Spring  2009

Selection from


Spring’s Stirrings:

The Art of Being a Beginner

In spring we are all children again. We experience beginnings — life on the move, arising before our eyes. Everything new. Everything now. “Now the ears of my ears awake. Now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”1

My teaching colleagues suggest that when we are tempted to say: “It’s difficult — I can’t, we shift to saying “I am a beginner at this. I can seek help. I can learn.” 2 This is compassionate counsel. We are all beginners in many arenas. The invitation is to help one another.

Beginners in many arenas. Apprentices — with some skill— in others. Masters and virtuosos rarely.3 In the spring, new growth and the awe and joy of beginnings.Zen practitioners gives us an even deeper perspective by celebrating “beginner’s mind” throughout all the circumstances of our lives. Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki tells us:

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin,
which means “beginner’s mind.
The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind…
Our “original mind” includes everything with itself.
It is always rich and sufficient within itself…
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything;
it is open to everything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert’s mind there are few.4

Consider the season of spring and the notion of “beginner’s mind.” Can we carry this touch of spring into all the seasons of a year or a life? Ancient Chinese healers said “yes.” They taught that all of the seasons were present in any of the seasons. To be sure, the note of spring is sounded most strongly in the season of spring. However, with practice, we can hear the note of springtime beginnings in summer and autumn and winter too. The art of being a beginner is evident when we are at the stage of youthful student. (And we remain students life-long.) The art of being a beginner has a different flavor when we cultivate it in the summer of our householder years. And, as we enter the later years of life — the autumn and winter stages — surely we are a beginner at doing this phase of life too. In short, there is a permanent place for being a beginner wherever we are in our life.

Constant Beginnings

In a sense, we are always beginning again. We get good at kindergarten and then we move to first grade. Just when we are getting the hang of elementary school, we move to middle school and then high school. We learn how to operate in high school and, in a flash, we begin again in college. After our school years, we start anew in the work world. We are novices, rookies, still wet behind the ears. Perhaps we marry and have barely adjusted to marriage, when we begin again with children. And so it goes. When we move into mature competence at our work and a settled feeling of seeing the children into adulthood, retirement arrives. And we begin again, here, seeking out what it means to be an elder, what it means to simplify and enter the deep waters. How do we preserve beginner’s mind, in the best sense, throughout the seasons of a life?

Here is a nursery rhyme:

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He had whiskers on his chin again
Along came the wind and blew them in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan....Begin again.

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He kicked up an awful dinnegann
Because they said he must not sing again
Poor old Michael Finnegan....Begin again.

There is likewise a comic Irish ballad called “Finnegan’s Wake.” In the song, Tim Finnegan dies. His body is laid out at his house for an Irish wake, complete with the expected food and drink. As the evening progresses, the wake turns into a brawl, “woman to woman and man to man.” A noggin of whiskey goes flying and spills on the corpse. Tim Finnegan awakes! A “wake” and “awake.” Round and round. We are all Finnegan and we constantly “Begin again.”

Beginning again after a fall

“Time for you to get back up,” my father said. I was young, riding horseback, and had taken a serious spill. After checking to make sure the damage was not dire, my father made sure I got back on the horse. “Time to get up and continue,” he said.

Consider beginning again after a fall. Sometimes, the fall is something out of our control. A setback, a natural disaster, a disappointment, a betrayal, an injustice suffered. Sometimes the fall is our doing. We caused the suffering to others and to ourselves and to the web of relationships that surrounded us. Furthermore, our harsh words or deeds hardened the hearts of those affected.5 What is needed is a reversal — metanoia, in the Greek — a change of direction.

Here beginning again means to “true ourselves up,” to remember and return to who we are at our depth, to heed the call of our larger and deeper self. The Roman Catholic tradition advised three steps and called them (1) confession, (2) contrition, and (3) satisfaction. We can think of them as mirroring three aspects of the present moment — the past-in-the-present, the present-in-the-present, and the future-in-the-present.

 We find these three steps embedded in the Twelve-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Much earlier, we find them expressed poetically in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante places the three steps at the doorway to inner work.6 In Dante’s imagery, the first step is white marble, polished like a mirror. The second step is rough, black and broken, the color of grief. The third step is blood-red porphyry, representing sacrifices needed to put things right. The three steps are the steps of confession, contrition, and satisfaction. Here is how we might think of them:
  • Confession: The marble mirror asks us to admit what we have done — to say it out loud, preferably to another human being, to own the action that caused harm — whether an act of commission or omission.

  • Contrition: The black step invites us to bring our heart into the picture. To feel and express sorrow for the suffering caused — to others and ourself and the web of trust that sustains us. This step also prompts us to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, where that is appropriate.

  • Satisfaction: The blood-red porphyry step asks us to amend our ways, to redirect our conduct, to repair, so far as possible, the harm we have caused. We are called to seek a future path more consonant with our own deep nature and the nature of our life together. We are asked to finish the “turn around” by restoring harmony, outwardly repairing the harm, and inwardly committing ourselves to install the practices and gather the support to proceed in healthier fashion. [Satis-facere = to make it enough]

This older way of beginning again after a fall is down-to-earth, honest and robust, much like tough love. We are called to face, in sorrow, what is unresolved in us, to dismantle destructive habits and to walk a more positive path. The practice of the three steps is not meant to have us dwell in guilt nor regret. In fact, such regression often is a kind of sentimentality in disguise. Instead the three steps point us to the inner work of practice whereby we stop, look and listen to what is ours to do. The restorative work is done with compassionate gaze, with help at hand — remembering that we are not solitary beings but already and always enfolded in communal bonds. Where we were unskilled, we can develop skills. Where we were mindless, we can practice mindfulness. Where we were unloving, we can enkindle loving kindness.

The mystic Rumi encourages us:

Come, come, whoever you are.
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
This is not a caravan of despair.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve broken
your vows a thousand times, still
come, and yet again, come.7

Steady as we go — celebrating the Good and Beautiful

To reduce unnecessary suffering and to promote creative possibility for our common life — a worthy mission. The three steps, like three notes on a xylophone, aid us to reverse patterns that diminish life. Yet there is another side — to affirm and celebrate the good and the beautiful. This is also a part of a daily “beginning again.”

How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading too fast?
How do you lose yourself in someone and never lose your way?
How do you not run out of new things to say?
And since we know we’re always changing, how can it be the same?
And tell me how year after year you’re sure your heart will fall apart each time you hear her/[his] name?
I know the way I feel for you is now or never.
The more I love the more I am afraid
that in your eyes I may not see forever.
If we can be the best of lovers yet be the best of friends,
If we can try with every day to make it better as it grows
with any luck, then I suppose the music never ends.8

Suppose we distinguish between phenomena and the stories we tell about the phenomena.9 Then we can ask: When I go home today, do I see my spouse or parent as phenomena-ever-able-to-surprise-me or do I see that spouse or parent as covered over with stories so I do not have to see anew and listen anew and respect anew and love anew? When I go to the place where I work or volunteer, do I see my co-workers as phenomena-ever-able-to-surprise-me or do I see them as storied over? How do we keep the music playing? How do we make it last? Is not each day a great gift of beginning anew, always anew?

A Chinese saying instructs: “Renew yourself completely each day; do it again and again and forever again.” I would amplify by adding: “Renew your relationships completely each day; do it again and again and forever again.”

Dwelling always at the beginning

“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.” At our core, we are linked to the revolving universe and the Ever-present Origin — the still point of the turning world, the love that moves the sun and the other stars.10 In the eternal present, before creation, so teaches Islam, we — the human ones — said “Yes” to God.11 We agreed, in a time before time, to serve in what we might call the Great Work and the Great Love. Such primal directedness is inscribed in our very being. In the biblical account, we are created in the image and likeness of God.12 To dwell always at the beginning is to engage in remembrance of ourselves in relationship to the Great Mystery, the ground and goal of our being and becoming.

At the deepest level, we stand at this point — in time and out of time. Foolish beings of wayward passions13 yet touched, through and through, by the divine. To see one another in this way is to love with exquisite courtesy. As if the play were ending and we let go of our roles to take a bow. Brothers and sisters of royal lineage. Realizing that we are and are not the roles we play.

Forever Young

We live in a youth culture. When youth is the measuring stick, then, as we age, all seems to be decline. Perhaps we have confused youth with vitality. To be vital, interested, engaged in ongoing learning and consistent renewal —perhaps this says it better. Earlier I spoke about how there was a touch of spring in every stage of life — student and householder, forest dweller and sage. A unique vitality for each task. If so, we can reclaim the words about youth, without having to cancel the gift of years and without having to pretend we are what we are not. I invite you to be blessed by listening to the Bob Dylan song, “Forever Young,” with new ears:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young. 14

"Beginnings" © by Anne Marchaud on display at ZenithGallery.com.


1 I am quoting the last lines of ee cummings’ well-known poem “I thank You God for this amazing day…” See Selected Poems of E.E. Cummings, ed. Richard S. Kennedy (New York: Liveright, 1994), p. 167.

2 I am thinking of my colleagues in the Master of Arts in Applied Healing Arts program at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, Maryland. See http://www.tai.edu

3 I think here of distinctions used in the EST training of Werner Erhard with its reliance on some of the work of Fernando Flores.

4 See Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1970), p. 21.

5 “Sheikh Muzaffer [a modern spiritual teacher in the Sufi Halveti-Jerrahi order] used to say that every smile and every kind word softens the heart, but every hurtful word or action hardens it.” See Robert Frager, Heart, Self and Soul: The Sufi Psychology of Growth, Balance and Harmony (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1999), p. 62.

6 See Dante, The Purgatorio, Canto IX.

7 See Coleman Barks, translator, The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 225.

8 How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman (WB Music-ASCAP).

9 For more on this key distinction, see my book Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Institute, 2004), especially the first three chapters.

10 The Ever-Present Origin is a phrase from Jean Gebser, the still point is an image from T. S. Eliot’s "Four Quartets," and the phrase “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” comes from the last lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

11 I refer to what is called in Islam “The Day of Alast,” referring to a covenant between God and humankind prior to creation. “Am I not [a-lastu] your Lord [bi-rabbi-kum]? They [the humans] said, “Yes, we do testify.” However paradoxically expressed, this is a way to affirm who we are in the widest possible context. See Qu’ran 7:172.

12 See Genesis 1:26-27.

13 David Brazier (Dharmavidya), a teacher in the Amida or Pure Land strand of Buddhism, translates the Japanese word “bombu” as “a foolish being of wayward passion.” See David Brazier (Dharmavidya), Who Loves Dies Well: On the Brink of Buddha’s Pure Land (Winchester, UK: O Books Division of John Hunt Publishing Ltd, 2007), p. 12.

14 Lyrics copyright 1973 Ram’s Horn Music. See www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/foreveryoung.