In the first month of the year, I'd like to talk a little about New Beginnings.
As mindfulness practitioners, we know that it is a practice of renewing one's awareness, again and again. When one first wakes up in the morning and opens one’s eyes, there’s a moment: there is the sensation of having sight, before the content of what’s seen is registered, before the sense of self coalesces again… In that moment there can be a simple and deep pleasure of having this sense perception, an appreciation of being alive. One can experience this new beginning frequently in meditation, a practice of renewing one's practice, in the moment, as losing concentration is the nature of our practice. In life as well--we will lose our grounding countless times, and if we're committed to practice, we simply begin again, and again.
At this time, there is a lot of turmoil globally, and many problems seem intractable. Our individual worlds can seem complex and chaotic. As Einstein has said wisely, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that have created it. Individually and collectively, how can we remain optimistic, and be able to begin again and again?
I’m lucky to have a Native American practice in addition to a Buddhist practice, where there is ritual, a strong sense of community, and earth-based medicine. I'd like to explain the Native American medicine wheel as one framework for New Beginnings... The framework is a cycle of four elements, such as four seasons, four directions, and interestingly, New Beginnings is not the first but the third stage.
To explain in a little detail—the medicine wheel symbolizes the natural progression of all things, including the human journey. It starts at the West direction, where health and help are needed as we do in the beginning of life; going clockwise to the North, where one needs courage and guidance to go through challenges in one’s youth; then the East, with New Beginnings, a renewal and reenergizing symbolized by the rising sun; and lastly the South, with purity of heart, characterized by love and generosity, where we will hopefully arrive at in old age. This cycle happens both at macro and micro levels, over and over again, and gives us a larger perspective than the challenges and rewards of each particular part of the cycle.
A key practice for Native Americans is the sweat lodge, which is akin to the womb. In a natural structure close to the ground, hot rocks are brought into a pit inside the structure, and water is poured on the rocks creating steam. Men and women sit in a circle in this ceremony, praying and singing, to be purified and to be with the Great Spirit. When one comes out of the lodge, it feels like one is emerging from the womb, being reborn. Coming into the open air, where the sacred fire is still burning, I have wondered who, or what, is peering from behind these eye holes. The native folks would say, it’s the Great Spirit looking through you. In Buddhism we say Buddha nature, and in other traditions we say God, eternity, universal consciousness, etc. No matter what words we use, it points to a sense of a deep connection, belonging, and a great new beginning.
Not long ago I gave birth to my first child. In my pregnancy and these first weeks with the baby, I have wondered where consciousness comes from. Many cultures consider the first movements of the baby in utero to be indication that consciousness, or soul, has come to it. Despite the wonders of modern medicine, we can’t, and won’t be able to, explain where consciousness comes from. It is one of those things that the intellectual mind, in its desire to understand and explain, could never reach the depth and directness of experience.
To want to comprehend, intellectually, requires an assumption of cause and effect. This comes from the scientific method in Western thought. Cause and effect for sure is true at that level, however, it’s just a particular level. It’s a necessary narrowing of focus. If we widen the focus, it took everything, all the way back to the big bang, to bring each thing into being. Cause and effect are not the final word. In mindful awareness, you see that thoughts come on their own, and can have a chain effect, but thoughts do not come from any dependable cause.
Life is like a string of beads, except there’s no string. When you look to the past, the sequence of all the moments, all the beads, makes it seem like there is a string, something connecting each bead to the next. However in this and every moment, a bead appears, out of emptiness, and not separate from emptiness. Life just appears moment after moment like that. Things never turn out quite how we thought they would, right? Life is always new, always fresh. There’s no predetermined bead on a string, waiting for us to come to it.
I’m learning so much from my baby. The beginning of life is full of frustrations, yet a baby does not lose the motivation to keep trying, does not become afraid of future failures. Fully alive, they simply begin again and again, open to all possibilities. This is the life force in action, which reminded me of an insight that came, when I was having a hard time in my first trimester: “Life is just lived from moment to moment, and it all comes from love.” It will take me a lifetime to live this, to real-ize this. I’m committed to doing so.
Situations happen—for example, disagreement arises in a work meeting, tension quickly follows—people seem to be at an impasse. I have no idea what the solution can be but I’ve learned to trust my actions. I lean in, offer the beginning of a suggestion, or a recognition of what’s happening, or maybe some kindness. Most of the time someone else will then offer something, and the group will start to shift as we respond to each other. In the middle of everything, a “knowing” comes, not a solution, but a way of navigating the territory.
I’ve seen in my Native American practice--sometimes everyone in a big ceremony are so connected, that they move in unison, with so much care and helpfulness. Everyone is filled to the brim with feeling, and give their all to support others, even when that effort is not visible to those benefiting… Cause and effect fades and there’s only intention: love.
These experiences help me know, in a deep way, what is possible. We’re often taught, explicitly or implicitly, to be good to others so that others will be good to us, and we can reap the benefits of our actions. This is cause and effect thinking. There’s not enough emphasis on another way to see it: we do good because we are good. We come from love. There’s this short poem from Linda Hogan, a Native American writer:
"Walking I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still they say.
Watch and Listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands."
We are love. Dalai Lama once marveled, in a meeting with western psychologists, “we don’t know what self-esteem is. We don’t have that problem.” When we know, in the cells of our being, that we come from love, then we’re free from the measuring of self-esteem and resulting neuroses. Widening our focus, we can feel in the moment the difference between when we’re ‘being good’ because we want something for ourselves; and when we’re simply good. When we’re acting from purity of heart, it is how we can truly improve our lives, and be useful.
The minds of new beginnings is an inclusive mind, it is love in action. And it is how we can bring more harmony into the world, solve problems from a deeper place of presence: feel when you are connected, and when you are disconnected, look into what’s disconnecting you. Can you feel your heart? Can you feel it open and close? Make it a practice to notice what opens and closes your heart, and do your best to keep it open. You don’t need to understand how it happened, just notice it time after time. Not the why or how, which is cause and effect thinking, just the what. That’s the beginning of healing, and healing in this way never stops. In our lives, the medicine wheel keeps turning.
The whole of a mindful life, mindful work practice can be said as “letting go.” Letting go of what? Letting go of want, of desires, expectations, what we think we know. They will be there, part of our ego process. Notice them and don’t attach. Even after enlightenment, there is practice. Each day there are countless chances to let go, to see how it goes this time, and be a new you in the process.
What could happen is much bigger and much more magical than what we want. Each moment of your practice, each time you pause in your busy day, let go of want, and step afresh into your life, beginning again. What is peering from behind those eye holes?
Yingzhao Liu has a practice of integrating deep spiritual practice with our complex modern life. Drawing from Zen Buddhism as well as the Native American path, Ying supports others in their journey of inner and outer transformation by shifting consciousness to deeper and deeper levels. As a design leader in Silicon Valley, she also draws from a deep investigation of human and organizational processes. She has lead experiential education for over a decade and loves to facilitate group processes in nature. Ying is native to mainland China and has traveled to 30 countries, always affirmed by people's relationship with the environment they live in—their creativity and spirituality in everyday life.