Cultivating “Beginner’s Mind” at Centennial Cone

Centennial Cone Park in Jefferson County, Colorado

Note: This activity can be fun for kids, as well.

Location: Jefferson County, near Golden.

Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.

Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.

Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days.  Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.

The Hike

Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.

In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.

The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.

To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea.  As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.

The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.

In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?

The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.

When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.

The Activity

Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.

Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.

While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.

Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.

What do you notice about this object that surprises you?

Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).

Go back to your object and look at it deeper.  Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?

What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?

When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?

When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.

Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.

Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

(For this hike, you’ll need to bring a pen or pencil and something to sketch on).

Location: White Ranch Open Space Park, West Access Trails

Directions: Take Highway 93 from Golden or Boulder, turn west on Golden Gate Canyon Road. Travel approximately 4.1 miles to Crawford Gulch Road and turn right. Turn right again on Belcher Hill Road or follow the signs to White Ranch Park.

Duration: Approximately 3-1/2 hours

Route: from the parking lot, hike the north (downhill) Belcher Hill trail, then turn left on Rawhide. Walk through the campground, continuing on the Rawhide trail or taking the Waterhole trail shortcut that meets back up to Rawhide. For a longer hike than 3-1/2 hours, you can continue the Rawhide loop until you loop back around to the Belcher Hill trail, or you can cut across Wrangler Run, which is a pleasant west-facing trail through meadows.

The Hike

View of Arvada from Rawhide Trail, White Ranch Open Space Park

When I arrived at the Belcher Hill trailhead around 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in April, mine was the only vehicle in the lot. The drive up to the trailhead along Crawford Gulch road was very pleasant, with views of endless dark green hills and distant snow-covered peaks (Pikes Peak). As soon as I stepped out onto the trail, I could tell no one had been hiking since our last snowfall Wednesday morning because there weren’t any footprints delineating where to go. It was a guessing game for the first 10-15 minutes downhill through the trees about where I should step next. The ground was a lumpy, snow-covered sheet of ice in places and I had to grudgingly put on my YakTrak. I wasn’t too worried about getting lost—after all, I could always backtrack with my fresh bootprints to guide me.

Eventually out of the snow and down onto the meadows with a view of Denver and Arvada below the hills outstretched ahead, the landscape opened up to reveal rolling hills to the west and a vast, flat plains to the east. This would be a good location for a sunrise hike because it would only be about 15 minutes to a spot where you could watch the sun rise over the horizon. I would only recommend that in the summer, when the trail is dry and obvious from the parking lot down through the trees. It was difficult enough to guess the way down in the yet-undisturbed snow on a sunny morning, let alone at dusk with a flashlight.

There was no one else on the trail when I headed out, and in fact I only ran into only two other people the entire three hours I was hiking. This further demonstrates the advantages of hiking in the off-season on a weekday morning. It was peaceful, and as one hiking guide book describes, “bucolic.” The sounds from the city below—the road noise from Highway 93 and the deep whirr of some industrial machine—only leeched in a few times during the hike. I can imagine this trail is even more bucolic in the summer when the prairie grasses awaken from their winter slumber and hillsides are green instead of straw-colored.

Woodpeckers constantly called out their loud kwik-kwik-kwik call from all directions, drowning out the sound of other, quieter birds like robins and chickadees. Either there are more woodpeckers around this year or I notice them more because I just discovered last year what bird made that raucous call. A few houses are seen nestled in the trees in the hills surrounding the park, but in this part of the park they don’t detract from the feeling of wildness and serenity.

The trail is wide enough for a vehicle and alternated between mud and snow, depending on which direction its slope faced. At the halfway point, about when you begin the turn southward around the hill along the Rawhide trail (the northern-most point of the park itself), you’ll see beautiful rock outcroppings across the valley, then as you make your way further, Ralston Reservoir and a view of downtown Denver below. The trail becomes steeper and rockier here and is the most challenging part of the hike (although if you’re coming in a clockwise direction like I suggest, the steepest part is mostly downhill).  You may spot a black Alberta squirrel scurrying up a tree, or a small group of mule deer. The squirrels are very black, unlike the common suburban squirrel, and have tufted ears.

This park offers a mix of a variety of landscapes: distant mountain vistas, hills, forest, meadows, rock outcroppings, views of Denver. For this reason, I found the following activity to be perfect for this particular hike.

The Activity: Drawing Yourself In the Landscape

This is a fun activity for adults and older children (age 10+). It requires that all participants have a pen or pencil and something to draw on, like a notebook.

As you begin the hike, imagine seeing yourself in the landscape the way the birds and trees and animals might see you. At about the halfway point, you will be sitting down and drawing yourself in the landscape. This is something you may wish to contemplate before you actually do it—not the act of drawing itself but how you see yourself in this landscape.

Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for about a half and hour and draw. Ideally, this should be a spot that’s visually appealing to you. Pretend you’re an artist and you’re scouting around for a good view to draw. One suggestion is along the Rawhide trail after you pass through the campground and past where the Waterhole trail meets the Rawhide trail. The trail will make a south-facing curve and there will be a view of the meadows and hills in the distance. There are some rocks to sit on. But don’t let this suggestion limit you! Pick a spot that calls to you.

Settle in and start drawing in your notebook or whatever you brought for sketching. The only instruction here is to use your non-dominant hand to draw yourself in the landscape. The reason you will be using your non-dominant hand is because the drawing will flow more from your subconscious and creative brain, rather than from automatic movements that flow from assumptions about what you’re drawing, as they would from your dominant hand. This can be any kind of drawing: abstract, detailed, gestural, geometric. Do whatever feels natural to you. You aren’t trying for a masterpiece here. This is a contemplative exercise, not an artistic contest.

How I drew myself in the landscape. I circled where I am in the drawing.

Important instruction! Do not read the questions below until after you’ve completed your drawing. The questions themselves may alter how you do your drawing and will ruin the activity if you think about it while you’re doing it. It’s best to do the drawing first, then come back to the drawing with these questions to see what is revealed.

When you feel that you’ve finished your drawing, ask yourself or your hiking partner the following questions about the drawing:

What surprises you about the drawing?

Are you a part of, or distinct from the landscape in your drawing?

Are you the central figure? If not, what is? What do you think that means?

What is the vantage point of your drawing? In other words, if this were a photograph, from where would it have been taken? Or is it so abstract it has no vantage point?

If your drawing has a vantage point, look to see where the “photographer” or the “artist” is situated. Can you imagine that there is something watching you from that vantage point, and perhaps you drew what it saw?

How would you describe the mood of the drawing? (angry, soft, tenuous, peaceful…) Does the mood of the drawing reflect your mood or the mood of the land? What do you think?

What do you think your drawing says about your feelings about the land? What might it say about the land’s feelings toward you?

When I drew myself in the landscape (see image above) I noticed a few things. The trees and mountains in the background were more wispy and tenuous. The trees in the foreground were drawn jagged, pointy, dark—scary. I was feeling a little apprehensive on the hike because I was the only one on the trail and I kept imagining a cougar stalking me (I have to get over that, I know…). I am the central figure, but I’m drawn into the landscape in such a way that you can’t recognize me or that it’s even a person at all. This perhaps means that I see myself as part of the land, or that I belong in the landscape. I’m small and humble under the scary trees and looming hills, but I don’t look threatened or frightened. You can’t really tell what I’m feeling from the drawing. The vantage point was from above and behind me. When I noted that, I formulated the question about it, so I didn’t know that it was an issue until after my drawing was finished. I was sure to do the drawing, THEN come up with the questions around it.

As I turned around to see where exactly the “watcher” would have been perched to see me from this vantage point, I noticed several large pines in about the location that would have resulted in this drawing. At that moment, a raven croaked at me from one of the trees at exactly the height I was estimating, as if to acknowledge, “I see you.”