There is a yoga studio in my area advertising a class called “Fun-damentals”. Under the description, it reads, “This class is for Beginning and Advanced students ONLY. No intermediates allowed. They think they know everything.” When I read it, I laughed out loud because it is SO true! After somebody has been practicing yoga for a while, they feel as if they’ve heard it all. They know their bodies, their strengths and weaknesses. Their bad habits are so entrenched they don’t even notice them. They fly on auto-pilot.
When students begin a new practice, the process of learning is exciting, the a-ha moments are plentiful, and they learn ways of living more skillfully. However, at some point along the way, a funny thing inevitably takes place. They hit a saturation point and become comfortable in their level of skill and knowledge and lose the same voraciousness for learning.
Students who practice long enough through the status quo begin to get little hits, realizing that the more they know, the less they know. Perhaps there’s an injury that wakes them up to a specific misalignment. They may end up with an unexpected substitute teacher who says just the right thing to spark a new curiosity. Perhaps their body slips into a pose that was previously elusive, reminding them of their unlimited potential. Whatever it is, it usually happens – and it sends those “advanced” students right back into the beginner’s class with a new found sense of curiosity and patience.
Several years back, I was talking with a good LDS friend of mine about the holes I was finding in the LDS gospel and my struggles to believe whole-heartedly. She shared her love for the LDS lifestyle and all the joy it had brought to her life. Then, like the smarty-pants that she is, she asked, “I’m not wired the way you are. I don’t dwell on all of those details and I’m happy. Just what is it that you want out of religion, anyway?” It was then that it hit me for the first time. “Enlightenment.” I admitted. “I want to see past my own limited, singular perspective. I want to experience that kind of intense clarity.”
It was an audacious statement and I immediately wished I could retrieve it. As I said the words, I knew they would come back to bite me in the ass, and I realized that I had essentially just asked the universe to illuminate every possible way I was “wrong” or delusional. I was asking to lose a debate on a daily basis, and to be sent back to the beginner’s class every day. I was setting the intention to sit at a meal of humble pie, when so often I don’t really have the stomach for it. The truth? Breaking up with the ego is hard to do.
When I quake in my boots about the path I’ve chosen, I find myself so grateful for amazing teachers like Pema Chodron, who elaborated in her book, The Places that Scare You:
Sometimes egolessness is called no-self. These words can be misleading. The Buddha was not implying that we disappear—or that we could erase our personality. As a student once asked, “Doesn’t experiencing egolessness make life kind of beige?” It’s not like that. Buddha was pointing out that the fixed idea that we have about ourselves as a solid and separate from each other is painfully limiting. It is possible to move through the drama of our lives without believing so earnestly in the character that we play. That we take ourselves so seriously, that we are so absurdly important in our minds, is a problem for us. We feel justified in being annoyed with everything. We feel justified in denigrating ourselves or in feeling that we are more clever than other people. Self-importance hurts us, limiting us to the narrow world of our likes and dislikes. We end up bored to death with ourselves and our world. We end up never satisfied.
We have two alternatives: either we question our beliefs—or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality—or we begin to challenge them. In Buddha’s opinion, to train in staying open and curious—to train in dissolving our assumptions and beliefs—is the best use of our human lives.
When we train in awakening bodhichitta, we are nurturing the flexibility of our mind. In the most ordinary terms, egolessness is a flexible identity. It manifests as inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness. It is our capacity to relax with not knowing, not figuring everything out, with not being at all sure about who we are—or who anyone else is either.
So I roll out my yoga mat and remind myself to meet those sun salutations with the same curiosity I held on day one of yoga. The circular nature of practice hits me. To become more skilled, more graceful, more integrated and unified – in essence, more advanced – it requires me to be a beginner in this moment. To stay open enough to recognize clarity when it comes my way in unfamiliar forms, and humble enough to unlearn the bad habits that I’ve spent my life establishing. Sometimes it’s fun and exciting, sometimes it’s uncomfortable or scary, and mostly – it just seems completely intangible. But in those moments when I am able to embody the beginner’s mind, it’s always liberating.