Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Beginner’s Mind

A few weeks ago, I started practicing taiji (tai chi) at a different martial arts school. I’m not new to taiji, but I’m new to this school, so I am sort of a beginner and not a beginner at the same time. Some things are familiar to me, but every school, and even every teacher, has their own way of doing things, so there is always a steep learning curve at the outset.

The students begin class as a whole doing qigong or other warm up exercises, and then break into small groups according to their level. I thought I was moving through the preliminary stuff pretty quickly, and I was eager to get to the more advanced material. But after several classes, the teacher placed me in a beginner group with people who had not done any taiji at all, ever. The instruction was at the most basic introductory level.

It didn’t take me long to start feeling impatient, chafing at the slow pace, wishing to be in the group I could see in my peripheral vision that was working on material more suited to my level, at least in my not-so-humble opinion. I felt frustrated that the teacher couldn’t immediately see that a mistake had been made and didn’t move me to the other group.

Wow, I caught myself. What the heck is going on with me? My ego knickers were in a knot. I was violating every basic principle of taiji and everything I’ve learned from the Tao Te Ching. I was not being present. I was distracted and judgmental. I was wanting reality to be different and trying to make it conform to my desire. I was being disrespectful (at least in my thoughts) to the teacher. I was caught up in my mind’s narrative and missing the opportunity to practice in the situation I was in, which is really the only practice there is.

One of the slogans I’ve trained with for years is “Don’t insist. Don’t resist.” I was doing both, unlike my other beginning group mates who were fully engaged with what was happening in our group.

Hmm, so apparently the beginning group was right where I belonged. I clearly have a lot to learn. As I said to a friend after recounting my story, I might not learn a lot about taiji in this class, but I’m going to learn a lot about myself! And perhaps that is the same thing after all.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ~Shunryu Suzuki

22 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind”

  1. Perhaps that was why you were put there- the recognition that the Taji teaching wasn't as important as the teaching of self.

  2. Isn't it a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears? Think you've found that niche Galen. I need to remind myself of what my own attitude looks like. Blessings!

  3. Galen, the universe has brought me many teachers lately, too. Sometimes I'd like to take a break from all that truth…;)

  4. I used to perform tai chi when I lived in Boulder. I attended a weekly class and learned the moves of the short form, but now I don't remember any of it. Perhaps it's time to return to it. Thank you for another uplifting post about how to attune to what is. 🙂

  5. Thanks, DJan. Taiji is a great practice because it engages body, mind, and spirit. Yoga might be like that too. And maybe there are other practices as well. All of these practices allow our bodies to teach us directly what our minds will never be able to teach us. Meditation does the same. Even breathing. Remember that book "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? I think everything we need to know we can learn from breathing! Ha! Maybe that's another post.

  6. To look at life every day with beginner's mind is a challenging practice, but, well worth it. It teaches us so much about living now and we gain an appreciation for life in all its multiplicity. Life's energy, positive and negative,is swirling all around us. If we can train ourselves to be observers without attachments we will be working from what S. Suzuki called original mind.

    I go for a walk or bike ride every day through the same streets and parks.I enjoy tending my garden and checking out new life every moment. Nature is so amazing, it can show us new things every moment if we have beginners mind. I make it a practice to keep to the beginners mind as often as I can. Its easier when I am alone . When I am with others I am working from the head more, thinking and talking while projecting thought into the future or remembering past.Its seems harder to practice beginners mind in a group because an unchecked ego can rise its head up and take over again. Ego does not like the idea of living with beginner's mind in the now, it can't survive through that practice.

    I read Shunryu Suzuki's book 'Zen Mind, Beginner's mind 'a couple years ago .

    A quote from his book fits well with your post. ….'the goal of practice is always to keep beginner's mind'

  7. A great description of beginner's mind, Brian. Right, those pesky people! If not for them I would be enlightened in nature all the time — ha!

    Thanks for reminding me of that quote. It's now on a post it note where I can see it often. I need to reread that book!

  8. Perhaps this can be our practice; being very present when talking to others and having beginners's mind in seeing each person as a very unique individual, full of the unexpected and perhaps even having undesirable qualities in our judgement. When we cooperate rather then compete for attention in a group, empathy and compassion should come more natural. All, easier said, then accomplished.

    I found the book again, it was collecting dust along with a couple hundred others, that at some point I should get rid of, or re-read again..haha, and I may reread this one for sure. Its a classic on Zen for the western world.

  9. Brian, you are psychic. Your suggestion for practice is exactly on point for another situation in my life right now. Thank you. Now I'm going to go find my copy of that book, which, like yours, is gathering dust somewhere. Time to read it again!

  10. Thanks, Galen, for your gentle reminders…this time you have re-taught me about humility. I "teach" a weekly tai chi class and, to highlight the truth you are exploring, you can't imagine what I learn while preparing for the class/practice. In our class I don't conduct an "advanced" group separation. I (currently) believe that during this particular class time we can all learn something new whether it be a form, a movement, a step, a well synced breath…with your extensive background you know what I mean. We are there to practice and observe together. To move harmoniously and breathe purposefully…but not necessarily identically. Make sense?

  11. I like to think of a beginners mind as begin childlike – and that's where the quote kind of fits – all things are possible, with an open curious mind that hasn't being checked or restrained by having learnt the 'rules'as they are so prevalent around us or put in place with prgressions of accomplishment. It's that kind of open mind of excitement and wonder which artists tend to use and talk a lot about. Having said all this, I'd have been very ruffled by being put in the beginners group too, so I think you did a great check on yourself right in the middle of the experience. Cheers, Galen!

  12. That is a good comparison — being childlike. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said we should be like the children gathered around him, and that the kingdom of heaven belonged to those like children. And yes, that was an interesting experience of seeing myself in that moment of ego struggle. So human. Thanks for commenting, Lynne.

  13. I loved this one Galen. I do not practice Tai Chi but still experience the impatience of one that thinks they know it all.

    You will be amused but here is what happened to me. My daughter and I were in San Juan Puerto Rico this last week where we took a mixologist class at the Bacardi Rum distillery. One of the drinks we were learning to make was a simple mojito…rum, simple syrup, lime and mint. How hard could it be?

    So I proceeded to do what I do…move without listening! Then I heard a loud voice call out "who is putting their mint into the class and smashing it?? No one want smashed up mint in their drink1"

    As I raised my hand my daughter was explaining about my listening ability and my ego, trying to make the guy understand about the white haired lady standing next to her could do such a think.

    I will admit that my way gives a way better drink but the mixologist class give me a good look at myself. I did laugh a lot. My daughter was still explaining as we left the class. What a pair we make.

    Have a wonderful day.


  14. That is a great story Barbara! Thank you for sharing it. And yes, a perfect example of the difference between beginner and expert mind! So funny.

  15. I can relate to this one. I have had some similar humbling moments and learned great lessons from them.
    Blessings and hugs for you!

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