A Beginner’s Mind

by Jennifer Griffin-Wiesner and Chris Maser

WE ARE intrigued by the Zen concept of a beginner’s mind–one that still is open to the dance of imagination in the land of innocence and possibility. This dance is one that most adults must work hard to retain in a world that values the pursuit of concrete knowledge. Far too many of us forget our unique, childlike ability to ask “Why?” In our work with young people, we have observed that, around the time children enter fourth grade, adults begin to instill in them a focus of what to think, rather than how to think. As early as 1933, the conservationist and author Aldo Leopold put his finger on the beginnings of this trend when he wrote, “To build a better motor, we tap the uttermost powers of the human brain; to build a better countryside, we throw dice.”

We consider a three-year-old’s “Why?” to be charming and developmentally appropriate but, all too often, a 10-year-old’s “Why?” is met with “That’s just how it is.” While adults continue creating social and environmental problems (Leopold’s dice throwing), these same young people will be asked to solve those problems increasingly are incapable so ourselves.

Without the knowledge, skills, and competencies to deal with social and environmental issues creatively, no society has a viable context within which to greet the children it brings into the world–much less nurture them. If we want to change our world for the better, we must tap into the creative and positive energy of young people. Over and over again, we have seen that it is children who teach their parents and other elders about the components of sustainability–not the other way around. The middle school and high school years present a critical developmental opportunity because, well into adolescence and early adulthood, the neural connections of a young person’s brain literally are being “hardwired” in terms of how youth think about themselves, and their relationships, choices, and decisions.
Whether an educator, youth worker, or other type of story weaver, anyone committed to giving young people a strong, powerful, positive voice–one that is robust and hopeful enough to rally kindred spirits of all ages–is unique and critical to the sustainability of our planet.

A world of hurry and worry

Adults are the trustees of young people’s futures. Yet, we rarely ask our youth what they want us to leave them as our legacy, nor do we always listen when they try to share their ideas about real-life issues–beyond the typical daily routine–in the realm of public dialogue. Why is this? Because, collectively, we often are too busy to attend to young people’s intuitive wisdom, which we also once had as children, but since have lost in today’s competitive “hurry-worry” world of materialism, clashing ideologies, and attempts to control circumstances. The notion of fairness and human dignity, however, demands of us one of our scarcest resources–our willingness to listen to one another. Not listening invalidates the feelings-and very existence–of another person, an all-too-frequent experience shared by young people. The nation’s youth need a positive foundation upon which to empower them to take ownership of their world and create an environment that nurtures these assets. Mentors must help young people view the world through the lens of their own strengths (upon which other strengths can be built), rather than simply overwhelming them with a litany of problems they must overcome.

Our children one day will become local, national, and international leaders. Many of us still may be around when that time arrives. The better our young people are at finding positive, creative, and sustainable ways of working, playing, and being together, the more they truly will be able to change the world. Teaching kids to change the world sounds like a lofty ambition; we recognize that. On the other hand, change happens all around us, every day, whether or not we do anything about it. Thus, we have a choice: we can “become the change [we] want to see in the world” (as India’s Mahatma Gandhi encouraged), or we simply can react to change as it occurs. Educators’ influence on young people–in a formal or informal setting–often is second only to that of family. These individuals are in a remarkable position to show to day’s youth how to become powerful and positive agents of change throughout their lives.

Everything–living creatures, plants, air, water, inanimate objects, time, space–exists in relationship to everything else. Each action that a teacher and his or her students take is like dropping a pebble into a quiet pool of water. Just as each pebble produces a unique set of ripples–a series of changes, really–so does each child and adult offer a unique gift to the world, one that is critical to the whole. Each gift is different and valuable in its service to the Earth and its inhabitants–and what is true of individual humans also is true of all cultures and societies. Regardless of how strongly we strive for autonomy, each life, culture, and society is interdependent. Each also has its own excellence and cannot be compared justly to another. Differences among creatures, cultures, and societies are just that–differences.
A pebble’s impact on the water’s surface creates concentric rings flowing outward from the center, touching everything in their path. The farther the rings travel from the epicenter, the wider and more diffuse they become. Sharp eyes might catch their visual disappearance, but no witness will observe their ultimate dissipation, because the rings continue to exist in every other ring they have touched. For an instant in time, the atoms that compose a riving being continue their journey as they participate in and create a perpetually widening series of stories about eternal relationships within the one story. That one story, like the spider’s silken case of eggs–and like a group of students–contains all the other stories. Whatever we do is part of a tale that reverberates throughout eternity. Just as no pebble can strike the water’s surface without causing an effect, no action can exist without a cause. This universal truth is the essence–the heart–of the power and wonder of being a teacher. Instructors are, in many ways, serving as the students’ muse, providing the context, skills and inspiration they will use to craft their own storylines.

“What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary,” wrote philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1876’s “Social Aims.” Emerson easily might have been speaking of hatred and prejudice, attitudes that have the power to control our lives in spite of our protests to the contrary. As long as old hatreds are carried forward from one generation to the next, war, terrorism, and other forms of violence will continue. We are destined to repeat acts of hatred and violence until people let go of old ways of thinking and reacting. When we can do so, we will be able to experience the transformative possibilities of the present and, thereby, make the best use of precious human talent, money, and irreplaceable natural resources that allow us to enrich, rather than impoverish, each succeeding generation.

Through experiencing the consequences of our actions, we can learn the difference between reacting and responding. We react spontaneously, sometimes out of insecurity and a perceived need for self-defense and retaliation, becoming the very thing that we oppose. Can we learn to respond intentionally to one another with trust inspired by acceptance, and transform fear and hatred into compassion and justice?

Understanding the power of human thought to affect collective energy is critical, because the psychological balance of society is determined by the weight of each thought taken by the collective. For people who believe that positive change is possible, there is an abiding paradox in the relative weight of a thought–while the thought of love is but a feather’s weight, when placed on the social and environmental scale, its lasting effect outweighs by a hundredfold a thought of fear. The envelope of thought surrounding the world is the scale in which our individual thoughts weigh either positively or negatively in the balance. It is, therefore, by our thoughts that we can affect the world we live in–for good or ill.

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