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Becoming a beginner again

I graduated from high school 50 years ago this summer, a length of time nearly impossible for me to fathom. Especially since I still live in the town I lived in when I aimlessly roamed the hallways of Rio Americano High School, it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been half a century ago. When it does seem that long ago is when I think of how much more I know about myself than I did back then.

Admittedly, that’s how it’s supposed to be—we learn as we go. Still, I can hardly believe how little I knew that summer way back then. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or even what my real options actually were. I knew some facts I’d learned in school, but had so little experience that I couldn’t even rely on that to help me figure out what would come next. I wish I could say I set out methodically to learn about the world, but most of us at 18 are too dense to even realize that’s what we’re doing. We just put one foot in front of the other and stumble through our lives for a long time. All the while we’re learning, but mostly we’re feeling bad that we don’t know more.

What if we could be happy with who we are and feel content enough to step forward into the world just to experience it?

When you get old, as I am now, it becomes clear that focusing on learning and becoming an expert at life is not only time-consuming, but also unimportant. Of course our natural instinct is to become really good at what we do, and we can almost not help that happening. But I’m thinking now that a better pursuit would be to approach life as a beginner—no matter what we’re doing or how many times we’ve done it. Instead of focusing on how good we can get at something, it might be better to just focus on doing it with all of our attention.

In a recent interview in The New York Times, spiritual teacher Ram Dass said that our big problem as a culture is getting too caught up in our thoughts and not spending enough time in our feelings—in our hearts and souls. I get the sappiness of that on a certain level, but the truth resonates with me. I have spent so much time in my life thinking about how I’m doing things and so little time just doing them with full concentration and focus. The result has been a lot of self-judgment and tremendous anxiety based on things I've made up that might happen, but probably won't. Living with a spirit of openness and eagerness has been rare.

Like many people, I have also felt "behind" in my life and that I should know more than I do. What if we didn’t feel that? What if we could be happy with who we are and feel content enough to step forward into the world just to experience it? It’s a pipe dream, I know, given the high expectations we all have for ourselves, but I still think it’s possible. Especially when we’re older. We have less to lose in our imagined sense that every move we make is vital. Why not jump in with both feet and have fun?

For me, this is much easier said than done. For most of my life, I’ve been meticulously planning things out, judging myself, creating huge defenses against things that scare me, and generally taking the fun out of everything. It’s almost counterintuitive to think of having a beginner’s mind this late in life. But maybe this is when we can most afford it and when we worry the least about what other people think of us. Maybe this is when it makes the most sense to consciously experience everything as new, to just feel happy and lucky to get to do whatever awaits us. Maybe now, after we’ve slogged through so much with our heads full of expectations, this is the perfect time to put all of that away and just be grateful to feel this alive.

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