, this moment?  It is a question intended to dissolve all assumptions, images, opinions, and familiarity.  It is a question that brings a welcoming presence into each moment; a question that perceives neither obstacles nor enemies; a question that appreciates the rich seam of learning offered in every encounter and moment.  It is an "every moment" practice, in which our capacity to listen and attend unconditionally is treasured as the means of transformation.

The expert's mind has a different vocabulary, expressing a devotion to "knowing" deeper than the devotion to freedom.  The expert's mind is the mind entangled with its history, accumulated opinions and judgments, and past experience.  The most frequently occurring word in the mind of the expert is "again."  What a long story the word "again" can carry.  We can sense the shutters of our heart closing as we whisper to ourselves, "This thought, this feeling, this pain, this person again."  The intrusion of the past with all its comparisons, weariness, aversion, or boredom has the power to create a powerful disconnection in that moment.  The word "again" carries with it the voice of knowing, fixing, and dismissing, and with its appearance we say farewell to mystery, to wonder, to openness, and to learning.  Whenever we are not touched deeply by the moment we say farewell to the beginner's mind.  An ancient teacher reminds us, "There is great enlightenment where there is great wonder. . . ."

How much of the knowledge, information, and strategies of our story serve us well?  In our life story we experience hurt, pain, fear and rejection, at times caused by others, at others self-inflicted.  Understanding what causes sorrow, pain, and devastation translates into discriminating wisdom, and we do not knowingly expose ourselves to these conditions.  We are all asked to make wise choices in our lives--choices rooted in understanding rather than fear.

The Buddha used the analogy of a raft.  Walking beside a great river, the bank we are standing on is dangerous and frightening and the other bank is safe.  We collect branches and foliage to build a raft to transport us to the other shore.  Having made the journey safely, supposing we picked up the raft and carried it on our head wherever we went.  Would we be using the raft wisely?  The obvious answer is "No."  A reasonable person would know how useful the raft has been, but wisdom would be to leave the raft behind and walk on unencumbered.

As a mother, a layperson and an internationally renowned teacher, Feldman knows the stresses and strains of modern life. In this book she shows how to harmonize and achieve balance and how to apply Buddhist wisdom to the here and now. She addresses subjects of compassion, speech, effort, intention, mindfulness and awakening. The path to peace, she suggests, is not necessarily complex or arduous. If we simply turn our attention to this moment, it will speak to us of wonder, mystery, harmony and peace. She demonstrates that there is no better moment in which to awaken and discover everything our heart longs for than this very moment.


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