St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Beginner’s Mind

Everything worthwhile takes time.  Everyone learns “practice makes perfect” or perhaps “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  Yes they’re cliches, but cliches are simply truths become tired in the telling.  They remain true.

It helps to remember that we are not experts, that we will always remain a beginner.  That attitude keeps our mind, our heart, and our eyes open.  This stance keeps us from boredom, from prejudice, and from cynicism.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, my favorite writer on prayer, entitled his most popular book Beginning to Pray because there is never a point at which that discipline is learned, finished, done with.  In prayer we are all beginners and we remain so.  The disciple never rises above his master.  Jesus said that we would do greater works than he did; he did not say that our prayer life would exceed his.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki taught this, too.  In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he calls us to act as if each experience were new and fresh, even if we have been here a hundred times before.  In order to see the world as it is, we have to approach it with beginner’s mind, fresh and clear and new each time.  Hard to do?  Well nigh impossible, but I think it was what Jesus meant when he said that we must receive the Kingdom of God as little children – who receive each new moment with surprise, delight, and wonder.

When we approach things with beginner’s mind, we are not afraid to learn what we already know.  We take no pride in our knowledge.  Our one desire is to make it firmly our own.  When questions arise we do not squelch them because of pride or self-consciousness.  We do not protect our knowledge; rather, we seek to expand it.

Look at time for a moment with beginner’s mind.  Someone said, “Time is what you do with it,” meaning that we have control over our time.  Even when we think we have no control, we create the circumstances for being out of control.  Time is not a substance that we pour out of a bucket.  Time is a quality of experience that grows or shrinks depending on a number of factors: attentiveness, commitment, and self-interest head the list.

The extraordinary writer John Berger, in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, claims that time has two opposing dynamics: accumulation and dissipation, or fullness and emptiness.  The inner quality of our experience dictates that one time will feel full while another time seems empty; in one experience we will seem to gain and in another we seem to lose time.  What’s the difference?

St Mark the Monk, a Greek desert father of the 5th century, wrote that three giants block our path by robbing us of wonder, attentiveness, and fullness.  They prepare the way for the demons that attack us.  These three giants are forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance.  They make the difference between the fullness and the emptiness of time.  Once they make their home in us it is easy for the demons to overwhelm us.

Forgetfulness is the biggie: we fail to see the presence of God each moment of our lives, and this failure gradually saps us of the ability to see God in any moment of our lives.  Attentiveness is the antidote we must take to recall that Presence.  Paying attention leads to incremental changes that allow God to take up more room in our lives.  Becoming fully human is a process, not a once and done thing.   Begin now.  Begin again.  Begin and don’t stop beginning.