by Lisa Peet
I have exactly three good habits, and they have served me well during the past year: I walk 2-1/2 miles around our local reservoir every morning before work, I take a round of vitamins every night, and I meditate for 10 minutes every day.
I’m not sure why sameness should be so comforting during a time of such oppressive sameness, but the routine is good for me. Walking keeps me in some small degree of muscle tone when I rarely leave the house otherwise; the B complex, D100, and vitamin C help make up for not eating meat or getting much sun; and the meditation… well, it’s soothing, a quiet moment at the beginning or end of every hectic day, and it gives me useful things to think about. Mine is not a rigorous practice—just the Headspace app on my phone—but I’ve only missed one day in more than two years. The ideas put forward in the daily meditations, as condensed and palatable as 10 minutes a day allow, offer me a frame for moving through the world.
One that I loved before I ever heard it identified in that context is Beginner’s Mind. Adapted from the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin (初心), beginner’s mind is a newcomer’s attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching a subject, even a habitual or daily activity: with a sense of possibility, a little unsettledness, and delight. The twinning of those two notions, delight and duty, has kept me company for many years.
I wasn’t brought up to identify work with joy. A child of the ’70s, both spoiled and slightly neglected, I was told that I was wonderful and talented and the world was my oyster—all good things, certainly—but not that precocity has a half-life, or that the grunt work, bewilderment, and discomfort involved in learning and honing skills isn’t something to be avoided but rather a source of enormous reward, not to mention perpetual humbling that is nothing but good for the soul.
I didn’t really get it until my 40s, after being laid off from a long-term velvet coffin job and ending a long-term relationship, although I’d had hints before of the elations that came with jumping in over my head—taking ice hockey clinics with a bunch of 10-year-olds in my 30s, throwing myself into a side gig of specialty baking when my entire previous expertise involved the recipe on the back of the bag of Toll House chips. I always thought of myself as brave in some abstract sense, so when life came unmoored and I had the opportunity to make some choices, I picked the biggest ones, embracing the discomfort of blooming late. I entered the editorial world with no real connections at 40, went to graduate school at 48, and stepped into a rewarding, demanding job with a steep learning curve at 51. Working as an editor and journalist with no formal training in either was a massive undertaking, and it’s not hyperbole to say I’ve had to learn something new pretty much every day for the past six years.
But that sustained learning is not the same as beginner’s mind. Tom Vanderbilt, in his Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (Knopf), which came out in January, makes that distinction early on:
In my job as a journalist, I am constantly learning new information. I am a “perpetual novice,” constantly helicoptering into some world I barely know of (nuclear waste, watchmaking) and meeting key players, soaking up the terminology, reading the weird trade magazines—did you know the world of shipping pallets has two leading journals?—and otherwise geeking out.
But the difference between declarative knowledge—knowing that—and procedural knowledge—knowing how—was something else entirely. Sitting on the sidelines while his young daughter took after school and weekend lessons—chess, swimming, taekwondo, piano—Vanderbilt realized that it had been a long time since he had learned anything new. He began researching how learning affects the brains of adults 50 and older: the hidden benefits, the development of new neural plasticity, the advantages of learning to try and fail without self-judgment. Learning a new skill, he posited, is not unlike the charged beginnings of a love affair.
Vanderbilt decided, then, to take on a handful of pursuits with the goal not of expertise but of exploring the cognitive shifts that come with learning new skills: chess, singing—did you know there was such a thing as a Britpop choir?—surfing, drawing (“meditation with benefits”), and the deep apprenticeship involved in jewelry making (to replace the wedding rings he lost surfing), with side forays into distance swimming in open water and juggling.
His account of this march through process is engaging, seeded with the right amount of light science, humility, and humor to counter any rumble of self-indulgence. That his learning curves involved a succession of adept teachers and coaches, surfing camp in Costa Rica, and “swimming wild” in the Bahamas and off the coast of Corfu is a bit less relatable—but either Vanderbilt had the resources and time or was spending down his book advance, and more power to him—they were interesting experiments.
In particular, I liked his appreciation for the dilettante, and trying new things with no intention of mastery.
That word, which has an almost entirely pejorative meaning today as a hopelessly superficial dabbler, is derived from the Italian dilettare, which means “to delight.” As the art historian Bruce Redford notes, “dilettante”—one who exhibits delight—entered English with the formation of the Society of Dilettanti, an eighteenth-century group of Englishmen who had returned from the grand tour brimming with enthusiasm for Continental art and culture. As the process of acquiring knowledge gradually became more specialized, Redford notes, the meaning of the word shifted. By the time George Eliot wrote Middlemarch in the early 1870s, the word had become an insult.
That thought alone pleased me, but I was also looking, side-eyed, for a way into Vanderbilt’s dilettante delight as I rounded the nine-month post of this pandemic year. My daily meditation prompts encouraged me to cultivate my beginner’s mind, but that curiosity, sense of playfulness, and love of work—always accessible before now—felt nowhere to be found.
My pandemic has been, in all honesty, a light lift: baseline good mental and physical health, a job that transitioned easily to work-from-home status, no school-aged children to manage, a good relationship, good friends, good Wi-Fi. To want more for myself felt like a luxury—but I did, and do. As a friend described it, these days have been “all gratitude, no joy.”
I went into lockdown with the best of intentions: along with my three good habits, I would bloom like my garden did as I diligently tended it all summer. I would use my time wisely. I would begin making art again, a former joy that had fallen by the wayside; I would go back to my barely-used sketchbook and free up that sludgy eye-hand connection, rediscover the pleasure I used to take in drawing, even if I had to relearn everything I once knew.
There should have been space for that to happen.
There was a time, not long ago, when “beginner’s mind” would have smacked of the most ridiculous privilege. The 12 months before the pandemic were my year of service. So many of my best beloveds were ill or dying, and I showed up for them without resentment… or without much, at least.
Our tiny, dear black cat had cancer and peed on everything, in every shoe, on all the dog beds. I followed him around with enzyme spray and paper towels, constantly cleaning, until eventually nothing worked and we had to say goodbye to our little friend of a dozen years.
Almost immediately, it seemed, our sweet old hound dog, the dog of my heart, began to fail, leaking bits of urine everywhere—I never had the chance to put away the spray and paper towels. Eventually her arthritic legs failed her and I would carry her bulky 60 pounds up and down our back stairs to the yard multiple times a day, crooning in her ear what a good girl she was all the while.
The elderly orange cat began to waste as well: medications, expensive prescription food he hated, holding him between my knees so I could slide a needle into the loose skin at his neck and drip intravenous fluids into his bony body.
And every Sunday I visited my mother at the nursing home an hour away. We spent the afternoons singing nursery rhymes, watching Rat Pack videos on my iPad, putting stickers in books, or finding shapes in the clouds and commenting on the flowers, the birds at the feeder, the cars driving by, the same thoughts cycling through her head every few minutes, but she laughed and was happy, and I loved that time as well. I worked long days Monday to Friday bracketed by an hour’s subway commute at either end. I barely had time to catch my breath, ever. I cleaned up piss and vomit, cooked the dog tiny beef and turkey sliders to get her to eat, dealt out meds, stroked my mom’s hair in the loud comfort of the dayroom as she closed her eyes and smiled blissfully. The dog got a bladder infection and every morning and night I washed her vulva with warm water and baby soap, going through stacks of washcloths and old, soft dish towels. She smelled terrible. I loved her so much.
And then, like the dark moral in a fable where a woman wishes—just once, by mistake—for a little respite from her tasks, my responsibilities winked out one by one, like damp fingers pinching out candle flames from room to room, and then the house was dark.
It was finished by the end of February of 2020. My mom and my dog died 15 hours apart; the old orange cat during my two-day layover at home between conferences, when I was able to get a hospice vet to come to the house on frantically short notice. I thank them all for leaving when I could hold them and say goodbye properly, just weeks before lockdown began.
What should have opened up a space for me to mourn great duties honorably fulfilled, and then let life seep back in, was instead filled by work—I was on a series of deadlines and never even took bereavement time—and then by COVID’s grim procession.
That hard work in the service of love was immediately replaced by work that, paradoxically, felt more difficult: getting to the end of every task on time and competently, and moving on to the next one. That rhythm had always played itself out in the background of my life without much thought. Since we all went home and stayed home, it has taken every bit of attention I have.
All gratitude, no joy. I was doing work I loved in a field I cared about. But as Vanderbilt points out,
As Winston Churchill wrote in his small, delightful book Painting as a Pastime, “It may well be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds.”
How do you cultivate beginner’s mind when everything just swivels around, as if pulled by a massive invisible magnet, to point to its own completion and the beginning of the next thing? I craved—I still crave—transcendence, some kind of transformation to click through the plodding circuits in my brain and fire them up again, one by one, turning the lights back on in that dark house.
Do you see it? Do you see my answer? Like any seasoned reader of cozy mysteries who guesses whodunit three-quarters of the way through the book, have you figured it out long before I did as I stubbornly trudged through my days wondering what was missing?
It took me a while to get it. It took me until very recently—this month, this week, maybe right now as I’m writing this essay—to see that this is beginner’s mind. It’s not photogenic, not the inspiration that I so wanted, or that one new idea that would set a million questions ablaze. It’s not the fun kind of curiosity this time around, but rather the angry kind. I’m banging around in the dark house, hitting my elbows on doorjambs because I don’t know where I’m going, and it hurts when I do that. And that’s exactly right.
Vanderbilt posits the difference between engineers and scientists is that engineers need to know exactly what they’re doing—“No one wants to drive across an experimental bridge”—and scientists need to not know in order to come up with hypotheses, experiments and failures and, ideally, successfully proven theories. At work, he says, we’re engineers, delivering what we’re expected to and constantly trying to figure out how to do better.
But we all, I think, also want to be scientists. We want to mess around, screw things up, push the boundaries just to see what might happen. We want to get in over our heads without worrying too much about the consequences. We want to see what other dimensions there might be to this self that presents every morning in the bathroom mirror.
We can’t all be scientists when we want to be, though. Sometimes, like now, the times call for engineers.
I do believe the well fills up again, but I’ve realized, belatedly, that I don’t get to say how quickly that happens. If I stand still and let my eyes adjust to the darkness—standing still being another revolutionary idea that meditation has pressed into my mind—I can see that the house is dim, maybe, but not dark.
“It’s not that good jugglers never make mistakes,” Vanderbilt writes.
But their constant problem solving has given them many more solutions. Expertise, the chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson notes, means running out of unfamiliar mistakes.
One of the precepts of beginner’s mind is: “Fall down seven times, get up eight times.” This is me, then, getting up, beginning again.
Lisa Peet is news editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.