Posts Tagged ‘beginner’s mind’

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Forest Rhodie

Forest Rhododendron photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

 

Ida’s Place Book Two—Revival

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

idas2-cover-sm

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

I am pleased to announce the publication of the coil-bound photocopy edition (the only edition there is) of Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival, the second volume of what I intend to be at least a three-volume saga set in the mythical town of Big River on the far north coast of California. I brought out Ida’s Place Book One: Return ten months ago and have sold seventy-one copies to date. This is particularly good news because I broke even on design and production costs when I sold copy number sixty-six. Copies of the Ida’s Place volumes are signed and lavishly numbered by the author and are only available from me via my web site or by bumping into me at the post office or thereabouts.

As a creative adventure, the writing of a multi-volume work of fiction has been endlessly surprising and liberating for me, and many of my rules and limitations developed over forty years of writing single volume novels, certainly those pertaining to structure and pace, have given way to a spaciousness that is thrilling, mysterious and tricky.

Spinning a complicated yarn within a vastly expanded time-and-space frame reminds me of the revolution that transpired in the recording industry with the advent of LP’s, long-playing records, in the early 1950’s. Without the extreme time limitations imposed by short-playing 78’s, musicians and composers, especially jazz players, were suddenly free to record much longer pieces, and contemporary music, both recorded and live, was changed forever. Such works as Miles Davis’s Kinda Blue and Sketches of Spain or the long organ solo on the Doors’ “Light my Fire” would never have been possible without the advent of long-playing records.

Working with so much novelistic space also reminds me of an artist I knew who lived for decades in a tiny apartment and used his kitchen table as his studio. Everything he created—sculptures, paintings, and drawings—was small. In late middle age, he married a woman with a big house who gave him her high-ceilinged two-car garage to use as his studio, and after an initial transition period, everything he made was big. He told me he felt incredibly liberated in a spatial sense, though he was largely unpracticed in making large things. As he put it, “I am a beginner again in many ways, though a highly skilled beginner.”

Shunryu Suzuki was forever reminding his students about the importance of maintaining beginner’s mind, a non-judgmental openness, lest we become stuck in dogma and thought patterns that obscure the infinite possibilities inherent in every moment. I often think of beginner’s mind as I work on the Ida’s Place saga, and how the newness and unpredictability of the multi-volume form has rejuvenated my practice. To quote Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

After selling and mailing out the first thirty copies of Ida’s Place Book One: Return, I waited impatiently to hear what people thought of the book. When two weeks went by without a peep from anyone, my old crotchety inner critic began to whisper, “Maybe your ego played a trick on you. Maybe you wrote a dud.”

Then I heard from Alex MacBride, a person and writer I greatly admire, and I was relieved to learn that his experience of reading Ida’s Place echoed my experience of writing it. Alex wrote, “I had forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a book so purely and unambiguously and happily and want nothing more than to keep reading. I love it. It gave me a kind of reading-joy I haven’t had much since I was thirteen and fourteen, a tingling sort of excited comfort—moving along eagerly but resting at the same time, happy to be in the book’s world.”

Over the next several weeks I got more responses, including one from the poet D.R. Wagner who wrote, “I devoured the book in a day. I feel it is the most perfect love story by you yet. I was left breathless.” Another note came from Clare Bokulich, the Mendocino-born musicologist and baker, who effused, “Such a good read! I loved it. But now I am very anxious for Book Two. When will it be finished?”

Thus I was emboldened to dive whole-heartedly into writing Book Two. Now that Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival is done and copies are rolling off the copy machine at Zo, Mendocino finest and only copy shop, Book Three has begun to speak to me. And I am so eager to know what happens next to this large cast of fascinating characters, I am certain I will write the third volume whether anyone likes Book Two or not. As a dear friend once said to me, “Thank goodness we are our own biggest fans or we might never create anything.”

If you would like to read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One, please visit my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com. On the Home page click on the facsimile of the book cover for Ida’s Place Book One and you will be taken to the appropriate page. I have not, however, posted the first three chapters of Book Two because I don’t want to spoil the many surprises for those readers who were good enough to purchase Book One and have been asking for Book Two.

In simultaneous news, my latest CD of solo piano improvisations nature of love has just arrived from the manufacturer and I am hopeful many ears will be pleased by the new tunes.