Beginner’s Mind

“Resolve to always be beginning – to be a beginner” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

Life is not a line, it is a spiral.

We think, or are conditioned to think, of life as a linear process, beginning with birth and ending in death, with a single line of progress in between. The classical accounts of the Celts and Druids suggest that they had a radically different view of life, as a cyclical process of birth, death and rebirth – an endless spiral, turning outwards and returning inwards. Philip Carr-Gomm (2002) writes that “the old image of the cyclicity of life, of life as a circle or spiral, which humanity inuitively knew from the dawn of time, and whose symbols were carved on stones all over the world, was replaced a few hundred years ago by the symbol of the straight line”.

The linear view of life limits us to a concept of progress that forces us forwards, whether we like it or not. We can see as a society where this false promise of progress has led us – to disconnection from nature and each other and to the brink of catastrophe. In the individual mind, a fixation on linearity and progress can lead to similar alienation from the self, from the soul, from the spirals and cycles, currents and eddies of our inner beings.

If we see life as linear, we start to see other things as linear too. Learning, for instance. We as a culture tend to get that out of the way early then move on to the next thing. Knowledge is seen as a list of facts to accrue, process, regurgitate in an exam, and thus progress to the next level. It is rarely valued for itself.

Learning, like life, is not a line, it is a spiral.

At any point in life, we can learn something new.

At any point in life we can learn something old.

Having learned something once, does not mean we are done, that we know all there is to know about that thing. Revisiting and repeating learning is an important part of deepening understanding and engagement. Like learning a language, an instrument, a skill, if it is not regularly used, refreshed and renewed we lose it.

So, after having first embarked on the training programme of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids some dozen years or more ago, and having left it to explore other Druidries and other paths through the forest, I am beginning again – spiralling back to the beginning of the Bardic Grade, seeing it anew, learning it anew. Life spirals outwards and returns.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – TS Eliot.

I am trying to experience the course with what is often known as “beginner’s mind”.

The concept of beginner’s mind comes from Zen Buddhism, where it is called Shoshin. Shoshin refers to a state of mind that has an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even one you are already familiar with.

Leo Babuta of the blog Zen Habits (2017) describes it like this:

“What is beginner’s mind? It’s dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. If you’ve ever learned something new, you can remember what that’s like: you’re probably confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning, but you’re also looking at everything as if it’s brand new, perhaps with curiosity and wonder. That’s beginner’s mind.”

According to Babuta, consciously cultivating an attitude of beginner’s mind to life can help lead to better experiences, better relationships, less procrastination and less anxiety, allowing us to be more flexible, open, curious and grateful.

When applying beginner’s mind to something like revisiting a course that I studied before, the key is to drop any preconceptions of the course based on previous memories and experiences, and simply allow the course to speak to me, now. Doing so should allow me to make connections I missed before, or see new insights I had not noticed, opening myself to the flow of Awen, of inspiration and free association rather than being clouded by judgements or held back by the cynical part of the mind that says “I know all this already”. A Druid never knows everything, but a Druid knows that there is always something new to learn.

Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors and perhaps the best philosopher of our times without even meaning to be, has a beautiful exchange in the book Lords and Ladies (1992) between “Diamanda”, a self-proclaimed witch and the formidable Granny Weatherwax that I feel characterises beginner’s mind better than anyone else:

“Who’s this?” said Diamanda, out of the corner of her mouth.
“Um, it’s Granny Weatherwax,” said Perdita. “Um. She’s a witch, um…”
“What level?” said Diamanda.
Nanny Ogg looked around for something to hide behind. Granny Weatherwax’s eyebrow twitched.
“Levels, eh?” she said. “Well, I suppose I’m level one.”
“Just starting?” said Diamanda.
…”Oh, yes,” said Granny, quietly. “Just starting. Every day, just starting.”

No matter how much experience you have, beginner’s mind is a useful corrective to complacency or know-it-all-ism. Every day, we are just starting. Every day is a chance to begin again, with openness, curiosity and awareness. To notice the magical in the mundane, to see the familiar as extraordinary, to read a story or poem or Gwers that you have read a dozen times and to read it again for the first time.

And the spiral turns, beginning again, as it ever was and as it ever will.

References:

Babuta, L. “Approaching life with beginner’s mind”, Zen Habits, 27 January 2017 https://zenhabits.net/beginner/

Carr-Gomm, P. Druid Mysteries: Ancient wisdom for the 21st century. Rider, 2002.

Pratchett, T. Lords and Ladies. Corgi, 1992.

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