Beginner’s Mind

What is it about a new year that seems to propel us out of our complacency and get us excited, inspired and motivated to make changes so that we are living our best lives?  Even though I have come to use the start of a new year to review and and make adjustments to my intentions of how I want to live and show up in the world, I more deeply realize that the real power lies in when I can do this every day, even…every moment. 

There is a Buddhist term, “shoshin”, which mean’s “beginner’s mind.” It refers to a mindset in which we encounter situations with a fresh perspective, like a beginner encountering the situation for the first time.  In “beginner’s mind,” we drop our preconceived notions, ideas and opinions and embody an attitude of not knowing, of curiosity, of openness and eagerness.

This is how I want to live each moment of my life, not just on New Year’s Day!  I want to live with openness and curiosity, because I’ve found that the opposite of that–closed and judgmental–doesn’t bring me much happiness.  When I can bring my “beginner’s mind” to parenting–staying open and curious to what is going on for my child, letting go of my preconceptions that he’s stubborn or trying to manipulate me, or any other story I make up in my mind–then I create space for understanding, compassion, and connection for both of us. When our relationship is rooted in these qualities, then nothing seems impossible!  There is no situation that we can’t work through.

 As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  I don’t know about you, but I like having lots of possibilities!

I invite you to give it a try.  The next time your kid “pushes your buttons,” pause and get into your “beginner’s mind.”  Get curious.  Ask yourself, Why would he say that?  Why would he do that?  What’s going on for him?  Maybe I can find out and help him.  Because that’s not the best him.  That’s not who he really is. 

 With beginner’s mind, we can cultivate an attitude where we are savoring every moment of this precious life we have been given, every moment of interaction with our loved ones, every encounter even with strangers.  The world can become new again and exciting when experienced with beginner’s mind.

Try it the next time you are stuck in traffic, or waiting in the wrong line (the slowest one) at the grocery store, even while your 3-year old is clinging to your legs and whiining.  Imagine you just landed on this planet or you just woke up from a coma after 40 years.  How does the world look?  What sounds do you hear?  How does it feel to have your child seeking your attention if you let go of the label whine-y and look at her with fresh eyes?

Is it possible to savor, absolutely s-a-v-o-r the moment?  Savor the wait, savor the whining, savor the stuck wheel on the cart.  This precious moment of life that you have been given.  What a miracle it is.

What I would ask Nancy Lanza

Memorial for Sandy Hook victims

Even as the New Year dawns and I’m teased with new beginnings and bright possibilities, I’m also still mourning how the Old Year concluded with the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I find that I keep vacillating between tears and numbness; I can only hold so much sorrow and despair before I have to shut down for a while and not feel. Then slowly, the sadness and grief return.

What has touched me most in this ordeal is reading about Adam’s mom, Nancy, and how it appears she was so isolated while dealing with her son’s increasingly extreme social withdrawal. Aside from a few conversations with casual friends, it appears that she faced her uncertainties, worries, and hard choices alone.  Her acquaintances are quick to describe her as happy and cheerful, but I imagine a different Nancy Lanza living behind the closed doors of her big beautiful home in Newtown.  I imagine a mom who desperately wanted her son to “fit in” and who was sick with worry about how to reach him as he slipped away, receding further and further into his own world.

This breaks my heart because it hits close to home for me. When my son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and we were dealing with some pretty severe behaviors day in and day out and I, too, felt he was slipping away, there were times when I thought I would lose my mind.  If I hadn’t had a couple good friends around me to hear my painful stories, to witness my struggles and to just be there to love me through it, I don’t know how it would have turned out. (Thank you Faye and Donna!) What I learned from that experience is it’s easy to become isolated when you have a “problem” child.  It’s hard to find sitters and play dates and friends who will go the distance with you.

I see this isolation often as I work with parents who have children with challenging behaviors, whether it’s violent outbursts or extreme social withdrawal.  It’s easy to wag a finger at the parent and find fault with their parenting.  It’s easy to give well-meaning advice of just do this, and that should solve the problem.  But unless you’ve ever lived with a child who doesn’t respond the same way as a “normal” child to “traditional” parenting techniques, then I’m here to tell you, “You don’t have a clue!”  What these parents need is not finger-wagging and advice, but compassion and acceptance, so that they feel like part of the human family again.

We can second-guess Nancy and think, “if only she had done this, that, or the other,” and we can blame her for taking Adam to shooting ranges and teaching him to fire a gun—just like we can judge the actions or inactions of other parents who have “weird” or “unruly” or “bully” kids.   But I don’t think fault-finding helps anyone.  I think it fuels the shame and fear of judgment that parents of children who are “different” often feel.  And shame and fear is what keeps these parents and families isolated.  What I would like to see is for us to love and support the Nancy Lanzas in our communities–the parents who are struggling with family life, often very much alone.

If only I could get in a time machine and reach out to Nancy before this awful tragedy, I would ask her, “You seem worried.  What’s going on?  How can I help?  What do you need?”  I would listen with my whole heart and I would hold a safe non-judgmental space for her to share her struggles, and to begin to heal.  Because I know when parents heal their own pain, they can help their children to heal too.  When parents receive compassion and acceptance themselves, they can extend the same to their children…and there’s a lot of children out there starving for compassion and acceptance.

As a parenting educator/coach, I’ve seen the power of a group of parents who come together to support each other.  A foundation of my classes is developing empathic listening, so parents are paired up and spend time outside of class just listening to each other.  Not giving advice, not trying to fix or console, but just listening. The parents are always astounded at how much this simple practice supports them.  As one mom recently said, “My friends and I talk all the time about parenting stuff, but this is a different quality of listening.  The word that comes to mind is transformative.”

Who knows what kind of ripple effect a supportive listening ear would have made for Nancy and possibly many other lives?  Would it have been enough to change the trajectory of what was to come?  It’s too late to know the answer in regards to Nancy Lanza, but there are many struggling, exhausted parents out there right now who need our support—perhaps it’s your neighbor, perhaps it’s your sister-in-law, perhaps it’s you.

My vision is a world where we create emotionally-safe, judgment-free communities where parents can come together,  share their struggles, be accepted no matter what is happening or how they are handling it, and be supported and nurtured by each other.  If this sounds like the kind of community you would like to be a part of, I invite you to join me in this quest and reach out to a parent who is struggling in your community today.
Rest in peace…Nancy, Allison, Ana Grace, Anne Marie, Avielle, Benjamin, Caroline, Catherine, Charlotte, Chase, Daniel, Dawn, Dylan, Emilie, Grace, Jack, James, Jesse, Jessica, Josephine, Lauren, Madeleine, Mary, Noah, Olivia Rose, Rachel, Victoria, and Adam.