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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Beginner's Fingers, Beginner's Mind

Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: Spend a Little Time Outside

Remember sunshine? Remember vitamin D? Remember the healing power of nature when our souls are disturbed?

A 2022 review article in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction notes that time spent in nature tuned into one's senses (known as shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term that means "forest bathing") can be effective in reducing mental health symptoms in the short term, particularly anxiety.

Here's a wonderful poem by farmer-poet Wendell Berry that speaks to that experience. I also shared it here in the spring of 2020.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Beginner's Fingers, Beginner's Mind

A few posts back I talked about a deep desire to write and share music that had re-awakened in my soul, my first song in 30 years rising "behind my eyes, begging, through a monsoon of tears, to come out."

That song, "You Can Get Back Home," is now fully born. It was a long, long labor, in part because I don't have any formal musical background, so I end up having to do a kind of hunt-and-peck to find the tune and chords that are echoing in my heart.

The night those tears and desires rose up so profoundly, I knew almost immediately that I had to take music lessons so I could better express at least some of those echoes.

Though I was in several choirs when I was younger, then played guitar and wrote some songs when I was active in religious groups in early adulthood, I have only had a few music lessons in my life. That's because, for whatever reasons, I was very ashamed--terrified, even--of being a beginner. So it was almost impossible for me to practice, which (of course) made lessons extremely painful.

I'm not sure why I was so afraid. Perhaps some of it was having older siblings who were (naturally) much more accomplished musically than me. Certainly part of it was a very fundamental and powerful insecurity on my part.

There is, however, a Buddhist concept that's an alternative to beginner's shame or beginner's fear, known as "beginner's mind." The Buddhist magazine Lion's Roar notes that "when we start to learn anything for the first time, we are fresh, curious, and open to all possibilities. Our mind is not yet solid with concepts, opinions, and certainties." The idea is to maintain that fresh openness as a basic approach in life.

"Don't-know mind" is closely related. Zen Master Bon Soeng wrote,"Don’t-Know doesn't mean stupid. It means 'What Is It?' Suddenly our eyes are open, we’re vibrating with energy because we wonder, 'What?'… rather than, 'Oh yeah, I know that!'"

From this perspective, to be a beginner is a gift. And what a wonderful way to approach the world, other people and our own psyches: with wonder, humility, joy, freedom and non-judgment.

So, starting the end of August I will be taking piano lessons--because that's one of the best ways to learn some of the basics of music--then later guitar and maybe voice with a lovely woman at Front Porch, a music collective in Charlottesville.

It's hard to be a beginner at this stage of my life, in part because I expect most of the beginners at Front Porch will be quite a bit younger than me. Yet those cramped and tentative beginner's fingers can offer a gateway into the energized but peaceful place of beginner's mind. I will be walking through that gateway one small step at a time.

Anyone who wants to express some deep passion in their life will inevitably have to go through the fire of exposure, imperfection and failure. Fire is scary but if you hang back, as I did for so long with music--for whatever reasons--neither do you get the joy of new creation or the satisfaction of growth.

Still, I wasn't quite sure how to integrate the expression and fulfillment of those deep desires, the refiner's fire of imperfection, and the childlike simplicity of beginner's mind.

So I was surprised and pleased to find, just a few days ago, that Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh had a new take on beginner's mind (new to me anyway), expressed during a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey. She had asked him about his journey to becoming a monk. He said it started when he was seven or eight:

"There was only the very strong desire. The feeling that I would not be happy if I could not become a monk. They call it the beginner's mind—the deep intention, the deepest desire that a person may have. And I can say that until this day, this beginner's mind is still alive in me."

A few stanzas from my new song:

The road may be unclear,

full of fears, falling tears

I turned and ran for years,

now the fire has appeared.

To live your heart's desire

you must go on through the fire.

Though that love may burn

you will learn

to yearn and go on higher.

May you have courage to follow your passion, and the blessings of beginner's mind.

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Deer and trees, Simon Wilkes, unSplash

Great blue heron, Serenity

Guitar, Jefferson Santos, unSplash

Child, Milan Manoj, unSplash

Burning rose, Gaspar Uhas, unSplash


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