“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” ―Shunryu Suzuki
To view life with a beginner’s mind is to look at the world through the eyes of a child. The world becomes a place that is full of curiosity and wonder. I’ve witnessed this when I watch children at play. Sometimes they are amazed, open, and playful, but at other times they may be sad, restless and cranky. Yet no matter their mood, there is almost always a willingness to start anew: they are open to the next experience.
In contrast, we as adults can be guarded and cautious with our feelings. We tend to turn away from pain, and when joy arises, we want to cling to it. This conditional way of approaching life can have a negative impact on our emotional well-being, as it tends to create a limited sense of self and a narrow view of the world.
How can we meet life with a beginner’s mind—one that is open, curious, and compassionate toward not just ourselves, but all of life?
Look at the world through a child’s eyes.
Sit with a young child for even a few moments and your perspective on life can shift. Children look at the world with eyes of interest and fascination, drawing joy from the experience of playing in the snow or simply watching leaves being blown by the wind. They also readily feel and express all emotions. Children cry when sad, laugh when happy, express anger when disappointed or scared, and play when the opportunity presents itself. In short, they experience life fully, with few expectations or judgments about how things should or shouldn’t be.
When we put away childish things, we lose our innocence and wonder.
“We don’t have to create joy. It’s an innate quality that at times is hidden or dormant. As innocent babies we all have a natural joy. When we’re not overwhelmed by stress and suffering this natural state becomes revealed.” —James Baraz
As we move from adolescence into adulthood, we often lose our connection to our natural joy and openness, the sense of wonder we experienced as children. It’s as if somewhere along the passage to adulthood, we learned that being authentic and experiencing life fully was no longer acceptable.
When we lose our ability to be open to what’s happening, we often instead find ourselves trying to manage and control things, people, and experiences that are beyond our control. We no longer maintain a connection with the joy, vibrancy, and realness contained in every moment of life but connect instead with our thoughts about how life should be. This attempt to control is reactive and is often driven by our aversion to what is happening in our lives.
Our ability to see life as a mixture of pain and joy allows us to experience life to its fullest extent. We learn to open to joy when it arrives, to take it in through our senses and appreciate it, with the knowledge it is a visitor that comes and goes.
By cutting off our vibrant connection to life and diving into the murky world of thoughts, judgments, anxiety, and worry, we lose access to what is healing, joyful and transformational. Sometimes, we can become stuck in this virtual world and lose sight of reality.
Coming back into balance with life.
“And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.” —Kahlil Gibran
The truth is that life is not divided solely into sorrow and joy. Neither of these extremes reflects the reality of life. Together, they represent life as it is. Our ability to see life as a mixture of pain and joy allows us to experience life to its fullest extent. We learn to open to joy when it arrives, to take it in through our senses and appreciate it, with the knowledge that it is a visitor who comes and goes.
Eventually we learn to do the same with all other experiences and open ourselves to all feelings: sadness, anger, joy, happiness, and grief. We stay present in the face of pain and sorrow and respond with compassion and kindness. The power of the compassionate heart is such that it helps us stay open to painful experiences in ways that can heal and transform us. It is when we open ourselves to pain that we realize how precious life can be and that we don’t know when it will end. In doing so, we may learn how to better appreciate life, with all its joys and sorrows, instead of avoiding certain experiences.
Sometimes joy is felt when we are at our most vulnerable because that is when our hearts and mind are open to taking in life as it is.
I’d like to share a personal example of a challenging and painful time I went through with my family.
In 1997, I waited with my son and family in the coronary care unit of the hospital where my father had been admitted. His prognosis was grim, and we had all come together to support each other and our mother. In possession of the painful knowledge that our father was dying, it was challenging to stay present, and we were all caught up in a state of worry, grief, and fear.
Eventually someone said something—I can’t tell you what was said—and what happened next took us all by surprise: My son, who was 4, laughed out loud.
I don’t know what he saw or heard that elicited such a joyful response, but that isn’t important. What is important is that the sound of his laughter was like a balm to our broken hearts. It wasn’t just my family who was affected by it. His laughter, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, shifted the energy in the room. It didn’t make the sadness or the deep hurt of losing a loved one go away, but it helped us to see that there can still be joy, even in the midst of deep pain and sorrow. In that moment I could see that life is a truly a miracle, filled with both joys and sorrows.
I believe that to be present and open to experiencing all of these joys and sorrows truly is a blessing.
May you be well.
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