Monday, July 10, 2023

Secondary Passions Promote Beginner’s Mind

A child is open to many possibilities
while the expert sees only a few*

I thought I had retired as a psychotherapist, but I continued on by other means writing a column every week for the Concord Monitor. While I told myself I just liked to write, at a subconscious level,  I was trying to bring together warring factions in our polarized community in the same manner I had labored in my practice to reconcile the feuding parts of a patient's personality.

To accomplish that goal, I tried to be even-handed, although I admit that sometimes, I lost my head and joined the fray. Recently, I decided to take a break after it finally dawned on me that I was still working, still chained to my desk, just substituting one job for another.

Now, having space and time in my life again, I have found myself returning to photography, another long-time passion of mine – and enjoying every minute of it. Right now, I'm in the process of trying to get juried into two upcoming exhibitions. 

At that point by chance –  although Carl Jung would call it synchronicity – I came across an article in the Boston Globe with an absurdly long title describing precisely what I was feeling and doing:  “The counterintuitive rewards of not being very good at something: Devoting ourselves to a secondary pursuit sparks flow in the work we consider our primary purpose.”⁠1

This essay is by the prominent author Adam Gopnik who attributes his writing success to his secondary passion: his love of cooking – "the one that fuels all others." Of course, to liken myself to Adam Gopnik is like comparing a dog tick to a bald eagle. That's why I need to make clear I'm only comparing the role secondary passions play in our lives.

My primary passion for a long stretch of my life was psychotherapy: It has been my greatest honor and privilege to be allowed into another person's secret inner world, to team together to find a way out of their constricted, self-constructed maze. At the same time, my secondary passions were equally essential to my success, boosting my creative thinking and preventing burnout, working, as I did, primarily with patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from war and sexual abuse. 

Photography has always been my secondary passion, starting when I built a darkroom in my parent’s basement while a teenager. Writing, my other passion only appeared on my horizon when, as a returning Vietnam veteran, I was attempting to make sense of my feelings about the war and my country’s reaction to it.

For me, it is always such a rush when I create a photograph that stirs my soul or, when writing, to sweet-talk my words into an artful embrace. Gopnik expresses the euphoria this way:

“This moment, not of self-possession but of rapturous self-loss, is one of the strongest cognitive opiates human beings produce. There are many opiates available to inject into our veins; this is one that we produce ourselves and self-inject into our brains."

Gopnik compares this experience to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ’s concept of  “flow,“ a state, familiar to most of us, where we lose ourselves and find happiness in an all-absorbing activity.” Gopnik makes a key observation that this sensation is more likely to happen when pursuing our secondary passions,  not our primary one. Why is this?

For me, Shunryu Suzuki provides the answer: he was the Japanese priest who is credited with popularizing Buddhism in America. One can almost encapsulate his whole philosophy in his now, oft-repeated statement: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."⁠2

What he is advocating is letting go of our preconceptions and, instead, cultivating an attitude of openness toward life. When you are a true beginner, your mind is empty and open. That's what my secondary passions do for me: Allowing me to become like a child again, seeing the world as full of possibilities.

It’s a good exercise to pursue, especially in these times when so many experts are predicting only doom-and-gloom.




2 Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice