The first month of 2018 is almost in the books, and by now some of us may have forgotten about all those grand changes we planned to make in the year ahead. Here, Brittany Deininger turns to the wisdom of pilgrims and scholars as she writes about “the art of beginning.” If the hype of New Year’s parties and resolutions left you wanting something more, may these words remind you that it is never too late to start a new journey.
There are only three stages to this work: to be a beginner,
to be more of a beginner, and to be only a beginner.
– Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert
We begin a new year and the question arises, how shall we begin? The turning of time puts us in conversation with our intentions. To return to the start is to be asked: What is it that you desire? Is it close or far away? Is it large enough work to risk your heart? Our desire to set goals and resolutions is expressive of the idea that George Eliot so beautifully articulated, “It is never too late to be what we might have been.” In January we decide we want to read more, be better to our bodies, call our loved ones often, seek community, finally make that change that has eluded us. While I have never engaged in this particular cultural practice of making New Year’s resolutions, there is something vital about creating ontological liturgies that attune us to our actions and desires and ask us to reflect on who it is we are becoming in the midst of all our choosing. This is surely the work of pilgrims and artists, scholars and aesthetes. However, these figures remind us of a great secret. We do not begin again at the turn of the year, but in every moment we are awake enough to take the possibilities offered to us, and make new ones where none are offered. To be a beginner is not to locate ourselves at a particular point in a process. Rather, to be a beginner is a way of perpetually living in relationship to time and our intentions within it. Indeed, to be human is to perpetually begin again.
The art of beginning is of course sustained by a beginner’s mentality. It is the mindset that enters the unknown with a modicum of naivete, humility, and curiosity. Without preconceived expectations of how something should work, the beginner is open to new possibilities and free to invent by way of improvisation. Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works praises the qualities of the beginner and the outsider whose lack of insider knowledge and parameters makes her less likely to be bound by conventional answers and solutions. It is in fact those who find new connections at the intersections of disciplines that are often the most creative and innovative. The key elements of a beginner serve us well in our pursuit of our intentions.
A good beginner’s mentality:
- fosters a willingness to play the fool, understanding failure is a crucial part of the process
- asks good questions and puts them in conversation with others’ questions and expertise
- is never so dependent on what has always been to stop working for what could be
- has a healthy working relationship with ambiguity and mystery
- listens well
- takes stock of their epistemology, acknowledging their blind spots with humility
- holds a deep memory of the journey thus far
- keeps an active practice of playfulness and disrupts boundaries
- has a capacity for metaphorical and symbolic rather than strictly literal or linear thinking
- acknowledges there is always more to know
- isn’t so attached to their own expertise that they’re afraid to ask for help
- continually fuels the fires of curiosity and refreshes their pleasure in the work
“It is those who find new connections at the intersections of disciplines that are often the most creative and innovative.”
Beginner’s Summons to Simplify
In his book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, the poet David Whyte argues, “Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.” His art of beginning includes this summons to simplification. As I read Whyte, I come to understand that the call of the new, be it the new year, or a new intention, is a gesture of taking away, rather than taking on more. The question of the beginner on the journey is, what’s essential and how do I keep in constant contact with it? I can’t help but imagine the pack of a hiker who questions each item in her pack. Is it necessary to sustain me in body, mind, spirit?
The simplification extends beyond what we bring to the very steps we take in our journey of becoming. Whyte continues:
It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.
Whyte’s concept of a beginner cuts through the mental tactics we so often use to obfuscate our desires and elude even ourselves. At times it can be more frightening to actually get what we want than to pine after something in the safety of never achieving it. The simplest definition of a beginner is one who actually begins, who takes that first step which is simpler and closer than we let ourselves even imagine.
As you begin the new year, I invite you to process three questions. Perhaps you could take them for a walk, grab a favorite notebook to write, or an open canvas to paint a call and response:
- INTENTION: What is your next close radical step of courage?
- MENTALITY: What is an element of your mindset that will support your intention?
- SIMPLIFICATION: What is most essential and what needs to be cleared away?
Editor’s Note: For more from David Whyte, whom Brittany cites above, join us for the Alumni Lecture Series on March 3. David will be here at The Seattle School for an afternoon workshop, “The Practice and Poetry of Listening in Place,” as well as an evening lecture, “The Pilgrim Way: Taking the Path of Risk and Revelation.”