22 July 2013

Beginner's Mind


TIME: The Weekly Magazine, April 8, 1966

Once upon a time in my Episcopalian journey I had beginner’s mind. I didn’t think of it that way. And no Roman or Episcopal priest worth his formation, certainly not C. FitzSimons Allison, then rector Grace Episcopal Church, would’ve spoken of a “journey”. I think ordained western traditions in the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s, were still struggling with men, that men are sinners, our bodies are corrupt, and God may be dead for us all. Beyond Reverend C. Fitz Simons Allison’s welcome and cordial social grace the technical word “received” might still be the word to welcome a beginner’s mind to Episcopal traditions.
I worked in bookstores. I’d majored in religious studies, though it was called history & literature of religion in my day. I knew of Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind ~ Beginners Mind. I tried to read it. His words were different, steeped in a tradition so new and so other to my mind and ears. I was hopelessly opaque to the simple insight of his cascading revelations. My birth family’s Roman Catholic religious and spiritual pathways bound me; I was entangled. My holy longing was strong; not yet formed by a sustained traditional practice through time. My rote prayer felt empty. It was no longer rote until I was beyond my beginner’s mind. The closest I came to a zen-quiet beyond my beginning narrative prayer was contemplative prayer practiced on a retreat. We sought the still point. A poster in the room proclaimed He is the still point of the turning world. “He” was not the Buddha.
I’ve heard Buddhists speak of “beginner’s mind.” They say the best way to approach meditation is not to focus on how long or how still I meditate, but instead focus on the simple action of coming back from distraction to the still point again and again. Buddhists say if I could see myself as always beginning, and never pay attention to how advanced you were, it would be so much more fruitful. [1] I don’t practice Zen Buddhism. It and Confucianism and Taoism are religious and spiritual cousins. I do practice Taoist Tai Chi. I practice with my body and my mind follows. In so doing I return again and again and repossess my balance and still point. It’s one natural benefit of my physical practice. I practice with my body and my mind follows. The Tao is the still point.
The local Taoist Tai Chi instructors endeavor to keep words out of instruction. Imitation of movement is desired; words and metaphors often lead to distraction, a narrative misapprehension often linked to the student’s visual understanding. There’s no equivalent spiritually integrated bodily religious practice in the western narrative Episcopal tradition. In contrast Episcopalians are enmeshed in words. We isolate body and mind; we schlepp the body, a sort of red-headed devil’s child, the corrupt vessel, as obligation; it’s so unfair. Episcopal beginners grumble about sit, kneel, stand. We sit to learn. We kneel to pray. We stand to sing and give praise. Sit, kneel, stand; sit, kneel, stand; on and on woven through our worship. It’s just a little movement; enough to keep us awake and coming back to the words Ah well. What is to be done?
I’ve heard the first line of the Chinese language Gospel According to John translates as, In the beginning was the Tao. To me this makes complete sense and I have immediate intuitive understanding. If I tried rewriting the beginner’s Taoist Tai Chi practice and mind into a New Testament beginner’s words, as my personal Taoist Tai Chi creation story, I’d say, And the Tao becomes flesh and dwells within us. [2]
In the end there is no “right” way for the beginner except to begin. Social manners, posture, being received, specific books or priests or teachers, none of them are the means of obtaining the “right” state or mind or “proper” manner of movement. To make the effort of any kind within any form is the right state of mind. There is no special state of mind. There’s just practice, participation, practice, participation, and practice.

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