Peeling Potatoes

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon

By Jo Mooy

“The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.”—Shunryu Suzuki

 Forty-plus years of study. Thousands of books bought. Hundreds of them read. Maybe a dozen read many times. I like to think the unread ones filling the bookcases imparted a bit of wisdom through the ether. Prior to moving, I pondered the seven overflowing bookcases and set a plan to get rid of all the books except those that would fit in one medium-sized bookcase. It became a monumental and time-consuming project.

The books were like old friends. Each occupied an exact spot on the bookcase. I knew where to find them easily. Some people keep books pristine like they came off the printer’s press. I had relationships with mine. Passages of inspired wisdom were highlighted in yellow. (A horror to many!) Notes were scrawled in the margins. In many of them I’d written topic headers in the blank white pages at the back of books. A topic like “reincarnation” would have page numbers with a short comment next to it. If something was going on in my life and I needed to reflect on it, I’d go to a specific book, open to a highlighted area, and have a chat with it. Like special friends, those books always had an answer.

But how was I going to say goodbye to so many friends? The unread ones were easy to go. They identified themselves by title or author. They hadn’t been read, nor would they ever be, for I’d taken a different route on my journey since buying them. They would go to new homes.

But releasing the “good ones” was heart-wrenching. How would I know which ones would continue the journey with me, and which ones would not? I opened each, read the phrases highlighted in yellow, then checked the notes in back. After four hours I’d only gone through two books. This process could take years, and I needed to be packed up and gone in one month.

Then I saw a familiar book with a pale yellow cover. It felt like it was calling out from the shelf. Pulling it down, I recalled the briefest of encounters with my spiritual teacher Lex Hixon. He had taken it down from his own bookcase and gifted it to me 15 years earlier. When he handed it over he said, “One day this will become your way.” The book was Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”

Sitting on the floor, hours went by as I read Suzuki’s words for the first time. There were no yellow highlighted sections. No notes in the margins. No topics in the back. It was still in the same condition as when Lex had given it to me. Opening it at random I saw this: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” He went on to say, “Don’t try to stop your thinking—let it stop by itself.”

I sat with the impressions of the first sentence a long time. Suzuki explained if you become an expert, let that go and return to the open emptiness of beginner’s mind, a mind that includes and holds everything. He said there was no “next.” There was “no enlightenment or attainment of enlightenment.” All that existed was “the movement of breathing.” His teaching was simple and pure. It was de-cluttering. It overturned everything I thought I knew, thought I was, or thought I had to do. The lifetime collection of books on the shelves was reduced to this one.

I violated the second sentence by thinking. Why did I buy all those books if there was no attainment of enlightenment? Had it all been a waste of time to follow what I thought was a spiritual journey? If there was no “next” why would I need any books where I was next going? Then I burst out laughing because “next” to the opening left by Suzuki’s book was another one called The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. It too was in pristine condition. Opening it I saw the answer to all the questions running through my head. “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

A handful of books made the journey with me. I tucked these into cubbyholes in my Honda before heading south: Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi; King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; The Way of Zen; and from Lex Hixon, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I practiced peeling potatoes on I-95 as the miles sped by, remembering some of Suzuki’s words. “You think you have an idea of time and space. You don’t. There is no “this morning” and no “this afternoon.” Time and space are the same. What you’re really doing is being aware of universal activity, which is like a swinging door. Just become a swinging door.”

My thinking roamed freely. Then it stopped by itself. There were no thoughts, no miles, no highway, no car, no time, no direction. The piercing blare of a semi’s horn brought me around. I’d traveled 70 miles in an hour since thinking stopped. My breath must have slowed considerably because I gasped for air when I heard the wail of the horn. Though I recall no specific memories of any experience during that hour, it felt like I’d experienced everything.

In the years since, I knew Lex had been right about my path. Suzuki’s teachings had become a way. No matter what else I studied, Zen Mind was always there like a gentle current just below the surface. It was guiding everything in my life. Understanding the mysticism of life was all about peeling potatoes. Now, all I had to do was become Beginner’s Mind when peeling potatoes.

Jo Mooy has studied with many spiritual traditions over the past 40 years. The wide diversity of this training allows her to develop spiritual seminars and retreats that explore inspirational concepts, give purpose and guidance to students, and present esoteric teachings in an understandable manner. Along with Patricia Cockerill, she has guided the Women’s Meditation Circle since January 2006 where it has been honored for five years in a row as the “Favorite Meditation” group in Sarasota, FL, by Natural Awakenings Magazine. Teaching and using Sound as a retreat healing practice, Jo was certified as a Sound Healer through Jonathan Goldman’s Sound Healing Association. She writes and publishes a monthly internationally distributed e-newsletter called Spiritual Connections and is a staff writer for Spirit of Maat magazine in Sedona. For more information go to or email

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