Beginner's Mind

Can we learn to recreate the magic of 'the first time' again and again and again?

BY: Anne Cushman


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As I drove home, the mountains were gold with aspen. The cold autumn wind smelled of pinyon from a thousand woodstoves. I thought of one of my recurring dreams: that a wall in my bedroom had rolled away and revealed a whole other room that I hadn't even known was there.

Since that day, I've unrolled my yoga sticky mat at least 6,000 times-- in Paris flats, Arizona motels, California redwoods, grubby Indian hostels with rickshaw horns blaring outside the unscreened windows. I've done tens of thousands of Downward-Facing Dog poses. I've folded into forward bends, arched into backbends, twisted and turned upside down so many times that the motions feel like part of my identity, as familiar as my face in the mirror.

With so much repetition, it's easy to start to take this practice for granted--to imagine that I "know" Downward Dog, to let my mind drift as I flow through a Sun Salutation on autopilot. I no longer tumble effortlessly into that sense of being a trailblazer in the wilderness, my awareness forging ahead into unexplored territory in my neck, my spine, and my heart. I catch myself moving automatically, the way I brush my teeth--my mind recounting my disappointments and dreams, lamenting the ways my life and my body have failed to live up to my expectations, reciting the litany of the daily tasks that lie ahead.

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few," wrote the great Zen master Suzuki Roshi. The challenge for me now is to become a beginner again.

For who am I to think that I know my body, my yoga practice, my mind, my family, and friends? Our lives, our bodies, the people we love--they are endlessly recreating themselves, born fresh in every breath they take. This is the radical teaching that yoga offers: to focus my awareness like a magnifying glass on the familiar tinder of my life until it bursts into flame.

My first yoga teacher left town a few months after I took my first class--he drove off to enroll in a massage school in Florida. But it didn't matter. I began practicing every morning in the chilly living room of my adobe cabin. My roommates and I were running out of firewood and didn't have money to buy more. One day to keep warm, we began burning our old papers in the woodstove--bank statements, love letters, file cabinets full of notes from college classes. In the heat of burning my past, I did my first wobbly headstand, and felt my whole world turn upside down.

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