The Essay

Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

By Tova Green

“Shoshin,” a word from Zen Buddhism illustrated with kanji calligraphy characters, loosely translates to “beginner’s mind.”

The New Year is an opportunity to “start over.” I have learned through my Zen Buddhist practice that every moment, even a moment of difficulty, is an opportunity to begin again.

As it was for so many of us, 2020 was perhaps the toughest year of my life. The COVID-19 pandemic, simmering economic and racial injustice, explosive wildfires and an anxiety-inducing presidential election made for a perfect storm that was difficult to weather.

I found solace in a slim volume that has been my companion for more than 40 years, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. My worn copy is full of placeholders, underlining and comments written in margins. I didn’t know when I first read it in 1975, a new social worker in Boston searching for meaning in my life, that I would move to San Francisco, become a resident of San Francisco Zen Center — or that Zen practice would become a source of refuge in arduous times.

What I appreciate about Beginner’s Mind is that it allows me to approach each person, each event in my life — and even my own thoughts — with curiosity and openness. It reminds me that having expectations of how things should be, or how another person should behave, can add more suffering to a situation that is already difficult. And these days, I draw on another phrase Suzuki Roshi (“roshi” is a Zen Buddhist title meaning “old teacher”) often used: “not always so.” This creates more space in my mind and heart.

When I started meditating, I thought the practice might help me be more kind, calmer and more patient. I do think that daily meditation has helped me to develop those qualities over time. However, what I’ve learned is that meditation is not confined to the time I spend silently attending to my breath every morning. Awareness carries over into my entire day. I become more aware of sensations in my body, my thoughts, emotions, speech and actions. My interactions with others become kinder. I find myself being more generous with my attention and my time, wanting to be present witho thers and engaged in the world.

During the pandemic, these qualities have served me well. I have been able to listen with openness to the grief and anxiety of friends and family members, from the pain of a grandmother who could not hold her grandchildren living in another household to the sorrow of a friend who could not be with his mother as she was dying in a nursing home many miles away.

I have learned to notice the details of small things that bring me joy. On walks in my neighborhood, I see a crayoned drawing of a radiating sun with the letters LOVE resting in the fork of a tree. I watch a child skipping while holding hands with her mother. My eyes follow the play of dogs in Duboce Park. Because social interaction has become so restricted, I appreciate the moments of passing a stranger on the street and nodding, or saying “good morning” through my mask.

One of the teachings of Buddhism I’ve come to find comforting is that each of us, as well as everyone and everything around us, is impermanent. All of us will face illness, old age (unless we die young) and death. There’s no getting around it. Because of this, every moment is precious. Being born in a human body is rare, and I have an opportunity to remember this truth with every breath I take, no matter how dire things are.

I am encouraged to approach everyone and everything with a beginner’s mind — that is, with curiosity and openness. Not shying away from what is unpleasant. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

May you begin this year with a beginner’s mind.

Tova Green became a resident of San Francisco Zen Center in 1999 and was ordained as a Zen priest in 2003. She is the liaison for more than 65 Zen centers and sitting groups in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. She co-founded SFZC’s Queer Dharma group in 2010, works on racial justice issues, writes poetry and plays cello.

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