Baby Steps: Lessons Learned from an Open Mind

He scooted around the floor, alternately crawling, spinning, sliding, and sometimes sidestepping. He wasn’t planning each move, thinking about it, looking around with eyes seeking to label, categorize, analyze. His eyes were often fixed on our faces. He laughed at things we couldn’t see. He moved in whatever way felt right to him in that exact moment – free of the self-consciousness of knowing the ‘right’ way. In him I saw a spiritual Being, laughing to find itself in its new human body, reveling in sensate exploration, and filled with love and gratitude for all the possibility it encountered.

When he bumped into something, he didn’t look at it in surprise the way we adults do when a bit of the sidewalk jumps up to trip us. You know, the cat-falls-off-the-back-of-the-sofa look we all do so well: intended to theatrically cover with humor our shame that we can’t do something simple (like walk)… in case someone were to notice our ‘failure.’ No. In his case, it didn’t even register as an obstacle. There was no frustration, anger or shame. He just kept trying to move in the direction he’d been going until something shifted, whether that meant the we moved it out of his way, or it moved, or his weight balance changed, thus altering his trajectory.

When he got to the stairs, he pulled himself to his feet and began crawling up. At the top, he turned around with a joyful look to share his triumph, and promptly started to cry because he couldn’t get himself back down to join the group. Following the path his new skills had taken him had trapped him, isolated, in a corner he didn’t yet know how to get out of. Yup, little friend. I’ve been there.

His mom went to him, gently turned him around, and showed him how to back down the stairs. “We’ve taught him this before,” she explained. “I guess it just hasn’t clicked yet.” And then she sighed because he had happily gone right back to taking all the tupperware out of the drawer just to feel it, stick it in his mouth, spread it on the floor, see if it made a noise.

Soon he needed to move again and his mom made a mad dash to pick up all the tupperware and put it back before he finished his circuit. We could hear him going up the stairs and she rushed to beat the clock, shutting the drawer and getting the tupperware out of the way just as his little fingers closed on the empty air where it had been. There was a pause and then we both registered that he had come down the stairs by himself. It was that miracle ‘clicking’ moment and we had practically missed it.

Later that evening and then again the next morning, he would spend whole lengths of time just going up the stairs and coming back down them. And it felt like a miracle to watch this little body and mind, so human and yet so different from ours: filled with wants and needs and an insatiable and completely unconscious desire to explore, learn, practice, and move because it felt necessary and good.

In the midst of this practice he went for the big climb – the main staircase in the house. The one he was not usually allowed to climb. I walked behind him, ready to catch him, but knowing he wanted this adventure. Imagine if we continued to support each other that way as adults; giving each other permission to fly while trusting each other to be there with the safety net in case we need it. If only we gave ourselves that support and encouragement.

Again, he got to the top and turned to face me with a huge smile. He tried to start down. I turned him around so he could back down the way he knew how, but he spun himself back around to face front, decisively grabbing my fingers as support while he hauled himself to standing and then started to come down the stairs front-first. Like an adult. The message was clear: he could do the other way on his own, but since I was right there to help him…he was ready to start practicing the next step. Even if his legs were too short.

In the approximately 15 steps to get to the bottom, he tried about that many different ways of stepping down; each time taking in the immediate physical feedback and then moving on to the next moment, the next effort – making do with what he had and doing it because to resist change, forward movement, diversity, and flow is to oppose growth, to stagnate. And a lack of healthy growth leads to disease, death. But knowing this and allowing this are two different things to us adults. I usually find myself thinking I know better – thinking I can control it all. Starting a business, I find myself constantly thinking I know where I should end up, what it should look like, and how I need to go about getting there. I had forgotten just how many different ways there are to walk down a set of stairs.

At least once a week, I make some kind of resolution to practice my headstands, to do exercises to build my core muscles, to exercise restraint when eating, to read books that will help me learn more and be smarter and better. And I almost never do them. They usually end up feeling like work. Or something that requires discipline I don’t have or time that could be spent doing something else.

Watching him, it reminded me of the joy that can come from simple repetition. The breakthroughs that await when we are willing to focus on the small steps and surprise ourselves when they culminate in big achievements. We hear it all the time: ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.’ But what does that mean? Through the eyes of a child and his open, curious mind I caught a glimpse of that again.  It boils down to faith and trust: a not-knowing what the end result will be and a willingness to go on the journey anyway because there is, quite simply, nothing else to be done.