Beginner’s mind– hauling it from the mat to the boat

pink rock with inscription "have a beginner's mind"

This weekend was all about being a beginner again.  Which is supposed to be a good thing, if the story about the beginner’s mind is to be believed.

In yoga and meditation, teachers often talk about “embracing the beginner’s mind”.  This means something like cultivating increased awareness of many of the features of your current experience (including features we tend to ignore or take for granted), in order to learn and grow.  It also teaches us that life is in a constant state of change, and accepting, even incorporating this acceptance into our practice (of yoga, meditation– anything really) will enrich it for us.  Here’s what The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Wellness says about beginner’s mind:

In yoga, we’re often told to approach poses with beginner’s mind—to seek spaciousness or find the nuances that allow us to discover more about a pose and our relationship to it. [It’s easy to lose] sight of that and focus… simply on completing the flow, hitting a pose, or making it to Savasana. That’s when yoga becomes less about “skillfulness in action” and more about calisthenics.

Beginner’s mind is tough enough in yoga class, let alone embracing it off the mat. An open state of inquiry can be no match for the larger voices of our everyday expectations and demands…

Steven [Leonard, meditation teacher] says, “To truly embrace beginner’s mind, we must soften around our tendency to assume. We’re always assuming what our experiences will be, assuming we know what we like and dislike, assuming our view is the same as it was yesterday. To assume that anything stays the same is to be caught in delusion.” When freed from the fetters of assumption and judgment, our experiences become truer reflections of what is. And what is in one moment is not exactly the same in another. The space between is where learning and growth occur.

Okay, got it.  Let go of assumptions, take what comes.  This plan went really well in my Saturday morning yoga class with Cathleen, my favorite yoga teacher at my favorite yoga studio, Artemis Yoga (please forgive my plugging this place, but I have a soft spot for small business owners at places I love).  She uses fun and funny metaphors (often involving us driving our own car, parking, traffic, etc.) which help us disengage from judgment, in part because we are smiling or laughing.  And in her beginner classes (this was one such), everyone gets  a chance to rediscover beginner’s mind through the gentle pace of the class, variations on basic poses, and holding basic poses longer (if we want).  I was able to reconnect with downward facing dog in a new way on Saturday– using blocks under our hands, I sank into the pose much more, with heels on the floor (which doesn’t happen usually for me).  It reintroduced me to the pose, made it fresh.  I felt reinvigorated, ready to face the world with a new perspective.

Until I arrived at my second activity of the day:  kayak rolling class.  This is taught in a local YMCA pool by the marvelous Kevin of Rock Paddle Surf in Salem, MA (yeah yeah– I’m doing the small business booster thing again) and his marvelous wife Gillian.  I took one rolling class last year, but for me it’s going to take a whole bunch of instruction to get close to rolling a sea kayak (FYI– they’re looong; like 16ish feet long, okay?).

So my beginner’s mind and I pulled up to the parking lot, where everyone else was unloading their boats.  The session is for instruction for noobs like me, and also for folks to practice their rolls and rescues in their own boats.  And of course there was the one guy who tried to paddle standing up in the cockpit.  He went splash!  a lot.

I was very nervous about this class.  In my last rolling class I didn’t feel settled in my boat, and kept worrying about being able to get back in it (getting out of it just happens spontaneously, which is fine).  I tried to remember what I’d learned earlier in the day:

rocks with inscription "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how to translate this bit of wisdom into my current situation.  I figured that embracing my current state without judgment might help calm my waves of panic, but on the other hand, sometimes my current state was underwater, which provoked the perfectly reasonable judgment “Whoa! Time to get out of here!”

Except I was wrong.  Turns out,  beginner’s mind is EXACTLY what you need when you’re in the water, upside down in the cockpit of your boat, holding your paddle and trying to figure out how to do that hip snap to get you topside again.  Luckily for me, I don’t mind being underwater in a kayak– it’s actually kind of interesting.  But I kept trying to analyze the situation and make some decision about which way to move my hip (and which hip to move) while down there.  It was very confusing, and I kept moving the wrong way.  Of course, either Kevin or Gillian was right there to haul me back up, so I wasn’t scared.  But I was frustrated.

I’ve got two more rolling class sessions scheduled for March, and then a weekend-long kayak workshop in Charleston, SC in April.  Maybe I’ll get the roll, maybe I won’t.  I don’t have to have one in order to be a sea kayaker (although it comes in handy).  But I want one.

It’s clear to me now that I’ll need to leave judgment and assumptions and expectations (with their accompanying fears) behind in order to be in a proper state to hear what my body, my boat, Kevin, and Gillian are telling me.  After all, kayaking is like life.  Sometimes, we’re right side up, looking to the horizon.  And sometimes, we’re here.

person in a sea kayak underwater in a pool, sweeping a paddle to come back up

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

2 thoughts on “Beginner’s mind– hauling it from the mat to the boat

  1. Ahhhhhhh!!! Just reading this makes me feel like I’m drowning. All I have is amygdala hijack lol. I’m glad you love it and you are practicing getting yourself safe.

    Like

  2. RunBikeThrow says:

    I have a framed calligraphy of “shoshin” by the door to my garage. That way I can remind myself to adopt “beginner’s mind” before I leave the house for the day. So important not to make too many assumptions about what I’m going to face!

    Like

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