When my yoga instructors first introduced me to the concept of ‘the beginner’s mind,’ I thought it was a load of crap. I mean, if you have to start from the beginning every time, how are you supposed to get anywhere? Most importantly, how was I supposed to know as much as I wanted to know if I had to start from the beginning of the book every time. We only have so many hours in a day after all. It’s like walking from Sydney to London, and having to start from Sydney every time you make a stop. When would you ever get there?
Then last week, I was attacked by a case of food poisoning. That, coupled with 12 hour working days, seriously did me in. And then of course, a couple of days after I got back to Sydney, thinking that I had made up for my sleep deprivation and dehydration, and that my internals were healed, I went into a progressive yoga class. In my mind, I had spent reasonable hours in yoga classes and would be fine.
My body however, was saying something else.
But there I was anyway, jumping into class with a mind that thought that I could do everything. The result, was sweaty and dire. I found out that over a week, my muscles had weakened. You see, my body was taking a beginner’s stance but my mind, with the aid of my ego (or in Sufi terms, nafs) was not having it. At first I was in a state of physical struggle because my mind was saying, “you know this pose, you can go deeper. You did it last week!” while my body was going, “shut up, this is not working for me today!” In this struggle I was not paying attention to my breath, therefore putting myself into the ever amazing ‘fight or flight’ mode. The more annoyed I got, the faster my breath, and the more wobbly my poses got. Once I took note of what I was doing and concentrated on my breath my poses lessened in depth. And then it was the two voices in my head arguing about what my body was going to do – Muz was probably right when he said that to some degree we are all schizophrenic.
People wonder how I have been practicing yoga for three years and I fall more in love with it every year. In a power vinyasa flow, yes the sequence of the practice changes but in Bikram it is the same 26 poses in every class, and you see people doing the same thing four or five times a week for tens of years without getting bored. Part of this awesome-ness, I think is attributed to the cultivation of the beginner’s mind. We are taught to see every breath as a starting point, and every pose like it is new to us. We are trained to not make assumptions about our bodies based on yesterday or even five minutes ago, instead focusing on right now.
If you watch a truly experienced yogi, they know what their bodies need in that instance. You might see them break it out in full jump-backs and upward facing dogs and just like that switch to modifications, and almost just as quickly switch back to crazy poses. They can preserve energy and maintain a generally steady heart-rate throughout an entire 90 minute class. The beginner’s mind for them, works in every instance. They have learned to discipline their egos, and have a wonderful ongoing dialogue with their bodies. When they fall out of poses they start from their beginning, ensuring that their foundation is strong before they move on. When they get into strong poses, it is with compassion and communication instead of pushing, struggling and panting.
A few months ago, I read Keith Richard’s biography, Life. In it there was an account of how Keith relates to his instrument. He would be playing and sometimes he would stop, hold his guitar up and look at it in wonder, like he had never seen it before. It was through this beginner’s mindset that he keeps seeing new possibilities, and that has made him one of the best guitarists, in my book at least.
We have a lot of stimulation nowadays, and somewhere in our minds we have the assumption that new is good, and we just want to move away from the beginning. People don’t say it but some relationships fail because people get bored. They expect their partners to keep things interesting, but can you imagine what it would be like if you looked at your partner with beginner’s eyes every day? Can you imagine what it would be like if every time you made love it was not based on the assumption of “oh he/she liked this yesterday and therefore they would like it today?” Can you imagine if every kiss and every touch was like the first?
What if every project you were meant to do, you came at it like it was the first time you were doing a project? What if you looked at the tree in your backyard like you’d never seen it before? What if every time you stepped on grass or sand, you savoured how it felt on your feet like it was completely new to you? Have you ever watch a child play with its own foot like it was the most amazing thing ever? Isn’t it fascinating?
At the Disaster Management conference I ran late last month, they said one of our failings it that we plan all upcoming disasters on the last one. The thing is, that’s how our brains work on everything. We have all these assumptions and past experiences that we rely on and before you know it, based on one experience, you’re saying things like, “this always happens to me,” and, “you always do this!” Well, once is not always. Once was just once.
We have become a society where think that new equals exciting, and old equals boring so we buy new toys, get new cars, and jump in and out of relationships – just another way of how we look for validation externally. At the end of it, the new get old and we look for other new things, never knowing contentedness. We assume we know all there is to know about things and off we go looking for something new.
And what’s this fascination with reaching the end? We start new relationships where the old ones left off, and we start a job like we already know all there is to know about it. We hire people who sound like they know everything, when what they know is based on their past organisation and might not work with ours. When you read fairy tales, the big white wedding is “the end,” but what would happen if we started seeing everything as the beginning?
The end of your single life is the beginning of your life together. Likewise the ending of a relationship is the beginning of your journey towards finding yourself. In a yoga pose, every instance is the beginning of getting to know where your breath is, how your body is feeling, where your thoughts are going.
Yes life moves, as it will, and every day we are getting older. Our fear of the end makes us cling to our mortality and live in fear of death, but what if death is the beginning of something else? It’s only how we look at things, and when I look at death as another beginning, it seems to me that every instance, no matter what stage in life we are at, we are always at the beginning…. and at the beginning is where there is possibility, and magic. So for the sake of possibility maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start celebrating the things we don’t know instead of the things we do know.