Every second, every minute, every day is a fresh start. It’s easy to forget the boundless possibility packed into every human experience. The Buddhists have a term: beginner’s mind. These two simple words convey an entire philosophy of human nature and a quality of mindfulness that brings to every perception and thought a fresh quality, that particular flavor of first-time-ness. With the right awareness, life becomes a continuous morning. Even if you’re doing something you’ve done a thousand times before, once you begin to look at any experience closely, with a quiet mind, it reveals qualities you just didn’t see before. It becomes something new—and so do you.
To make good choices, you need to be continually aware of your own life’s potential for fresh starts. John Gardner, of Common Cause, once wrote a wonderful essay on how essential it is for people to have that childlike quality of wanting to begin something—to look upon every day as the advent of a new experience. Because, in reality, it is exactly that, if you are perpetually learning and growing. As Gardner summed it up: “Stay interested.”
It sounds so simple, but if you look around, you can tell who has this quality and who doesn’t, and how hard it can sometimes be to sustain it. So many people simply give up and check out: they labor at jobs they don’t like (partly because they don’t stay interested) and then come home to numb themselves with TV, games, drugs, drink, sex. The price is that they lose interest. They stop paying attention. They give up that mindfulness that brings a sense of opportunity to experiences that, for someone else, might feel like routine, boring and all-too-familiar. There are even studies now that show how a sense of meaning and purpose in life can help protect against dementia.
Those who don’t give up, who keep learning, realize that you never quite finish becoming who you are. You never perfectly master a skill. Look at Vermeer’s paintings and you’ll see some examples of absolute perfection, but you’ll also see more that don’t measure up to those standards at all, and some would consider him the finest painter to ever pick up a brush. Clearly, he was learning every time he painted.
Here’s the payoff. Those who don’t quit growing don’t just get better at something, you become a better someone. It’s part of the inevitable byproduct of paying attention—that mindfulness I mentioned at the start—which causes you to see your own failings without being defensive about them. Because they become interesting, rather than discouraging. When you quit hiding from them, you begin to understand them—and this is what allows you to change for the better. You start to see everything more clearly, including yourself, and when this happens, your behavior changes on its own: you find yourself choosing what’s good, because you see it’s good and you’re attracted to it. It isn’t a rule you follow. It’s a natural outcome of your clarity of vision. When you look closely and carefully at your own behavior, you see how you cause pain to others and you begin to feel that pain yourself—because you actually, finally recognize it. You have to see it before you can feel it. It’s all there, the personal transformation, in that first step of looking, paying attention—and letting the learning and growth follow naturally from it.
What do you do every day to stay interested in what you’re doing and how you’re behaving? Does it help prevent you from falling into patterns of bad habits?