Beginner’s Mind, or Why I Got My Guitar Out Again After All These Years. ~ Jess Hicks

Via Jess Hicks
on Jul 15, 2013
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Photo: Pixoto
Photo: Pixoto

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

~ Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

I have practiced yoga my whole life. I’ve taught yoga now for a little over a year—not long enough for the teaching to be entirely easy or comfortable, but long enough for me to be able to sleep easily the night before I teach.

That was not always the case. This time last year, I would toss and turn and fret and worry. I would write out sequences and rehearse them, memorize them and practice them in my head instead of sleep.

One of the concepts in my practice and my teaching that I have embraced most lovingly is that of the beginner’s mind. In this idea we should approach everything we do with the freshness of a child or the mindset of someone who is totally new to the experience. We can arrive at each and every moment with the joy, wonder and openness of a young child. We can be unattached to expected outcomes or fear of failure.

This, like much of the work we undertake in studying mindfulness or yoga, is a practice, and it is best approached with a loving touch and with compassion for oneself. Beginner’s mind requires steadfastness in the face of performance anxiety and fear, the ability to sit with those feelings, or at least the ability to laugh at yourself wildly when you inevitably make a giant ass of yourself.

It was in that spirit of being okay with making an ass of myself that I picked up my guitar again. I remember going to guitar lessons in the past nearly blind with fear. I would beat myself up for not being able to do a new trick on the guitar the moment the teacher showed it to me. I was so frustrated every time she would say something like, “Oh, you played that pretty well, but now sing at the same time.” Singing in front of another person while simultaneously playing an instrument makes me feel so vulnerable.

This brings me to my friend, Paula. I met Paula a little over seven years ago when she led a playgroup for young children. I carted my then eight-month old twins down the hallway of a broken down, apparently empty old building to an unknown destination. The hall was musty and stacked with boxes, and my arms were tired from carrying a baby in a car seat in each arm plus the gigantic diaper bag only a parent of multiples can shoulder. Down several dark twists and after a near retreat from our mission, we turned a corner and there was Paula, all smiles with bright eyes and with her mass of curly hair all stacked up around her head, welcoming us and offering to help me with my load.

A few months later, Paula was asking me if I played an instrument and if I would play in her band. I resolutely told her no.

After almost a year, Paula asked me if she could borrow an amp for a show she was doing. I said maybe.

Finally, the day came when Paula, her husband and son were all sitting in my backyard playing various instruments to see if maybe I would join them. I knew inside that it was time to say yes!

We played shows with our band, The Pixie Sticks, mostly at farmers’ markets in the area, at local libraries, pre-schools and co-ops, nurseries and schools. It was amazing. Our little fans loved us, and they followed us from show to show. We were beginners, but the kids didn’t care, and as long as I didn’t make eye contact with the parents and occasional luminary from the Boston rock scene who would wander past, I was okay.

Paula would ask me to play guitar. I did, and I never really felt on the spot because her husband played guitar better and louder. Paula would ask me to sing, and I would just get up and sing into a microphone, in front of people. To this day, I’m not sure how that happened, but it did, and it felt great. With the band to support me, I felt like I could do anything. I even wrote some songs.

Soon, we all got busy with life and doing other things (like teaching yoga) and the guitars got put away.

Now my children have gotten a bit older, and they are interested in making music. So I got out the instruments to show them a few things. We played around on a keyboard, and I gave them some piano lessons. The twins wrote brilliant poetry in their second grade class that just begged to be set to music, so I wrote some music. I recorded the songs so they could see how that could be done. We wanted to share those songs with their grandparents who live far away, and in today’s technologically advanced and connected world, we found that pretty easy to do online. One of the songs is called “Snowflake” written by one of my twins. My other twin son wrote another song called,  “Tree by Lem”.

Fear of failure or of looking like an ass would never have let me do any of this a decade ago.

I’m still a beginner on guitar—after 35 years of playing around on one. But making music with and for my kids gives me a great excuse not to worry about being perfect. I like having an outlet to express myself again after all these years of just trying to get by as a busy parent of three young boys has been a gift.

I now know how to use restorative yoga as both a tool to tap into the well of creativity and as a refuge from any performance anxiety that does come up.

Now that the kids are older, they often do not need me to actively manage them or keep them busy, and they are perfectly happy to have me strumming and softly singing nearby while they read, play a game or play outside. This was not always the case. My youngest son was jealous of the guitar, and would crawl over and try to peel my hands off of it whenever I would pick it up.

It’s summer now, and the kids are home from school, and they are at this golden moment in time where they still love us and want to be with us but they want to have their space too. We have long, slow days together, lately in melting heat, where we read or write or they play at something while I play guitar. They wrote fairy tales last week, tragic, violent fairy tales, and they want to set them to music. So we will be working on that together.  And I can’t help but think that you can’t set a fairy tale to music without a ridiculous old-fashioned, over-the-top guitar solo, and I don’t know how to do that yet, and won’t it be great to get to be a beginner at that, too?

I used to think that parents had to be infallible or the children would be afraid. But now I can see how much they gain from witnessing my willingness to try new things, to take chances, and to occasionally fail brilliantly at those things. I want them to grow up unafraid, unlimited by fear, unhindered by the need to always have things under control. I do not want them to only undertake things that they know will succeed. I want them always to feel able to try new things with the same wonderment that I remember them having as toddlers, the same openness in the face of the unknown, the same beginner’s mind they, and all of us were born with.

What could you attempt to do today if you were unafraid and free of attachment to desired outcomes?


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Assist. Ed: Leace Hughes/Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Jess Hicks

Jess Hicks has walked down a variety of paths in life, starting many decades ago with yoga on the golden shag carpet of her childhood home with her mom by her side and Lilias on the TV. Since having her own children, Jess’ practice has moved to the foreground, unobscured, into the light, becoming the path. She has been influenced by and has studied many styles of yoga, including slow flow, Yin, children’s and restorative. She also writes, paints and makes music when she has time.


4 Responses to “Beginner’s Mind, or Why I Got My Guitar Out Again After All These Years. ~ Jess Hicks”

  1. To answer your question, I would start a new virtual magazine and forum called "Best of Yoga Philosophy", and just see what happens, hoping it works, but unconcerned about ultimate results, because I just love doing it.

    Then I would post your wonderful article to it.

    Wait a minute. That's what I am doing right now!

    Loved your article, Jess. I've used this technique throughout my own guitar odyssey. You probably won't be surprised to learn there is a book call Zen Guitar

    Here's what I wrote in Yoga Demystified about beginner's mind:

    The great gurus of Yoga and other Eastern traditions achieve inner peace and experience the ultimate joy in life by cultivating the boundless wonder of a child. For them every moment is the occasion for innocent amazement, even in the middle of the most trying circumstances. They still experience all the ordinary pain and difficulty of being human. They just process it differently.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  2. Jess Hicks says:

    Bob – thank you for your response to the question, and for what you have added to my piece! I’m going to request the Zen guitar book from my library immediately, and I liked your yoga philosophy page already. Your description of beginner’s mind is beautiful.

  3. anita brown says:

    I can't stop crying Jess because as i read your wonderful essay, my 14 year old son is away at a YMCA camp and having a god-awful time. He has not been able to make the most of his situation. I am sad because I think he's unable to just flow with what is and is wishing for something different, all the while missing the miracles in the moments that are always possible!! I am praying that we can talk about his week in a way that will help him not resist reality (although I believe I have probably done this for most of the first 40 years of life). I am grateful for yoga and meditation in my life– these practices have been invaluable in softening my ways, blurring edges, accepting all.

    Bless you and your family!!

  4. Jess Hicks says:

    Anita – I’m sorry I did not respond to your comment sooner. I hope your son is doing ok. I quit playing music when I was his age because I didn’t enjoy how vulnerable that type of expression made me feel. There is a lot to be said for being “of a certain age” where other people’s opinions of you matter so much less than they did when you were a teen. And the principles of yoga and mindfulness, which teach us to sit with our suffering – whatever its form – are immensely helpful in this regard as well. I wish you both all the best!