Lessons about life seem to just happen to me when I least expect it. The month of August has provided many…and from the least likely of sources. Oddly enough, the catalyst for this month long journey of introspection and odd circumstances began with reading a flyer at work that I received in the mail.
Tucked into a small area of this brochure was a paragraph in italics that caught my attention. It was a little blurb about Zen Buddhism and the concept of the Beginner’s Mind, a reference to being open and eager without preconceived notions. It went on to advance the notion that a beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while the expert mind limits the potential solutions and is closed. I thought to myself “I can do that.”
Enter the goat.
That evening on the way home, I noticed a goat in a fenced pen. There were huge oak trees around, providing shade. On the ground near the front of the pen was the remaining trunk of a fallen tree. It was old and the inside was hollow. Standing proud on this tree trunk was an old goat, at least it looked old to me but what do I know. That’s really not the point. The point here is that he stood tall on the tree trunk, his head high enough to see over the fence. To the expert mind, the goat was merely looking around, engaged in an activity of no meaning or consequence. However, equipped with a new “beginner’s mind”, I now saw something different. The goat was actually surveying the world around him. Taking stock, so to speak. He was the only goat in the pen, scouring his surroundings above the fence line to see clearly. I thought to myself, “what a wise old goat.” The world could learn a lot from this solitary farm animal.
The lesson of the goat stayed with me as my family traveled on vacation to Washington, DC. The next chance for a beginner’s mind came on a hot afternoon sitting outside the front gates of Six Flags America in Maryland. Being novice users of the public transportation system, we decided not to ride the Metro train back to Washington and instead found a seat along the side of the route inside one of those plastic bubble type waiting places for the next cab that might happen to wander out to our seemingly isolated location.
Before too long, a yellow Ford Crown Victoria taxi showed up out of nowhere. Our predicament was simple. Five people, one cab, where will we sit? The decision was made that four would sit in the back and I would sit in front with the driver. Actually, I wanted to sit up front. I stood on the curb and from that position the cab roof line was just about at my belt line.
I opened the front door. The cab driver leaned over to move some of the papers and a clipboard that had been positioned up front with him. Immediately I saw he was a gracious man. I bent down to look inside. He smiled up at me from underneath his Washington Nationals baseball cap. I noticed his eyes widened behind his wire rim glasses.
“You are being much larger than average American” he said as I eased inside.
“I get that a lot” was my response. Shortly after leaving Six Flags in the cab, I struck up a conversation with the cabbie. I noticed his license posted on the front dashboard. His name was Seyed. His picture looked like a business professional in a suit and tie.
“Your name is Seyed?” I asked. “Yes it is” he replied. He was a man of slight build but with a smile wider than the highway we were on. Through the course of the conversation, I learned that he was from Pakistan, an engineer by trade in his homeland. He came to the United States sixteen years ago and his family followed four years later. He spoke proudly of his children. Both had been educated in America. One following in his footsteps as an engineer. His youngest, a daughter, was completing her PhD. as a pharmacist. He spoke of how grateful he was to be in this country, even if the only thing he could do was to drive a cab. He was not ashamed. He was proud of a country that gave him the opportunity to be free, to educate his children, to raise his family in freedom; far from the corruption he claims is top to bottom in his homeland of Pakistan. As we approached our destination, I shook his hand. “I enjoyed meeting you, Seyed”. He responded with that wide smile “I am happy to be chatting with you this day as well.” I walked away knowing my beginner’s mind had brought about the conversation.
A tour of Arlington Cemetery was the next experience of clarity on the trip. We visited the Kennedy gravesite with the eternal flame. We watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The impact of the surroundings was powerful to say the least. But the moment that rattled me to the core was when the driver of the tour bus we were on stopped the vehicle and directed us to look outside on your left. Before us were the rolling hills of the cemetery and everywhere we could see, lined in perfect rows in all directions, were the headstones of fallen soldiers from our armed forces. At this moment, the tour guide told us that “it is said this view is the very description of freedom as headstones stretch out along the hills, standing at attention in salute to those who pass by. They gave us our freedom by paying the price for us with their lives.” We sat in silence, taking in what we had been told. I felt small, even though I was “being much larger than the average American.”
Oddly enough, I thought of that goat on the tree trunk, looking out at all around him. I was the goat at that moment, looking out at what was before me with my head now above the fence, seeing exactly what the tour guide described. My freedom was in front of me, standing before me in rows of white marble.
I decided the old goat was wise and every day since I have looked for him in that pen, hoping for a reminder of all that is important in life from the lessons taught to me by a goat, a cabbie and a cemetery.