Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Beginner's Mind

The goal of practice is to keep our beginner's mind....If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few....So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner's mind.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

I have a couple of 50-mile races coming up in the next few weeks. So far I've had no problem finishing all of the 50-milers I've started. I like that distance. It feels do-able to me: a single day of sustained effort, mostly in daylight. Unlike the Great Unknown of 100 Miles, 50 feels like an old friend.

And now, by the simple act of writing that paragraph, I have just jinxed myself!

So. Back to Beginner's Mind. My first 50 was the 2007 Stone Cat in Ipswich, MA. I had trained hard all summer and I was terrified. I remember the afternoon before the race sitting by the pool at the Y while my daughter finished her swim practice. I was telling everyone who would listen how nervous and uncertain I was. It was getting dark (November), it was raining (pouring), and my crew person (Dear Old Dad) was stuck at the airport in Norfolk, VA. I was quite literally freaking out.

This, I don't think, is the Beginner's Mind Mr. Suzuki is referring to.

True Beginner's Mind set in for me the moment the race started. With my body finally moving, my brain quieted down. I was properly awed by the distance. I had never run more than 50K, so I had no idea what to expect. Stone Cat is a loop course (4 12.5-mile loops), and I simply resolved to take it one loop at a time.

Finishing that race was wonderful. I fell into my father's arms and cried.

I have since run a couple more 50-milers. All of them were tough, no question. All of them made my stomach sick. Some had hills, some had mud, some nasty weather. But all three 50-milers were fun. I pushed myself, met great people, and (mostly) enjoyed my thoughts. Finishing is no longer such a big deal. (You never get that first hit back again). And that's okay. Indeed, that's as it should be. Nothing special. No big deal. Just a wonderful day on the trails.

It's so easy to get complacent: "I've done 50 miles before, so I'll have no problem doing it again." But this, it seems to me, is not a good place to be mentally. Cocky. Full of pride.

As much as possible, I want to try to keep my Beginner's Mind. I know a bit more about running 50 miles now than I did in November, 2007. I know how to train, how to taper, what to eat (actually, I'm still working on this), what to drink.

But these are not the most important things. I still have no idea what each race will bring: what will be asked of me. I have no crystal ball. I don't want a crystal ball. I want to stay open to every possibility. I want to stay awake. This is my challenge now: stay calm, keep moving, and breathe.


  1. Don't you just love that first hit? Great way to describe it. Don't worry about getting complacent because I've found that while the distance may be familiar, every single race is it's own animal. You know, that old feeling of just when you thought you knew it all....

  2. The act of moving forward and breathing in and out, is what keeps you moving forward...some little thing in the back of your brain kicks in and magically does exactly what you need your brain to do at that moment. I don't know how to describe it. It's magical, it's faith, it's like one long moving prayer. And I'm not a religious person at all. I don't know how else to explain it, but that's how it works for me. Whatever it is, it helps you reclaim your beginner's mind. For me, it clears my mind of all the clutter that keeps me from moving forward in my life, in whatever task I set out to accomplish that day.

  3. Helen, I'm trying very hard to see each race (each run even) as its own animal. I think I'm making progress.

    Well put, Alene. I agree. Running is my religion to some degree. Getting out and moving and thinking or not thinking. It puts you in touch with the sacred. Sometimes. Just enough to keep me coming back.


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