Sunday, January 2, 2011


I hope the new year is getting off to the start you hoped it would be.  I spent time with family and friends over the last couple of days and it was quite nice.  For many people this is the end of the holiday season.  I will hang on until Epiphany, when (I believe) I and a few other folks will be bottling a Porter and an IPA to get us through the rest of the winter.

I don't make resolutions based on this holiday (New Year's, not Epiphany).  I am enough of a church animal at this point in my life that I do that on the first Sunday in Advent.  So while others are making them, I have reached the time when I start to forget them.  Actually, I have a suggestion for folks who are looking for something in this area which--not surprisingly--is the real subject of this post.... 

Why don't you resolve to become a beginner?

In my (admittedly messy) car, I keep a copy of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki.  It is what I read when I am early for something.  In it he tells us that "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."  It is a good thing to remember, of course, but it is hard to do. 

Also, we can lull ourselves into thinking we are doing this when we are not.  A beginner approaches a subject with curiosity, enthusiasm and openness.  Sometimes we try this approach with subjects we just know too much about to really experience with a beginner's mind so directly.  This is when we pay someone to come to work and tell us to "think outside the box".  Often this involves filling out boxes.  This is when we resort to the self-help books as well.

I think the better way to a beginner's mind comes from actually being a beginner at something.  Yes, I am talking about hobbies--sort of.  However, sometimes it is something else, volunteer work, activism, even, perhaps, a career change.  Not all hobbies will work either.  If you resolve to "take up cabinet making" for example, the goal is to become as good a cabinet maker as you can.  You can certainly cultivate a beginner's mind and become a good cabinet maker, but it is a different goal.  In this case, the question isn't "am I making a good cabinet" but instead is, "is this cabinet making thing still super cool?"  Perhaps the best thing to do is find something that you can accept you won't ever be an expert at.

For my beginner's mind exercise I have the uke.  Ukuleles are not really conducive to expertise.  There are great masters, of course, but they study really hard and, for the most part, still maintain a strong sense of irony concerning what they do.  That is, they do it for kicks.  There is a reason why the most famous uke players are comedians, after all.  Bringing my own limitations to an instrument that already has limitations itself  means that I can only get so good.  I do not plan to compose inspirational (or other) music.  I do not plan to work my way to semi-legitimacy in a bar-band (though that would be funny).  I just hack around on it and play it in public settings where its natural charisma is more important than its tone or range. 

The point is, I will always be a beginner and this fact helps me to be a beginner elsewhere.  For example, the beginner's mind has helped to open up new possibilities in my preaching.  The uke has helped me to do this. It has punctured the "expert bubble" more than once.  As you know, I do a great deal of preaching.  I have a doctorate on the subject and a regular gig at the Eliot Church.  However, it is hard to be the Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot who knows a lot about preaching when I am leading the congregation in singing "White Christmas".  I have to loosen up.  In that loosening comes new ideas and new perspectives and growth.  That is...more beginnings.

Do you see what I am getting at?  To maintain your "beginner's mind" in all areas of life, why not add an area in which you will always be a beginner?  It will probably not be the same one I chose (and I am choosing others as well).  That's not the point.  Find something you are interested in but that you have chosen not to do in the past because you were afraid you wouldn't be good at it.  Then explore doing that thing not so you will become an expert but so that you will have the experience of something new and exciting.  That is real outside the box thinking and it will come back to serve you well in your future expert endeavors.

Perhaps not something that could get you killed, though.  I mean, really, skydiving?

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