See the world through the eyes of a foreigner.
Hold your experience gently.
Invest wisely in relationships.
Nurture your core self.
Expect Life to support you.
In the next weeks, I’ll be writing an introduction to each of these ideas and then, at the end of February, I will be starting a 7-week group coaching session for anyone who would like to go deeper with me into the practices I’ve been developing based on these principles (see details about the group below). Let’s get started:
The “S” in SHINE
See the world through the eyes of a foreigner.
The Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.
Most of the time in this life, I (and I daresay I’m not the only one) walk about knowing—or believing I know—what I’m doing. I mean, I get up in the mornings and make my coffee the same way every day. I can do (and have done) it with my eyes closed. And from my morning coffee forward there are many tasks I complete that I can put on autopilot. Driving my car, for example, is like breathing: shift into first gear, let up on the clutch, push down on the gas. And then I’m in motion.
Furthermore, I grew up as the oldest sister with three younger brothers, a sibling position that gave me something of an expert complex early in life. Then I became a teacher, a therapist, a writer, and a coach. All of these roles have led me to feel I’m responsible for knowing what I’m talking about—or at least for putting on a good show AS IF I know what I’m talking about.
So it isn’t surprising that although I’ve been reading about Buddhist ideas for years and have appreciated many of the concepts and incorporated them into my life, the principle of “beginners mind” has always been a little bit elusive to me. I’ve struggled with how to bring an open curiosity and wonder to my daily life.
This last episode of travel cured that for me. When you go to a foreign land, you can’t expect anything to be as you knew it back home. Whether you like or not, everything is new. Toilets flush differently, the rules of traffic are different, time and timeliness function differently, and people don’t relate to each other using the same paradigms you rely on.
Here’s a concrete example (pun intended): The first morning I walked out my door in Concepcion, the rain was coming down hard. Even though rain irritates me, it is also oddly comforting. As someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, rain is familiar, centering even. “Just like home,” I said to my husband Bill that first day.
But as we walked the two blocks from our new apartment to the university where Bill would be working on his Fulbright duties, I saw that I was wrong. Walking in rainy Concepcion was not like taking a walk in our hometown.
The streets of Concepcion are flanked by sidewalks just as most city streets are around the world, but the sidewalks we treaded on at that moment buckled in places, crumbled in others, left off existing altogether here and there. Concepcion was the epicenter of one of South America’s largest earthquakes only a few years ago, after all. Though much has been rebuilt and reconstructed, the evidence of the big “terremoto” is still visible if you but look down.
Right away I could see that walking around town was going to require the concentration of trail running if I didn’t want to fall and break my nose.
Here is another example, more to the point: Because I possess a very limited vocabulary in Spanish, leaving our little apartment was at first anxiety provoking. What if the concierge, Julio, asked me something I didn’t understand? I had some shame about not being able to speak Spanish, so I worried about what Julio thought of me. How would I manage to communicate enough so that he would let me go on my way and stop requiring me to stand there looking like an uneducated, insensitive foreigner?
But in fact, my relationship with Julio is what helped me truly catch on to the concept of beginner’s mind. I pushed through my shame, and day after day, Julio and I stood at the gate and literally made up a means of communicating with one another. He is a kind, patient man who was willing to spend as long as it took to help me catch his meaning. We often started with charades and graduated to drawings. If all else failed, I ran inside to google how to say something in Spanish, wrote it down, and went back outside to read my scribbles to Julio. We sometimes laughed at our misunderstandings and at my mispronunciation.
I was a beginner. But Julio did not approach our conversations like an expert waiting for me to get up to speed; he attended to my imperfect and garbled language as if my way of communicating was every bit as legitimate as his was. Being on the other side of his patience taught me how to be a beginner with a sense of humor and a dose of nonjudgment. I began to feel free to make mistakes and experiment with new words because of Julio’s attitude.
To see the world through the eyes of a foreigner, or a beginner, we have to remember that we really aren’t experts at living—we are experimenters. We aren’t expected to know what we don’t know, to understand what we don’t understand, or to have an edge on anyone else. And this is oddly both disconcerting and freeing.
I want to continue to practice seeing the world through new eyes now that I’m home. I want to bring the same curiosity and openness to my life and relationships that I exercised when trying to figure out how to say, “Can I buy a token for the dryer?” And I’d like to invite you to join me in this practice.
I made a decision during my first month in Chile to suspend judgment; it was the only way to stay sane in a place so different from home. Even when frustrated by confusion over an interaction or a different way of doing something, I began to tell myself, “Don’t decide what anything means. Just let it be what it is.”
We are meaning-making creatures, all of us. When something happens, we try to toggle it into some place in our schemas that helps us to make sense of it. We do it all day every day. Someone pulls into the parking space we planned to pull into and we decide he is a “jerk.” Someone lights a cigarette on the trail we run on every morning and we decide she is insensitive. But when you are a foreigner in a foreign land where you don’t make the rules, you have to suspend this meaning-making.
Staying open frees us up from misery because we aren’t clinging to how things ought to be, to how they do or don’t fit into our expectations. We simply notice what actually IS.
I encourage you to embrace a “foreigner’s mind” this week. What kind of space might open up in your mind and heart if everything you looked at was new to you? If you didn’t try to quickly categorize events and people into your familiar internal filing system?
In the 7-week SHINE program I will be talking about howpeace of mind is directly linked to the practice ofbeginner’s mind. We will do two powerful exercises that will shift the pressure we feel to be experts in so many areas of life (challenging perfectionism and shame), and we’ll create a statement of intention to move us toward an experience of real joy (even without knowing what the future holds).
SHINE program details:
When: Seven Thursdays, beginning February 25. 4:00-5:30pm PST (with an additional 30 minutes afterwards for discussion applicable especially for writers).
Where: On the phone. Conference call-in numbers provided to participants.
What: Lecture, opportunities to be coached, homework assignments, bonus writing assignments.