July 23 | A way back to beginner’s mind





A Way Back To Beginner’s Mind | 23 July 2023
Texts: Luke 11:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:15-19
Speaker: Joel Miller

There’s a teaching in Zen Buddhism called “beginner’s mind;” shoshin in Japanese.  It goes back to the 13th century and made its way into the English-speaking world through the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, written in 1970 by Shunryu Suzuki.

A beginner’s mind is open and curious, no matter how old the person.  It’s free of rigid categories that automatically organize experiences and thoughts into set patterns.  A person with shoshin is forever a student. 

It’s like a child first encountering the wonders of the world.  The beginner’s mind welcomes delight and surprise and other things it can’t control.  It is, it seems to me, the scientific mind at its best: always open to new information.  Even when, or perhaps especially when, it doesn’t fit into existing theory.  A popular line from Suzuki’s book goes like this: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few” (Quoted from The Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 142). 

Beginner’s mind is ultimately a spiritual condition. 

A kindred teaching in the Christian New Testament is when Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

The need for the 12 Steps, their reason for existence, we could say, is that it’s so easy to lose the beginners mind.  It’s quite a bit easier to claim the expert’s mind.  The one that’s convinced of its own correctness.  The one that knows what’s best.  The one that is eager to point out other’s mistakes and slow to examine one’s own.  The mind, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, in which there are few possibilities. 

There’s also not much room for humor in the expert’s mind because humor has to do with placing unexpected items side by side in a way that startles the mind to the point that our body has to physically erupt into something we call laughter. 

Households where there are addictions are very serious places.  So are religious congregations where certainty is the only accepted form of belief.   

Addictive patterns have a way of locking folks in to fewer and fewer possibilities until the only two that remain are to keep feeding the addiction, or admit powerlessness, a first step back toward beginners mind. 

Today we’ve come to Step 11, which states: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

One of the words I especially appreciate in this step is the word “conscious” – “improve our conscious contact with God.”  The steps have a spacious way of speaking about God, but almost no matter how one understands or defines God, the problem is not whether we have contact with God.  The fact that we exist means that we are always in relationship with the Source of our existence.  The breather is always in contact with the Breath, Breath being an equally valid translation of the Hebrew and Greek that usually gets translated Spirit.  Wind is another possible translation. 

The question is not whether we have contact with what we call God, but whether we are conscious of that contact.  It’s the awareness of what is real and true that makes the difference. 

The practices that sustain conscious contact are referred to in this step as prayer and meditation. 

I know my audience fairly well here, and I know many among us, and not just us, many folks, have a complicated relationship with prayer.  Or, if you tire of complicated, perhaps you have a friendly break-up.  Or you’re giving each other some space for a while.     

Or maybe prayer and meditation aren’t that complicated for you.  Maybe you’ve settled on a practice that puts you in regular conscious contact with Spirit.  Maybe an uncomplicated definition for prayer and meditation is whatever nurtures and sustains a beginner’s mind.

The disciples seem to be well on their way in Luke chapter 11 when they ask Jesus, “Master, teach us to pray.”  It’s a pretty great question, and one we might find encouraging.  If the disciples, the eventual leaders of the early church, didn’t know how to pray, maybe there’s hope for us after all.  They’re approaching prayer as students.

What they’re likely asking for is some specific words to pray.  Words that would have summarized Jesus’ core teachings.  Teach us your prayer, like John taught his disciples.  When we don’t know what words to use in prayer, it’s good to borrow others’.   

Jesus gives them what they ask for.

This is where we get what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” or, as our new hymnal calls it, providing three English translations and versions in three other languages, the “Prayer Jesus Taught,” Voices Together 989.  It’s a prayer that brings one’s awareness back to the sacred: “holy be your name.”  It’s a prayer that makes connections between what we sometimes separate: “you kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  It draws one’s attention away from future worries and toward the gift of the present moment: “give us this day our daily bread.”  And it reminds us to tend to our relationships even as we recognize we regularly screw up: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

It’s a pretty good prayer.  It’s had a nice long run – 2000 years and counting.

If you get hung up on the male language of “Our Father” you can change it to Mother or Parent or Creator or any of the other wonderful holy names.  Around here we regularly alter “kingdom” to kin-dom, which not only eliminates gendered language but points to something Jesus was all about – expanding our limited circles of kin-ship to include the full scope of creation.  We are all related.  Your kin-dom come in our earthly lives as it already is in the spiritual realm.  When we become more conscious of this, it changes us.  Saying it once doesn’t do much to rewire the brain.  So we repeat it frequently.  We are all students and repetition aids learning.   12 Step communities know all about this. 

There are a lot of other good prayers out there, some quite simple.  A while back a mentor told me that his main prayer for the day happens right when he wakes up and includes all of two words, “Thank you.”  It’s not exactly the Apostle Paul’s “pray without ceasing,” but it fits well with the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart’s counsel, which was, “If the only prayer you ever say is Thank You, it will be enough.”    

And if you aren’t in the habit of praying on your own, the gathered church prays for you and even invites you to join in on the bold print.  Hymns are another form of prayer.  So is listening to others around you sing hymns.  

The 11th Step mentions prayer and meditation, and, depending on your spiritual journey, you may be drawn more to the silence of meditation than the words of prayer.   Personally, I’ve found my life to be so inundated with language/text/communication that I wonder if there’s such a thing as being addicted to words.  If I have a problem, surely there’s a few good words that can solve it – every pastor’s fantasy.  The silence of meditation is a good remedy to this, although treating it as a remedy can miss the point.      

Pema Chodron writes: Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is whoever we are right now, just as we are.That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. Source: The Wisdom of No Escape    

Sounds like beginner’s mind to me. 

This is week 5 of 6 of our 12 Step Spirituality series.  Next week will be the final week and feature step 12.  That’s the one that names, “a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps.”  Today we’re suggesting “a beginner’s mind” as a synonym for that spiritual awakening.   

Up to this point I’ve been envisioning these steps as walking forward toward this goal of a spiritual awakening.  But we could also picture each step being a step back, unlearning bad habits, undoing past harms, or least taking responsibility for them.  If we work the steps, including practices of prayer and meditation to increase our conscious contact with Creator Spirit and the kinship of all beings, we’ll take enough steps back to arrive at a beginner’s mind.  And then rather than few possibilities, the path has many.  May it be so.