by Damita Brown
One of the most helpful things I ever heard a meditation teacher (who I will refer to as Edward to preserve his privacy) say is “we’re all beginners.” He was a senior teacher in my Buddhist community and so it was unexpected. I did not see him that way.
In fact, I had learned so much from him that I had begun to create an elevated place for him. It was a source of distance and false separation. Edward’s comment turned my relationship with meditation practice to a whole new direction. I actually began to lighten up and see how my hurry to get somewhere on the path was a real obstacle, a form of aggression that prevented me from settling fully into who I am. There was an element of harshness and speed that kept me grinding along.
If we are all beginners, then I am invited to think about what it really means to be on a path with real “maitri,” a Sanskrit word that means friendliness. I had heard about the view of meditation as it’s taught in my lineage that has to do with cultivating friendliness toward oneself. But for some reason, this comment really deepened my connection to what that really means.
It’s the fact that he saw himself as a beginner that really made my own aggression more visible to me. Before that I got caught in one fixed view after the next about the meaning of true attainment as a meditator. The saying “the path is the goal” made more sense than it ever had before.
Anyone who has read “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki might have a sense of the value placed on being in the position of actually being new enough, fresh enough to a subject of study that there is room to wonder, to utilize curiosity and relax without fear or negativity towards the state of not knowing.
Edward’s words helped to restore a sense of flexibility and kindness towards all those things I felt I should know by now. Aggression toward myself evaporated. The pressure was off. I remain grateful that he shared his perspective. This kind of being in which every aspect of my experience is welcome is what makes it possible to be genuine. Something softens and that softening makes space. Something opens and that openness creates flexibility. I deepened my sense of trust and true patience. It is very difficult to find patience for yourself when you are caught in a trap of self-doubt.
Finding more kindness for myself, I was convinced that we all need this same kindness to undo the harm that aggression causes. Whether we are talking about the hundreds of families fleeing poverty and violence who sought asylum in the US when their children were kidnapped, or the horror of hundreds dead in an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place in Congo this year, finding solutions will require us to have “maitri.”
If we want to be able to solve the problems presented to us as our world relates to the catastrophes caused by global warming or the school to prison pipeline that funnels thousands of children of color into the prison system each year, we will need some ability to treat ourselves with kindness. Why? What does friendliness toward myself have to do with ending violence or poverty or racism or any other problem?
In a wonderful video titled “The Noble Journey From Fear to Fearlessness,” the western Buddhist nun Pema Chodron teaches that in taking the meditation posture we are taking the posture of attentiveness and openness to whatever arises and that this is an act of bravery. This opens us beyond our habitual view of our reality and we don’t know what we are going to see. We see who we really are. We are becoming more able to hold and accept all the parts of us that might be mean, small-hearted, greedy or aggressive. Then you get to a place of breaking through those habitual of static views and that brings fear.
Moving from narrow and rigid thinking and acting means fear arises. But beyond that fear is a new place of openness – a gradual process of becoming less and less afraid. Being fully awakened means staying open and not centralizing back into oneself. This is what it takes to be able to stay open to the fear, the aggression of other people. Relating to our world’s craziness means cultivating the ability to open this way and remain open. We have no real trustworthiness as allies in the struggle against racism, for example, if we cannot look honestly at the ways we have perpetuated racism in our day to day thinking and actions. If we can stay open to our collusion in an essentially oppressive situation, we are deepening our bravery to do what it takes to engage this problem with kindness.
Pema is reminding us of how essential it is to have friendliness toward yourself if you aspire to befriend another. So the most powerful act in dealing with so many of the worlds problems is really just to have a deep sense of trust in your own ability to to be honest, kind and flexible.
My on-going journey of befriending myself translates into the aspiration that we all have the benefits of this kind of friendliness. I think approaching the troubles of the world as beginners might afford the patience and wonder we need succeed.