Cultivating Beginner’s Mind

When you don’t know what to do next, try beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind, also called shoshin, is an attitude of openness, curiosity, and freedom from preconceptions. It’s about always seeing yourself and life as a work in progress, always growing, and never allowing yourself to have it all figured out.

What happens when you become an expert is that your mind narrows. You shut off options because you “already know” that they won’t work. The reason why young people are the innovators of society is because they don’t know what they don’t know, so they dare. They take chances. They try wacky ideas – and succeed!

But don’t get the idea that this is about succeeding. It’s not. If there is a goal at all to beginner’s mind, it’s simply to stay in the space of “I don’t know.” This may sound really counterintuitive to western values. We like experts. Knowledge is important. It gives us answers, and answers mean security. So how does ignorance help?

This is not actually ignorance. It’s not saying that you have no wisdom. It’s just about starting everything fresh like a baby does when he’s learning to walk. A baby doesn’t think, “Wow, look how hard that walking thing is! I can’t even move my body an inch. I can barely hold my big head up. How will I ever stand up, move my legs, and keep my balance? Jeez, it’s all too overwhelming. I think I will just sit here like a blob.”

No, he makes each moment new. He watches someone walk, then takes it one step at a time. He scoots. Then he stands with assistance. After that he stands without assistance, all the time gaining strength. He steps and falls, but gets back up. Finally he is walking. All that happened because of chunk size. There was no, “I think I will walk today. Oops, can’t. I guess I’ll lay back down.” It was, “I wonder if I can…?” Then he tries it. That spirit of curiosity and “I don’t know” is what makes it possible.

An adult, or someone who already knows about how ambulation work, might say, “That’s pretty tough. You probably should not try it. It’s really hard and you could hurt yourself.” And babies do get hurt, don’t they? Who gets out of walking unscathed? Nobody. There is a lot of falling before walking happens. Fortunately babies don’t know about shoulds. All they have is beginner mind, so shoulds don’t inhibit their growth.

Babies are also tenacious. They don’t fall down once and stay down. They seem to process what worked well and what didn’t. Then they use that information to make subsequent attempts more successful. When you aren’t open minded, you can throw out the baby with the bathwater and just say, “This won’t work!” Most things can work – or at least get closer to working – if you use the feedback you gathered from the previous attempts.

Another hallmark of beginner mind is being completely present. Have you ever seen a baby do anything? They are totally engrossed! If they are contemplating the shape of their hand, they are doing it wholeheartedly. You get a lot of information that way. You also tend to enjoy yourself a lot.

Once babies become verbal, they start to ask questions. Why is my eye white? How come water has no color? How did the dinosaurs die? As a therapist, I can tell you that formulating useful questions is the key to growth. If you don’t know what you want to know, you’re not likely to get information that will help you. So, take a lesson from children. Focus on the questions. They will lead you to answers. Those with beginner’s mind tend to ask really great questions.

Do you know why we get bored with our jobs, our partners, our hobbies or even something as stimulating as sex? It’s because we feel we’ve been there, done that. With beginners mind, everything is new again. It’s like a perpetual Fifty First Dates. You don’t lose your memory of course. You just see new things all the time, are always in a state of appreciation, and are open to possibilities so you tend to be more creative.

Once upon a time there were no cathedrals, no four minute miles, and no poetry. All those things started because someone thought, “Hm, I wonder if…” So what would you do if you knew that you couldn’t fail? What would you do if you had absolutely no fear? Engage in beginner’s mind and let yourself go after it! I can’t guarantee that you will succeed, but you will have a great experience, live life more fully, and know yourself a bit better in the process.

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