First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Humble Beginnings

January 25, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

This month we have explored the difference between humility and humiliation. We have considered humility as an understanding that, as Carl Sagan said, our planet is a pale blue dot “in a vast cosmic arena.” That’s a humbling perspective. We have looked at humility as an understanding that we each have only partial truths and that we need to be open to the truths others have to offer. And we have noted great justice leaders and teachers who embody humility, and imagined ways we might employ humility in our own work in anti-racism.

It’s hard to imagine there’s more to be said. But there is. This morning, I want to invite you into a reflection into yet another way that humility shows up in our lives. It’s in our ability to be novices. Zen Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.” Taoists call it the “uncarved block.” Unitarian Universalists refer to it as “direct experience” that renews the spirit and creates life. Humility lies in our willingness to be beginners, to try new things, even and especially activities and experiences that make us uncomfortable.

Let’s consider what Buddhism, Taoism, and our own Unitarian Universalist religion has to teach us about being humble beginners. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki explains the Zen Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is open, and free from the established and well-trod patterns of the expert mind. He says:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. …  In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

As in our story this morning, if we pour tea into a cup that’s already full it will overflow. The mind must be emptied in order to receive new insights. We must empty our cups in order to refill them.

It’s easy enough to see the barriers to doing this. Individuals who meditate, for example, often come to a point after a few years of some level of proficiency. When I get to this point, all of a sudden, I start to think “I’m starting to get the hang of this.” That’s when difficulties really arise. I begin to lose some of the freshness I first experienced. When this happens, the practice feels stale. I’m meditating by rote, and I’m not fully present. The challenge for me at those times is to come to the practice as a novice, as though it is my first time on the mat.

Placing too much importance on being an expert and on attainment can lead us to intellectual and spiritual pride, to being self-satisfied, even arrogant. It can also be boring, even tedious. When we get “expert” status at something, we can also become self-conscious and overly protective of that status. Being the authority can actually become a barrier to risk-taking. What would happen if we took a risk and failed? Being a novice is uncomfortable – and humbling. Being a novice is also freeing. Zen Buddhism reminds us that it also frees us from the prison of public opinion and our own self-judgments.

Taoism, like Zen Buddhism, teaches the art of simplicity and humble beginnings. The Tao Te Ching advises us to: “return to the beginning; becoming a child again ” The “return to the beginning” is the Chinese concept of "the uncarved block." Winnie the Pooh epitomizes the simplicity of the uncarved block, as we heard in our reading earlier. Pooh experiences life as a child might, having fun and being willing to be silly. Just listen to Pooh’s explanation of how cleverness can get in the way of learning:

“Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.”   (A.A. Milne,Winnie-the-Pooh)

In Unitarian Universalism, we affirm direct experience that renews the spirit and open us “to the forces that create and uphold life.” Direct experience is one of the primary sources of our faith. Having what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “our own original relation to the universe” is humbling and refreshing. Direct experience makes possible a spontaneous encounter with ourselves and the world. It asks us to practice beginner’s minds.

So how can we to live a life of humble beginnings? There are a number of ways. They seem to fall into two main categories. The first is breathing new life into longtime skills and practices. The second is trying new things.

When it comes to longtime practices, our challenge is to approach it with a Pooh-like simplicity. The best minds actually do this. Consider what is required to do science well. Good science does not arrive at an answer and then stop. It continues to build on knowledge, to continue to explore, question, and challenge. Sometimes ideas and findings are reversed or revised.

According to Martin Schwartz, a PhD who works in the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia, scientists need to practice what he calls “productive stupidity.” That puts them in the position of having to choose to be “ignorant.” By ignorant, he means unknowing. He says:

One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. … The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries. (“The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” Journal of Cell Science, http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.full)   

Another way to live a life of humility is to seek out new experiences on a regular basis. Try something completely new. Set off on a new adventure. There are many ways to do this, and some of them can be pretty ordinary. If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for years, try Sudoku. Or vice versa. If you play bridge, try board games for a change. Sit in the front pew rather the back one. Take up a new hobby. Take a different route to work. Volunteer for something you have never done. Learning a new language and traveling are other known ways to cultivate beginner’s mind.

Science has actually discovered that new experiences are good for the brain. They tend to our neural connections and even grow more of them. So not only does humility make us a better person, it also makes us wiser. (“The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain,” Barbara Strauch, www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult-t.html?_r=0)

According to that, I ought to be very wise and very humble right now! I traveled to Granada, Nicaragua, for eight days over New Year’s where I had plentiful opportunities to practice beginner’s mind. Being in another culture where a language that is not your native tongue is spoken is itself a humbling experience. Let me preface by saying I’ve been to Cuba, Mexico twice, and India so it wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in that situation. But the more I travel to foreign countries (and I’m by no means an expert) the more I realize how much I don’t know. I’m more and more aware of the nuances of my experience and attitudes. It also makes a difference that on those other trips to countries speaking other languages, there was someone else either dealing with logistics or fluent in the language, something that shielded me from some of the demands and challenges.

The plunge into humility began when my boyfriend Chris and I arrived at the Managua airport. Osmin was waiting with a sign with our names on it. The hotel had arranged the transport. We quickly discovered that he knows about as much English as we know Spanish. Un poco. A bit. I soon discovered I know even less Spanish than I thought I knew.

Two days later, we went to a nearby crater lake. Our driver was Carlos. Carlos spoke even less English than Osmin, and at first I was really missing Osmin. Chris was better able to hold something approaching a conversation with Carlos than I was, but calling it a conversation would be a bit of an exaggeration.

I found I was intimidated even to try to use the little Spanish I do know. And honestly it’s exhausting. As the week progressed and I spent more time with Nicaraguans, I became more and more willing to try. I found that the more I was willing to try to engage with Carlos and others, the more they began to guide me, offering me correct pronunciations and more personal interaction. By the third time Carlos was our driver, he proudly pointed out his house to us.

One curious language experience occurred at a small café. We were given English language menus. Many of the menus at the restaurants were bilingual. This one wasn’t. The specials were also written in English on a chalkboard. So I thought, this will be easy. I was feeling pretty comfortable. When the waiter came to our table, I ordered fish tacos. He looked at me with a completely blank face. He said something to me in Spanish. Then I realized that he didn’t speak any English. He asked if we spoke Spanish. We said, un poco. I could have sung Spirit of Life in Spanish to him, but I doubt that would have been helpful.

So I stood up, motioned to him to follow me around the corner, where I pointed to the chalkboard where the words fish tacos were written. I said fish tacos. He repeated fish tacos but with a Spanish accent. I nodded my head yes, we both smiled, and he wrote it down. It wasn’t long before I had fish tacos.

The point is, I had to get out of my own way and my own expectations. I had to be willing to try communicating in crude Spanish, English, pointing, smiling, and sometimes just not being sure what had been said and being willing to look and sound foolish. Oh and I also learned to go with the flow of whatever arrived – whether I thought it was what I was getting or not. Like the afternoon I ended up with a “Blue Lady” drink, one that matched the turquoise top I was wearing.

Once I stopped worrying about how silly I sounded or that I was going to use the wrong word, I just did my best. I was definitely using my brain and my heart in new ways. I felt like an uncarved block! I wasn’t as gracious as Winnie the Pooh. But that’s okay. I was practicing beginner’s mind.

As we conclude our focus on humility this month, I encourage you to reflect on the ways you can be more like Winnie the Pooh. In what ways are you already practicing being a humble beginner? In what ways are you in need of trying something new?

Amen. Blessed be.