Every Day Mindfulness: Cultivating ‘Beginner’s Mind’

backtoschool

Beginnings

noun: the point in time or space at which something starts
synonyms: dawn, birth, inception, origination, genesis, emergence, start, point, launch

Recently I stumbled on a LinkedIn post that deeply resonated. The title was ‘September is the new January.’ The author described how the energy of autumn coupled with her memories of childhood make the season a perfect opportunity to consider new beginnings.

When I stopped to think about it, she’s right. By September the lazy, haphazard days of summer have come to an end, vacations are over and and school is back in session.  Those of us with school aged children breathe a sigh of relief as we find ourselves easing back into a more predictable routine. Cooler temperatures make outdoor life much more bearable and what’s better than curling up in a warm blanket at the end of a long day?

Thinking back to my own childhood, autumn was indeed an exciting time of year. An avid reader, writer and art lover, nothing was more exciting than heading back to school with my brand new knapsack filled with new Crayola crayons, bottles of Elmer’s glue, freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga # 2 pencils and marble composition books just waiting to be filled. School shopping meant new skirts, jeans and brand new shoes. Best of all it meant a fresh schedule, a new teacher and new friends. I remembered the words of ancient Buddhist Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki:  “the mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept doubt, and open to all of the possibilities.”

In a world that seems so filled with tragedy and despair, where do we find optimism? How do we cultivate hope amidst the bombardment of news crafted less to inform but more to incite anxiety and fear? How can we make the final stretch of the year as fresh and hopeful as the first? How do we create ‘Beginner’s Mind?’

Here are a few tips:

1.  Cultivate mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the practice of ‘waking up,’ becoming aware of all that exists in the present moment. It’s paying attention to a sunset or the warm color palette of autumn trees. It’s tuning in to the crunchy sound of the leaves beneath our feet when we’re on a fall morning walk. It’s inhaling the aroma of a rich cup of coffee before taking the first sip. Mindfulness is intentional attention to the details of every lived experience. And because time moves forward not backward, every moment is inherently a new beginning.

2.  Develop daily rituals. By definition, a ritual is simply an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner. Morning and evening rituals are useful tools for setting time boundaries, helping to mark a clear beginning and end to each day. Opening each day with a prayer, meditation, or a set of exercises helps set the ‘tone’ of the new day.  An evening ritual of a warm bath, a lit candle or a relaxing glass of tea, helps bring all the issues of the day to an end and readies the mind for rest and renewal. Daily rituals help us know how to open to new moments and release those that have passed.

3. Start a creative hobby.  Having creative interests is an excellent way to train the mind to remain open for new possibilities. Art is the territory of the unknown. Painters, writers, quilters, musicians and artists begin with an intention that rarely unfolds exactly as planned.  A musical note heard differently can lead to an completely new song.  The stroke of a paintbrush in a different direction can change the entire picture the artist intended. A chance encounter at a restaurant or an airport can cause a writer to change a plot, a scene or the whole theme of a novel.  Creativity helps the mind become more tolerant of unexpected twists and turns in art and in life.  We learn the skill of ‘reframing’; turning disruptions and ‘bad luck’ into opportunities and new directions.

4.  Break the monotony.  Different actions lead to different experiences. We never know what we can discover by taking a new route to work or a scenic back street home instead of the same highway we travel every day. Changing our weekend routine from the frenetic pace of running errands to hosting a dinner party or a family game night can help strengthen relationships and help us learn new things about each other and ourselves.  Changing the pace of life changes the experience of life, offering variety and the possibility of new beginnings.

5. Be a student.  While most of the programming of our mental and physical functioning  is “hard wired” into us already, we do have the ability to create new brain pathways every time we learn or experience something new.  The brain is made up of millions of nerve cells called neurons that send signals to and from the brain to complete needed functions.  The ‘road’ that these signals travel on is called the ‘neural pathway.’  Neurogenesis (new-roh-jen-eh-sis) is the growth of new neurons and networks. Neuroplasticity is the change in neural pathways that occurs due to certain factors, like behavior, environment, or neural processes. During such changes, the brain engages in synaptic pruning, deleting the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful, and strengthening the necessary ones. Becoming a lifelong student through reading, learning a new language or even doing ordinary tasks differently is a good way to strengthen the brain and recapture the fresh optimism of new beginnings.

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