Beginner’s mind is one of the most beautiful concepts in meditation. It provides the practitioner with a sense of being held by the traditions of a practice that don’t expect them to achieve or do anything, but just to be. This permission to just be, to let go of the pressure to achieve results, to demonstrate competence, is a powerful motivator for me to return to meditation practice.
Slowly, too, I am beginning to see the connections between what I learn while meditating and the rest of my life. I am learning about the patterns of my own mind — my mind plans; it hangs out in the future; it imagines and fantasizes. I imagine future achievement — and return to the breath. I go over past mistakes — and return to the breath. I think about money — and return to the breath. Since my job obviously follows me to meditation, what happens when I take what I’ve learned meditating into my job?
Leaving my position as associate professor in 2011 to move to a new country and an uncertain career future have repeatedly humbled me. New context, new work, new colleagues, starting a business, finding my way. At each of these stages, there have been moments when I’ve thought, “yes, this is going to work out. I have found my new thing.” And each time, I’ve encountered a wrinkle or run into someone’s competing agenda, or been presented with another, better alternative. So not all of these changes in course, these reinventions, have been unwelcome — but, when added together, they certainly explain why I feel like the eternal beginner. At each of these transitions (first staff job, contract teaching, coach training, working for myself as a coach, second staff job) I have found myself back at what feels like square one. I do not have the answers for my colleagues or for myself. After eight years in Canada, my stock line, “I’m new here,” is running out of mileage, but it still feels so true, especially at my (yet another) new job.
Sometimes it looks like my peers have it all figured out. They’re “set,” (is that like a pudding?) and know where their career will lead and what kind of impact they want to have. In the absence of that, I remind myself that I am responsible for charting my course and determining my impact. I do the inner work, I find the quality of mind that can find rest amidst confusion and competing demands. Inevitably, though, once I’ve set a direction, made progress and am in my work and my role, I settle in to thinking that I know where the work is headed, know where my career is headed, and can picture the life I’m going to have. Then I’m knocked off my center again and at sea.
Maybe you have been in a career where the next mile marker on the road is visible, or can be pointed to by others. That is not my path. Sometimes it feels like each day I get up to a blank page, a map with no trails drawn, no compass directions indicated. This sounds like a creative dream but it can also be unsettling. To not get lost in that blank page, to not succumb to the anxiety of needing to know how it is all going to turn out, what I should do next in order to . . . succeed, keep my job, make an impact, etc. — this is my goal. So I return to beginner’s mind. I don’t assume that I know the answer; I also don’t assume that there IS an answer.
I might need to acquire a few new skills, or learn to frame my work in particular ways for particular audiences; I think of this as preparing my own map. I have started a to-do list for my job with items on it that are at least one level abstracted from the quotidien emails, calls, and meetings. On this “meta” list are things to read, processes to create, a network of people to consult and rely upon. Not only will these things help me be more effective in my new role, having a plan provides a reassuring sense that, while I am new to the experience now, I will build experience and authority as I go on and I can plan to do that in an intentional way.
So, while I can create a to-do list that helps me build my capacities and my skill set relative to the work I’m being asked to do, that list alone isn’t enough for me to meet the challenge of reinvention and uncertainty. I’m discovering the equally important to-be list.
What is a to-be list? It is the necessary balance on the other side of the to-do list. It is a determination to spend as much attention on how you need to BE to get your work done, on how you need to show up to your tasks in order to “achieve” the aims of your work. For me, this includes building in space and time in my day and week to pause, set my intention as well as my goal, and connect with the ME who is doing this work. The last eight years have brought changes to my life and that of my family the way that an ocean brings waves — constantly, and in varying degrees. Huge, transcontinental moves (two) and smaller house-to-house moves (two additional), different family formations (Who lives where? How do we accommodate careers and school and four people in two time zones? Is this possible?), and the small, daily changes of a female body in its middle years.
There is internal resistance here and the desire to claim recognizable authority. I am almost 50, for pete’s sake, and feel like I have spent the last eight years trying to figure out Jennifer 2.0. I am envious of my partner and many of my peers from the first stages of my academic career as they take on leadership roles, think about their institutional legacy, and enjoy the respect of their colleagues. While those in my social circle take on “chief,” “dean,” “principal,” and “director” roles, I am an advisor. It feels like the best I can do is “lead from behind.”
Somewhere in between resignation and ambition, though, I can find presence. If I take the recognition of beginner’s mind from meditation into work, work can be a practice. What is it like to be a yogi for work. Work, building a career, can also be a practice. Deep breath. Long exhale.