A Beginner’s Mind
In 1984 I went to Zimbabwe, Africa and spent six years living among the Tonga people. This was a significant change for me and a new beginning. Everything was different from the climate to the culture. The first thing I had to tackle when I arrived was to learn the local language, Tonga.
Learning Tonga was challenging since only about 50,000 people spoke it in the entire country, like learning a language only people in Lima could speak. An old Spanish priest was our teacher and our textbook was a small grammar book. The only way to learn was to find a Tonga person and start a conversation. It wasn’t that easy when you could only talk about the weather or where to go to the bathroom. Week after week, I learned some new phrase to try out on an unsuspecting person. People were very kind and stopped to listen, but when they responded to me in Tonga, I couldn’t understand them. Most encounters ended with an awkward goodbye.
One day a group of children from the nearby school was out playing. I greeted them in the traditional way, "Mwabuka," I said to them. (Sounds like Maah-Boo-Ka.) The kids were very enthusiastic and shouted back to me, "Mwabuka Mike." Then I tried out one of the phrases I memorized. They all laughed and repeated it correcting my pronunciation. Next, they said something to me, which I couldn't understand. So they said it slower, pronouncing each consonant and vowel. They made me repeat it like they were teaching one of their younger brothers or sisters how to talk. Then they translated the words because they were learning English in school.
I hurried back to my house and started memorizing phrases and words I could use to speak to them. The next day I was out walking, and as soon as they saw me, they all ran up to me, "Mwabuka Mike." I returned their greeting. I tried out my new phrase and sentence. They were delighted, correcting my pronunciation. I began to gain confidence in my Tonga as I spent more and more time with children as one of them.
I realized that even though I was 33 years old in America, in Zimbabwe, I was still a child and had to learn to think and speak like a child. I was a beginner. (By the way, you can read all about it in my memoir, Stumbling into Happiness.)
There have been a lot of beginnings in my life. Each new school I went to was a new beginning. Getting married, becoming a father, starting new jobs, all were new beginnings. Most of the time, I didn't have a lot of previous experience. Beginnings didn't happen only at significant events but small moments like meeting someone new, trying to get a new program off the ground, even connecting with old friends. Over time I began to realize that being a beginner is a way of living.
As I begin this new chapter in my life, it is another beginning. I am learning the language and culture of retirement. People ask me, “How do you like being retired?” The word, “retired” sounds like an ending or a stopping, even something shelved or thrown away. I prefer to think of myself as an apprentice: author, artist, and adventurer at 67 years old.
I've run into the most trouble in my life when I lost sight of this beginner mindset when I tried to act like an expert–a know-it-all. Being a beginner requires practicing some essential attitudes:
1. Uncertainty – I don't assume I know the right way, the best way, the "only" way to do something.
2. Curiosity – Recognizing I don’t know the answers. So I focus my attention on learning, coming to a new understanding, asking questions.
3. Humility – The ability to not take myself too seriously, to be willing to ask for help, to admit when I am wrong, to be prepared to start again, to make a new path. I remind myself often, “Don’t forget to laugh.”
4. Appreciation – Recognizing the gifts and talents of others. Telling each one in specific terms what I value in them and telling them often.
5. Wonder – It is like appreciation, but it has a more silent aspect–standing in awe, quiet, and boundless.
6. Compassion – This looks like giving myself and others a break. Forgiving myself for mistakes makes it easier to forgive others too.
7. Listening – Often I’ve noticed myself formulating an answer before I've taken time to understand the point. It is the quality built on uncertainty.
Being a beginner takes a lot of commitment and a great deal of preparation. I prepared for this new chapter in my life by writing the book which I published in 2017. The writing took me over six years and a lot of learning along the way. I’ve been writing a blog for the past seven years at www.overflow.care where I decided to learn how to draw and illustrate my blog posts.
I've grown a garden for decades, but this spring, my wife, Mary, and I built new raised beds. It feels like a fresh garden complete with a space just for herbs. I’ve always loved travel and different cultures, living in Italy and Zimbabwe for years. I couldn’t wait to get out on the road for some new adventures where I’ve also been learning how to do some travel writing at www.mschoenhofer.blogspot.com.
I wonder if that is what Jesus meant when he said, "unless you become like a little child." For a child, there is no expectation of being an expert. Each day is new. There is an anticipation of having fun, learning something new, trying and failing, and then trying again. For a child, there is curiosity, humility, appreciation, and wonder.
Sometimes I struggle with the idea of being a beginner. “Shouldn’t I know everything by now?” But I keep reminding myself that it’s never too late to start again. That’s why the attitude of compassion, especially self-compassion, is so important.
Dr. Chris Germer identifies being kind to yourself as the first step toward self-compassion in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (2009 The Guildford Press). We are pretty hard on ourselves, demanding, holding ourselves to impossibly high standards of a perfect or ideal self that are unattainable. Enter self-compassion and kindness.
When I came to the acceptance that anxiousness is part of who I am and I need to step back, take a short nap, check out for a minute and let the anxious wave pass over me. It’s a moment of self-compassion when I recognize that closing my eyes for ten minutes helps me. Some might see it as a weakness, others as babying myself. Well, I need one, and sometimes more than once a day. I felt better, more energy, calmer, and ready to tackle whatever is facing me. Of course, taking a nap is what children do – “unless you become like a little child.” It’s what a beginner does too!
Here are the benefits of practicing a beginner's mind, according to Leo Babauta, who writes the blog Zen Habits at www.zenhabits.net:
· "Better experiences: You aren't clouded by prejudgments, preconceptions, fantasies about what it should be, or assumptions about how you already know it will be. When you don't have these, you can’t be disappointed or frustrated by the experience, because there's no comparable fantasy or preconception.
· Better relationships: If you are talking to someone else, instead of being frustrated by them because they aren’t meeting your ideal, you can see them with fresh eyes and notice that they’re just trying to be happy, that they have good intentions (even if they’re not your intentions), and they are struggling just like you are. This transforms your relationship with the person.
· Less procrastination: If you're procrastinating on a big work task, you could look at it with beginner's mind and instead of worrying about how hard the job will be or how you might fail at it. You can be curious about what the task will be like. You can notice the details of doing the job, instead of trying to get away from them.
· Less anxiety: If you have an upcoming event or meeting that you're anxious about, instead of worrying about what might happen, you can open yourself up to being curious about what will happen, let go of your preconceived ideas about the outcome and instead embrace not knowing, embrace being present and finding gratitude in the moment for what you're doing and who you're meeting.”
Practice: I find the practice of looking and noting very helpful. You might want to try it too.
1. In a journal or notebook–identify something specific that you beat yourself up about. Be specific about when, who, where, etc.
2. Identify what about this circumstance you find difficult. Be specific.
3. Now stop and look. Can you forgive yourself for any part you had in this? Say something like, "You poor dear; it's not that easy is it. Don't worry; you're still learning."
Practicing a beginner’s mind gives you the space to take a moment to step back and hug yourself. That is so much better than what my voice says to me, “Mike, what a dumb s**t! Is that all the better you can do?”
A beginner’s mind doesn't give you an excuse, or a way out. It gives you space to provide yourself with a break for a minute. Listen to that kind voice within say, "It's OK. Eventually, you will learn how to do this like you learned a lot of other stuff in your life before. It is just going to take some time. You are fine!”