Opinion: Secondary passions promote beginner’s mind


Published: 07-15-2023 3:00 PM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

I thought I had retired as a psychotherapist, but I continued on by other means writing a My Turn 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.”

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.

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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.”

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.