“To engage in any creative process, to live each day fully, we have to find our way back to the willingness to begin again and again.” (Oriah Mountain Dreamer, What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul)
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Beginning this blog was an act of courage for me.
Beginnings are not difficult for everyone. Some people have the gift of jumping right into a new enterprise with a spirit of adventure and curiosity, ready to face any obstacles and to see where the journey will take them.
I admire those people.
But for those of us who are perfectionists, beginnings can be agonizing. We may love the planning stages, when we can hold an ideal vision in our minds, but beginning the project itself throws the door wide open for mistakes. For failure. For not living up to our own standards.
Yet pursuing any creative endeavour in life, from writing a novel to starting a business to raising a child, requires that we have the courage to make an imperfect beginning.
And then there is the even more vexing problem of beautiful beginnings that run out of steam. Here it is the middle of January, and how many of us have already both launched ourselves into AND given up on some of our New Year’s Resolutions?
I started this blog in a rush of enthusiasm at the beginning of December, and between grieving an unexpected loss in my life (my father’s death after a three-year battle with cancer) and dealing with a more general sense of panic that I had already run out of things to say, I stopped writing for over a month. Like a child whose crayon drawing hasn’t turned out perfectly, there is an urge in me to crumple up the electronic paper on which I have written these entries and throw it away, telling myself, “Oh well, maybe it wasn’t meant to be. I’ll start another blog some other time.”
But if I were to do that, I’d miss out on putting into practice one of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned recently about the creative process, which is that creativity is nothing but an endless series of beginnings. And I learned this lesson not from writing, but from meditating. Or at least, from trying and failing to meditate. And then trying again.
Ever since I first learned about Buddhism as an adolescent, I’ve wanted to have a regular meditation practice. I’ve studied various forms of meditation and have practised some of them haphazardly over the years, but I’ve never felt that I was truly a meditator. However, perhaps inspired by all the statues of the Buddha that I stumble across here in Japan, I’ve recently been listening to a series of lectures and guided meditations by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein on Insight Meditation.
I’ve always considered myself a failure as a meditator, because I could never focus for very long without being distracted, and because my practice itself only took place in fits and starts. So as I sit down to my first guided meditation session, I’m amazed at how often Sharon Salzberg, in her wise and gentle voice, reassures me that meditation is, in fact, all about “beginning again.”
“The act of beginning again is the essential art of meditation practice,” she comforts me, as my mind wanders for the 278th time this morning away from my breath and back to my endless to-do list. “Over and over and over again, we begin again.”
Over and over and over again. I love that. I’ve finally realized that it’s not about doing it perfectly or getting it right. It’s not about meditating for 40 minutes, it’s about meditating for a minute, getting completely distracted by my thoughts, and beginning again. Meditating for two more minutes, realizing that I’ve dozed off and started to drool, and beginning again. Finding my focus for 30 seconds, getting annoyed at the itch behind my ear, and beginning again. Over and over and over again. “If you have to begin again a million times in the course of one sitting,” confides Salzberg, “that’s the practice.”
That’s the practice. Not the euphoria of completion, not the ease of perfection, not even the right effort of our hard work and intention, but something much simpler, much more humble. Simply beginning again.
And so it is with creativity, with accomplishing anything beautiful and meaningful in our lives. It’s not about finishing your novel, or being a perfect parent, or having a thriving business that will take care of itself forever, but about rolling up your sleeves every day and having the courage to begin again.
I’ve begun to look at the statues of the Buddha around me with new eyes. On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went to a local Buddhist temple to hear the priests ring in the Year of the Tiger at midnight with 108 sonorous peals. This particular temple has an enormous statue of the Buddha, and there was a sign in front of it that said: “Don’t throw money at the Big Buddha!” The admonition made me laugh with delight as the statue seemed to come to life, somewhat disgruntled and cranky, before my eyes.
I imagine this giant Buddha sitting in meditation, annoyed by the 100 yen coins bouncing off his glistening copper skin, distracted by the reverberation of the temple bell or the incense tickling his nostrils, frustrated that because he’s been sitting for 2,500 years, his legs have fallen asleep. And yet again and again he brings his awareness back to the breath, back to the present moment. Over and over and over again, he begins again.
And because he is always beginning again, he sits for eternity, peaceful and serene, at home in his own heart.
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My questions for you: What if you were to pick a creative project that you’ve been putting off, or that you’ve stalled on, and begin it today? And tomorrow, begin it again? What if all you ever have to do is just begin?