October 23, 2009

Reflection: Beginning, and Beginning, and Beginning

Phoenix Seed Cycle by Melanie Weidner. Image used by permission of the artist. 

Autumn is a season of mixed emotions. I love to watch the daily changes in familiar trees as their leaves shift hues—delicate gradations here, bold sweeps of flame there—and then drop to the ground, a process that seems somehow gradual and abrupt at the same time. But along with the pleasure of admiring the annual performance art of the trees, a sadness  arises. It’s particularly potent for me this year.

Up until now, there has only been a brief period in my life (ages 22-27) when I wasn’t in school. Even as an adult, my life’s rhythm has almost always been closely tied to an academic calendar. This year, for the first time since 2002, it’s October and I’m not planning for fall break or studying for midterms. This awareness brings both relief and a sense of loss.

We’ve come to expect the physical signs of Nature’s changing of seasons. The color dance of the trees is a delight, but not a surprise. We human beings dance the same rhythmic dance of change, but on a more frequent and highly irregular basis—so when we find ourselves shedding an identity, it does come as a surprise. 

Our human identities cycle through. We shed the old skin that doesn’t quite fit anymore, then endure a season of bareness that eventually (what seems like a very long time later) brings tentative new growth. And then, after having enjoyed a season of full identity bloom, we find ourselves startled when our colors begin to turn again, willy-nilly.

Sometimes, in contrast with the shedding-bareness-growth-blooming-shedding model, it seems much more abrupt. We go from full bloom (competence and confidence) to starting over as a beginner, all in the blink of an eye. In the last six years, during my academic journey to becoming an art therapist, I’ve gone through multiple rapid cycles of firsts and lasts. 

When I began my second undergraduate experience, I was already competent at the academic side of things—I’d already graduated from college once, after all—but in my art classes, I was a rock-bottom beginner. I distinctly remember the terror I felt on the first day of my first drawing class. That terror came and went over the next three years. In order to arrive at the happy pinnacle of my senior-year thesis show, I had to make it through many hours of self-doubt and struggle alone in the studio—not to mention the raw frustration of a figure-drawing class that challenged every drop of my self-respect. It was in my art classes that I learned how to fail without giving up, how to balance mastery and beginner’s mind with every new project. And I became an utter beginner once again in graduate school, where everything I thought I understood about myself was either transformed or deepened over the course of three years.

In the past five months, I’ve experienced another abrupt transition from competence to newness. When I first went back to school, getting my master’s degree was at the far end of a new road; now that I’m on the other side of graduation, my M.A. is only the starting point of the current journey. I’ve moved from a hard-earned sense of competency (the final weeks of internship, my capstone orals presentation) to pervasive newness: a recent graduate searching for opportunities to become a new professional, starting volunteer work in an unfamiliar environment, living in a new part of an otherwise familiar city.

The gift of this neverending transition is the mandatory return to my core self. Who am I when I am not a student, not an intern, not an employee? The in-betweenness of this unaffiliated autumn season reminds me that who I am is not equivalent to what I do. My basic goodness does not change within the dizzying transitions from one identity to the next. 

In Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, Pema Chodron writes of finding her own Buddha nature still present regardless of the situation: “Buddha falling flat on her face; Buddha feeling on top of the world; Buddha longing for yesterday…” This autumn, I am Buddha looking for work, Buddha studying for the national counseling exam, Buddha making marks in a journal, Buddha struggling to recognize herself in the mirror. Hello old self/new self: no less valuable to the world than any other Buddha. Namast√©.


  1. It is always amazing to me how much our bodies get into a lifecycle and they also become accustomed to the patterns created in the wave and flow of our lives. Change can be so hard it seems in a variety of ways—both physical and emotional. For me, even when change opens up new opportunities and offers a sense of excitement over my journey ahead, it can also bring mixed emotions which are sometimes tinged with a bit a sadness and even though I hate to admit it, sometimes, a tiny bit of fear.

  2. Diane, thanks for your comment! It does seem that change is never an uncomplicated experience, even if it's a change that is expected or welcome.