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Earlier this month, I spent three nights and three days backpacking Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with five other members of the University of Michigan Backpacking Club. I had never backpacked before and I had never met any of the other students on the trip. It could have easily been a disastrously long weekend, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Spending 72 uninterrupted hours in the woods can be really challenging. For pretty much the entire time you’re tired, hungry, and smell like sin. You put up with these inconveniences, however, because the forest has a way of revealing breathtakingly wonderful experiences only after you are just about ready to give up and go home to an actual toilet. I got a taste of this phenomenon firsthand on the last morning of my trip.
For whatever reason, I somehow got roped into the idea that waking up at 4:45 a.m. and hiking six miles up a steep mountain peak would be a good idea. My decision-making faculties were not functioning at full capacity the night before considering the lack of calories and slight surplus of THC in my body. Regardless, on the last morning of my trip, I strapped a headlamp on and trekked up a mountain in pitch blackness with five strangers. After a few, very sweaty, hours, we were a few minutes from the summit. I was incredibly excited to see the vast expanse of beautiful greenery extend to the limits of my visual field. The early wake-up would be so worth it. When we finally reached the summit, I scurried up a rock and held my breath in anticipation of the majestic vista I hoped to witness. I eagerly exhaled, and… nothing. It was still too dark to see anything. Well, there was something — wind. I didn’t know winds could be that fast and that cold. So there I stood, freezing cold and unable to see anything. At least I lost five hours of sleep!
Right as I was about to submit to misery, something miraculous happened. The edges of the horizon began to turn the faintest shades of blue, orange, and yellow. That slight peaking light revealed the spectacular sights that the night had been hiding. Clouds sitting in the valley appeared like a white ocean gently traversing atop the forest canopy. As more and more light started to permeate the early-morning sky, the Shenandoah Valley became illuminated in the most gorgeous of dawn glows. Then, almost completely suddenly, the sun began to rise up over the horizon. I could do nothing else but sit down on a rock in bewilderment of the gorgeous day’s beginning (see this article’s featured picture above!). I closed my eyes and meditated. I wished to be nowhere else. The early wake-up, the long hike, the violent winds and cold were all worth it. I was, for a distinct moment, as content as one can be.
As with most profound experiences, I learned an important life lesson from that magical morning. It may seem obvious at first. How many times have you been told, “Get out of your comfort zone!” and “It’s always darkest before the dawn!” Although cliché, these teachings do have true value. But those are not the lessons I learned atop the mountain peak. Instead, I internalized the Japanese Zen Buddhism concept of Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin 初心).
The venerable monk Shunryu Suzuki once famously wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” This is quite the curious phrase for a tradition that exalts the wisdom of masters. Shouldn’t we strive to be experts in all our endeavors? Aren’t growth and personal development hallmarks of a good life? Perhaps not in the sense we are accustomed to.
An expert is shackled by the chains of expectation, whereas the beginner is liberated by inexperience. The expert will constantly be comparing present experiences to those that he has witnessed beforehand. He will be perpetually engaged in acts of comparison. In doing so, the expert never experiences a present moment as is, but instead experiences it through the lens of the past. The beginner, on the other hand, will have no previous experience to compare the present with. The beginner, unlike the expert, will always experience present moments as they really are.
Since that awesome day, I’ve been trying to pinpoint what exactly made that sunset so particularly special. I think I may have an answer: beginner’s mind. I experienced that moment with as fresh of eyes as possible. It was because of that almost childlike innocence that I was primed to be receptive to the spellbinding ways of the world. Because of my beginner’s mind, a simple sunset became something so much more. By cultivating beginner’s mind, I wonder what else could be just that — so much more.
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