Practicising the Zen Beginner's Mind

How poignant that right now in the midst of the Covid 19 world pandemic it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which highlights more than ever how we ha

How poignant that right now in the midst of the Covid 19 world pandemic it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which highlights more than ever how we have to choose carefully both where we put our focus (in this case I am covertly referring to ‘the media’) and how we interpret it, to maintain not only our mental stability but downright sanity.

We live in a world of science and statistics; figures on how many new casualities there are, fatalities, millions pledged here, millions lost there, how many speculative weeks and months to the new ‘miracle’ vaccine. .

Our world is traditionally dominated by achievement - aims, objectives, grades, sales funnels and GNP. However, it may now be appropriate to find new goals that are not dependant on the world returning quite to its former self. A time to remember that other world that feeds our Souls – the poetic world of dreams, hopes, aspirations and intentions. Perhaps more than ever before we can find solace in our favourite music, movies and artforms and the creative aspects of our lives. When we open to creativity in our lives we have to employ a different set of skills that traditional education systems deprioritise. Being creative means being open, thinking outside the box, challenging and having new perspective.

There is an old Zen saying:

‘In the beginners mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’

Having a beginners mind means that we approach things with openness, curiosity and interest. There the alluring ingredient of possibility is thrown into the mix

The Taoists believe in ‘direct knowing’ taking precedence over ‘intellectual knowing’. This means that we listen to all of our five senses and more. Our bodies have a receptivity, sensitivity and intelligence that bypasses our high level cognitive functioning. By listening in deeply to the felt sensations of our bodies we can find a depth of truth and beauty in the present moment, be it the sun smiling on us and warming our bodies, or the sound of the birds singing above us. That is not to say that we should rely solely on our heart and guts to direct our lives; there is a very practical aspect to living from logic but we can embrace both intellectual and intuitive knowing to illuminate our paths.

If you have never tried it, keeping a gratitude journal can bring great rewards. Research shows consistently that practicising gratitude makes one more pro social, have better self esteem, release negativity and experience much higher levels of happiness. [1]

We can shift what feels challenging and difficult into opportunity and adventure, and the shifts can be small and incremental. There is always for example, something to feel grateful for with each waking day, whether it is the fact that you had a warm comfortable bed to wake up in, or you are fully abled enough to be able to physically arise from it.

Sometimes when things are simplified, and external distractions stripped away what is really important in your life become crystal clear and the things that no longer serve you will be released. Pain is very often a catalyst for change.

As we pare down and strip back our lives, it also gives us the opportunity to notice our own outdated beliefs and attitudes. As one friend has described of this pandemic, ‘it is a turning point for the human race.’

Our modern world can make us quite inward looking, and now we have a clear choice to see the world with new eyes and with a bigger lens. No longer focussed solely on our personal needs we are effectively losing some of the importance of our personal self, our ego [2]. I have familiarity with that place of ‘depression’ as so many of us have, and it can be incredibly myopic. Sure we need to maintain daily and regular routines to stabilise the unsteady ground beneath our feet, have focus, stay courageous and orientate towards future goals and growth; but we also have to let go and surrender to the great mystery of life. Rather than only seeking immediate answers we need to look to the bigger questions that are out there.

I will conclude this piece with a quote from one of my personal teachers who turns 100 this year, the amazing Anna Halprin one of the great pioneers to officially recognise dance as a healing art:

‘I've always been an artist. But I'd never connected art closely to life experience until I was stricken with cancer in 1972. That was a big shift for me, because I began to ask all kinds of questions: What am I doing? Who am I doing this for? Why am I dancing? What difference does it make anyway?

Up until that time I essentially used my life to create my art; and then, by asking all those various questions ……I began to shift to using art to create my life.

Making that shift required a lot of different questions and searching for new answers’ [3]

If like Halprin we approach this current world climate with artful curiosity,

what then are the real questions we need to be asking?



2 Nb Definition of ‘ego’ not being psychoanalytic theory specific.

3 Halprin, A. (2002). Interview by T Amorok. Video recording, February 4th, Mountain Home Studio, Kentfield, CA.

c/o Schlitz, Vieten, Amorok (2007), Living Deeply, New Harbinger Publ, CA.

Categories: mental health, science, somatics, spirituality