Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Beautiful Simplicity of Beginner's Mind

The blog is back!   As many of you know, I have taken the last month off teaching to recover from abdominal surgery.  I have been joking around that it feels like my 4th pregnancy because the recovery has been so similar, and (fortunately) because the only other times I have been limited physically were during my pregnancies.  As with after each of my pregnancies, physically it feels like a starting over.  My body was very different, as it will be now again, and the break from my intense regimen of running, yoga asana practice, climbing, boot camp, etc. that I usually put my body through on a regular basis has been jarring to my system.  It feels like starting from scratch and it is the best reminder of why to keep up a consistent practice – it is so hard to start over again!

But, as in everything we face, there are blessings to be had.  As before, the gift here is the fresh perspective that comes from a stepping back from routine.  The Zen Buddhist tradition calls this Shoshin, meaning "Beginner's Mind".  The curiosity, openness, and eagerness which is akin to a child’s viewpoint.  When my husband joined his company a few years ago the owners of the company told him they would be asking his opinion about virtually everything during the first year because although he had a lot to learn about the company, he had the unique perspective of fresh eyes.  New job perspective, new relationship perspective – these are all variations of Beginner’s Mind. 

When we are in the womb we are the closest we ever are, while alive and embodied, to our Source.  From the Non-dual Tantric perspective, everything in the Universe, material and beyond, flows from one absolute Source, and that Source is benevolent and graceful.  Our earliest experiences in our human form affirm all we know about the Universe, that we are loved, nurtured, cared for by an infinite and unconditional love, and we see the world from this viewpoint – oneness.  As our mothers wean us, we learn to crawl and walk, sleep and even go to the bathroom on our own, we begin to start separating and our experience follows, and at some point most of us start to identify more with the separation than the oneness and that is the true nature of human existence.  The goal of most spiritual practices, including yoga, is to return to the realization and experience of the oneness of the universe. 

Looking at our lives with Beginner’s Mind can help us with that lofty goal.  Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind says: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." When our minds are made up about how things “are”, we close the door on growth and change. Think about your favorite yoga pose for example, the one you are most “expert” at. I know for me, the poses that are the easiest for me are my favorites, and of course the ones I do the most often.  And yet they are often the hardest for me to teach because I haven’t had to wrestle with them in the way I have with poses that are harder for me. The poses that I am the least “expert” at are often the ones I have learned the most about because I’ve had to.  When I do a practice of only the poses I love without challenging myself to try something new (including something new in an old pose), my practice feels pretty stale and disconnected. 

When we think we have mastered something we stop thinking about it, and there is always something to be learned.  B.K.S. Iyengar famously continued to tell his students many decades into teaching and practicing that he hadn’t yet perfected Tadasana (Mountain pose). For a man who was doing headstands into his 80’s, surely this pose was not was not physically challenging. But Iyengar knew that proclaiming mastery meant closing the door on growth. There is a wisdom in asking, “What can I learn?” from a pose that one has practiced thousands of times.  There is wisdom in saying “I don’t know”. Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman writes about this “not knowing” in her lecture on Beginner’s Mind: “Not knowing" is often paired up with knowing. It's a dualistic pair—not knowing as opposed to knowing. Non-dualistic "not knowing" is just "I don't know, I'm going to go see. I'm just going to set out and trust what occurs."  It's not set up against knowing. It's just "I'm going to set out on pilgrimage and see what happens. Just this is it. Just each moment. Each moment I'll see what happens.”  Non-dualistic not knowing – I love that!

Yoga practice opens up the space to let go of our preconceptions and notions about our body and spirit and simply explore ourselves on every level of our beings and there is great freedom and growth that comes from that process. May we cultivate not-knowing.  May we be free from prejudices, opinions, self-limiting ideas.  May we see the world as my 3-year-old Rakhi looks at the 12-year-old, broken, defunct flip phone he currently carries with him wherever he goes to ”call” people, “send” photos and texts, and “Facetime” with friends – with utter wonder and delight.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
- Mary Oliver from "When Death Comes"

Off the mat: Start to notice this week how many fixed beliefs you have about yourself – your body, your yoga practice, your spouse, maybe even the presidential nomination race. How many preconceptions, prejudices, and static ideas you come at life with and that close you off from seeing or hearing what’s actually going on. It's not like we notice them and then they miraculously disappear.  No, chances are you'll start to see them more and more...but then, becoming aware of them, you can choose to see them for what they are, energy arising in the form of a thought, often having little to do with what is actually going on in any given moment.  And then you can just as easily let them go if they don’t serve your higher purpose.

On the mat: Practice a lot of Balasana (Child’s Pose), the asana equivalent of Beginner’s Mind.  It’s always a great pose to come to to reset, recharge, refresh your perspective even in the heat of an intense or strong practice.  Then see how the physical form of Balasana (i.e. gently rounded back) can help in your more advanced poses (like arm balances, where we need a lot of core strength).  Or pick a pose you’ve done 1000 times and look up an article or YouTube about it and learn something new!

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace: Breathe in and feel the inner body grow bright and full with the joy of the present moment, as if it was the first breath you’ve ever breathed.
Be present with the breath (in every pose) to be present to “what is”.
Breathe into your back body and into the mystery and wonder of life.

Muscular Energy: (In poses where Heart FP is active) Draw from the fingers up the arms into the Beginner’s heart, the pre-7th grade heart, the one that’s never been broken or hurt or stepped on.
Tone muscles and stand strong in your not-knowing.

Kidney Loop: Expand the kidney area to expand awareness of this pose as it is right now.
Draw front ribs together and down to open the back body and open to awareness of the beauty of the moment (ok, that’s a little wordy, but you get the idea…)

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs back and apart and open to the awe and wonder of this pose.

Outer Spiral: Settle your tailbone down into the space between your sit-bones, settling your mind into a child-like perspective.

Organic Energy: Expand awareness of the wonder of this moment through the whole pose.