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Adopting a Beginner's Mind

Judgment keeps so many of us from living our lives to their fullest. Why is it so hard to let go of self-criticism and let oneself try something new? One of my former dance therapy professors regularly said a phrase that’s stuck with me for many years. She would emphatically exclaim, “Put your internal critic on the windowsill! Let him rest for a bit! He can judge later!” and we would allow our bodies to move in wild and weird ways to music without (so much) internal rumination. I find myself stealing this phrase, and testing this theory out in my creative projects, therapy work and personal life more often than not. Recently I found myself wanting to try something new: roller skating. As an expressive arts therapist who now ardently encourages folks to dip their paintbrushes into color for the first time, I consider myself a proponent of the arts, a fan of novelty and a flaneur of life. But even so, I procrastinated on this endeavor for about six months, vaguely planning, dreaming, absolutely not buying anything or taking any concrete steps, until one day, I put my foot down and bought my first pair of adult roller skates. Perhaps I was secretly afraid of being comically bad at something, at falling, at giving up and not using my skates again. I had heard this refrain echoed time and time again with many of my clients, some of whom struggled to let themselves try new activities, careers or ways of being and expand their horizons, or to start their own hobbies separate from their partner or friends. I buckled myself up and recalled sweaty afternoons with my childhood friends in California on bicycles and rollerblades, nursing the occasional scraped knee. I would let myself fall and be bad at this. I knew how this worked. I needed to cultivate an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of expectations; a state often described as “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen Buddhism. I had to be open to failing, which of course, paradoxically, helps us grow. I took my first steps with my pastel rainbow skates on the Somerville Community Path and wobbled like a baby giraffe testing its legs for the first time. I felt the adrenaline rush and the fear starting as I fumbled and almost tripped backwards. Regaining my footing, I ambled along slowly on the yellow edge, not quite ready to skate onto the pedestrian path. A person with bright red hair and their bespectacled friend cheered me on and complimented my rainbow skates and I smiled back in awkward cheerfulness. I was doing it. Emboldened by my lengthening stride, I let myself smile and felt my limbs moving through space. I put my internal critic away for the moment. An untimely wobble suddenly sent me flying flat onto my back. Involuntarily shouting an expletive, I lay for longer than a moment in profound surrender, startled by the blow. A man approached me from the dog park, checking if I was okay. I was, just a bruised ego, I informed him. I expected to fall at some point, I groaned with a grimace. He praised me for trying. Everyone was so nice. Gingerly I got back on my feet and continued onwards. I thought to myself, this was the moment that makes or breaks the desire to continue to try and learn a new skill. I leaned into the awkward with full abandon. I kept on skating.


Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.

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