January 7, 2011

Monday, Monday.

Yoga Thoughts on Beginner’s Mind.

I’ve always loved Monday mornings. They feel irresistibly fresh and new. I like the feeling of beginning a brand new week. I like having seven days ahead of me filled with possibility and potential. But, especially, I like my attitude on Monday mornings. While I usually wake up energized and ready to get going, that’s not it. It’s my sense of adventure and curiosity about what the week ahead holds that sets Mondays apart.

On a fairly regular basis I wish Tuesday mornings (or Wednesdays, or Thursdays …) felt like Mondays. Something about my perspective shifts on Tuesday mornings. Rather than waking with a hopeful sense of having a whole week ahead of me, on Tuesdays I tend to be focused on the day itself; and on all the tasks and events that fill my list that day. Even though there’s virtually no difference in how busy I am or how much I need to get done on an average Monday or Tuesday, somehow Tuesdays feel more scripted. They feel a little preordained.

So I got to thinking. What is it about Mondays? Are there other beginnings that feel like they do?

How about the beginning of my morning walks? I walk the same route each morning. It just doesn’t get more rote than that. But for the first quarter mile, my mind is in Monday mode. I’m hyper-aware of my body. In my mind I’m wondering how my hips feel. I’m noticing whether there is a bounce in my step. I’m determining if I have enough layers on. As I head out, I never know what kind of walk I’m going to have. Will I feel peppy or be dragging a little bit? Will I get lost in thought or stay aware of every step? Will the thirty minutes zoom by or seem to take an eternity? My questioning, curious perspective makes heading out on my walk feel like heading out into the unknown … even though by now I’m pretty sure I could find my way with my eyes closed.

I come to my yoga mat in Monday mode as well. I begin almost every practice by moving through Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar). Like my morning walks, Sun Salutations contain no new territory. I bet I’ve moved through them thousands of times over the last nine years. Yet, as I begin to move and to breathe, my mindset automatically changes. I slip effortlessly into a sense of curiosity. I simply have no idea what kind of practice lies ahead of me. On any given day my yoga could be energetic, calming, fatigued, spastic or focused. With a little effort, my curiosity morphs into adventure. It’s when I find that adventurousness that my practices move to a deeper, more rewarding place.

My yoga teachers call this outlook beginner’s mind. Wikipedia defines beginner’s mind as “having an attitude of openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions.” It is a learned skill to approach things you do very well as a beginner would approach them. Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki writes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” Upon reflection, it seems to be this sense of possibilities that sets Mondays apart from the rest of the week for me.

While beginner’s mind comes naturally to me as each new week begins, I trained myself to adopt this mindset on my yoga mat. I started by trying to stay open to possibility posture to posture. I deliberately tried to avoid my own assumptions about what I could and could not do. With practice, maintaining this perspective required less and less effort. After all, once you’ve surprised yourself by lifting up into a backbend (Urdhva Danurasana) or staying perched in Eagle pose (Garudasana) for ten breaths, you tend to be on the look-out for more surprises.

Over time, I learned to take my attention inward to how I felt as I moved. Similarly, I learned to try not to assume that feeling sluggish during the first Sun Salutation meant that I’d feel sluggish all the way to the resting pose (Savasana) at the end of my practice. This became easier to do as I saw over and over again how my energy levels, my flexibility, my focus, the rhythm of my breath changed as I practiced.

Somehow, I seem to have learned to fall into beginner’s mind on my walks. It could be that the physical activity of walking serves as a visceral reminder of moving through yoga asana. It could be that lacing up my sneakers has become a mindset “cue,” much like unrolling my mat is. It could be the relatively short, finite duration of my walk that makes it easier to maintain beginner’s mind. I may never know why or how I’ve been able to develop beginner’s mind as I walk, and that’s OK. What is important is the knowledge that the skill made its way from my mat into another aspect of my life.

If beginner’s mind translated so naturally from mat to sneakers, I have confidence it can translate smoothly into the art of curious, adventurous living as well. The training I’ve done on my mat and on my walks will serve me well. As I wake each Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Thursday …), I can use a few deep breaths to “cue” my yoga state of mind. I can focus less on the day ahead and more on each, separate event and task that make up my day. In manageable, finite increments, I can gradually practice maintaining beginner’s mind. As I open myself to the possibilities and potential of each moment, as I try to avoid my assumptions about the day and myself, as I surprise myself over and over again, it will gradually take less and less effort to maintain the curiosity, eagerness and hopefulness that I currently feel on Monday mornings.

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