October 11, 2020

“Beginner’s Mind: Letting Go,” Bob Ryder

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This morning let’s take another look at two concepts from the practice of Zen Buddhist mindfulness: “Letting Go” and “Beginner’s Mind.”  I’ve spoken about them before on a couple of occasions, and they’re worth coming back to as Susan and I count down our last dozen reflections before we retire at the end of this year.  Occasionally I’ve mentioned my appreciation for mindfulness practice via a set of mental and spiritual skills that help manage stress and cultivate an alert / poised approach to living. There are seven principles associated with the tradition as follows…

Acceptance: Acknowledging the reality of things as they are rather than as we’d prefer to be.

Patience: Allowing things to develop in their own time without interference; letting it happen, letting it be.

Trust: Recognizing the validity of one’s own knowledge, competence, intuition and wisdom.

Non-judging: Resisting inclinations to approve or condemn. Acknowledging that things are as they are, and that approval or condemnation is more likely to damage than to improve the situation.

Non-striving: Resisting inclinations for acquisition and achievement for their own sake, and instead appreciating one’s circumstances as they are.

And finally the concepts I want to consider this morning…

Letting Go: Freeing ourselves of expectations and entitlement, and

Beginner’s Mind: Approaching circumstances with curiosity and creativity, setting aside preconceptions, prejudice and bias.

There’s a Zen proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” It came to mind as I was remembering an experience I had during an 8th grade music class. The teachers split us into groups of three and four after having us select an item from a pile of random objects spread out on a large table.  There were tools and hardware, office supplies, kids’ toys, silverware, ice cube trays, cardboard boxes, blackboard erasers and bunch more stuff with no rhyme or reason for being together. The assignment was to create a musical performance with nothing but the objects we’d picked from the collection – one per person.  Our initial responses weren’t surprising – most of us thought it was a dumb assignment and we didn’t expect to take it seriously.  To begin, each of us had to come up with 3 different sounds we could make with the item we’d selected. As it happened, the first student to go had selected an ice cube tray. She ran her fingers across the ridges in a way that made an interesting rumbling sound, something like on a Latin American instrument called a guiro. She figured out how to get two other sounds out of the tray, and the lesson moved to the next student and so forth.  For my part, I’d selected a staple remover. I liked the spring action and used it as kind of a drum and castanet.  Another student had a crescent wrench, and made a few different sounds tapping and rubbing it against a metal waste basket.  The teacher complimented her on finding another instrument without being told to do so.  Well, the class ended up being a huge success.  Each group of three or 4 students ended up making a pretty decent composition with instruments that had never been intended to make music – some of the performances were really good.

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” The reason the Zen proverb occurs to me connected to that music lesson most of 40 years later is that at the time I wasn’t ready for the main point – which is that there are many ways to be right, that creativity and innovation are forms of intelligence and wisdom as important as any others, and that perceived problems and limitations can be as much catalysts for creativity as obstacles to it.  There’s an excellent TED Talk by a presenter named Tim Harford on this subject I’ll link in the manuscript.

(“Frustration and Creativity”  https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford_how_frustration_can_make_us_more_creative)

As I mentioned I also want to consider that mindfulness skill called “letting go.” Maybe you can sense the relationship between those concepts. In order to be creative – to engage a beginner’s mind – we need to get beyond habitual ways we think about things.  We need to move out of our comfort zones, get past our expectations and sense of entitlement. Going forward this week, see if you can notice when your mind shifts into that habitual gear when something doesn’t fall easily into place. Say you’re driving to an appointment and there’s construction on the route you expected to take. Our first response is to feel frustration and resistance, to take it personally. “Why do they always do this when I’m trying to get somewhere?” It can be difficult to let go of our expectation of an easy, convenient commute and start thinking about an alternate route in that moment of frustration, but chances are that our best option is to give up on the directions we were planning to use and be creative.

Part of the reason I wanted to revisit these ideas is because we’re in one of the most interesting situations a congregation can experience – the transition between pastors, especially when a pastor has been there a long time.  People who study and consult with congregations know this is a really important moment in the life of a church, full of challenges and opportunities.  It’s an unexpected problem.  It’s a mess.  It’s a disruption.  It’s construction on the route we we’re planning to take to get where we expected to go. It’s a possibility for creativity and growth.

Back in the 90’s there was an advertising campaign for a company called Andersen Consulting.  One of my favorite spots opened on a quartet of musicians playing a beautiful piece of classical music.  After a moment, from off camera a basketball bounces into the scene and lands the opening of the tuba.  The musicians look at each other for a moment with puzzled expressions, then set down their instruments and begin to pass the basketball back and forth, simply at first – then with more and more creativity progressing to the point where they look like the Harlem Globetrotters’ “magic circle.”  It’s an example of approaching a new situation – a new challenge, a new opportunity – with a beginner’s mind.

As we reviewed our ideas for this service, Susan noted some terrific examples of how local organizations have practiced the skills of “letting go“ and “beginner’s mind” in recent months. For instance, there was no way for the Evergreen Cemetery Walk to happen as usual with patrons showing up in person to tour the gravesides of notable personalities and watch performances about their lives.  Rather than giving up though, the artists and managers of the event created a virtual tour online, which has the advantage of being accessible for those with mobility issues or who can’t attend the week of the event.

Likewise, Heartland Community Theater had to cancel its spring and summer productions, but instead of sitting out the fall season, they decided to produce the radio program “War of the Worlds” on WGLT the night before Halloween.

Even our own situation at this very moment is an example of “letting go” and “beginner’s mind.” We certain feel disappointed that we can’t gather in person as we normally would for worship. But here we are, together at least in cyber-space. While everyone looks forward to a time when in person worship can once again happen safely, the need to quarantine has led to some ideas likely to continue after COVID-19 is a thing of the past. Perhaps we’ll find a way to combine in person worship with a zoom meeting or some other digital outreach so friends and family can continue to take part when they’re out of town or unable to leave home. These are just a few examples of what can happen when we let go of our expectations and focus on the possibility.

Maybe some examples have occurred to you of things you’ve had to let go of in 2020. Maybe you’ve found your own ways to be creative and pursue possibilities that might not have occurred to you but for the challenges that have come our way.  Revisiting the small group “chat room” feature Susan has used a few times in recent weeks, take a few minutes to share ways that you’ve been able to let go of an expectation. And/or if you like, share some creative possibility you’ve come up with for being nudged out of your comfort zone. Of course, if you prefer not to share, that’s alright. You can opt to turn off your microphone and camera if you like.  But if you can, be a bit daring and see if you can exchange some experiences of letting go and beginners mind with your neighbors for a bit.