Once we become experts at or about something, we tend to coast, which could prevent us from learning new things and from remaining mindful. We can avoid or counteract this through the practice of beginner’s mind.
I sometimes refer to people as mindfulness experts, but what does it mean to be an expert in mindfulness? I’m usually talking about people who are highly knowledgeable on the subject, like long-time practitioners, teachers or researchers, but the truth is, we can only truly become experts of our own experiences.
Mindfulness includes no goal towards expertise, but encourages us to remain beginners, to pursue something new through curiosity. When we’re new to something, we don’t know anything about it, so we develop a mindset of discovery which results in us being more present in the moment. This is a natural state of mind for children because they’re always beginners at something. But as we age, it takes conscious effort to connect with our natural beginner’s mind.
Beginner’s mind is a Zen Buddhism practice known as shoshin. It’s letting go of our expectations and preconceived ideas about things and observing them with an open mind, as if seeing them for the first time. Beginner’s mind evokes curiosity and wonder. Can you imagine that with carrying out mundane tasks that are repeated daily, like commuting or house-cleaning?
Bring to mind the first time you learned something new, even something that’s now not only routine, but that you do completely mindlessly because it’s a routine or habit. Vacuuming the home for example. The very first time you did it, you might have been a little confused about how to use the vacuum cleaner, had to search for buttons or settings, had to pay attention to switching the settings based on the surface you were covering, and noted how far you could get before needing to relocate the plug. You might have experienced a little bit of amazement at how much dirt and debris vanished into the suction cup. You probably felt grateful for your clean floors when you were done.
The brain saves repeated activities and chunks them together to create a habit in order to save brain processing power. That’s why vacuuming or commuting to work or brushing our teeth can be done mindlessly. But with almost half of the tasks we complete each day falling into that category, we’re missing out on half of the richness of life. Beginner’s mind brings back that richness while strengthening our mindfulness skills.
The benefit of practicing shoshin is that it provides us the opportunity to see the world around us with fresh eyes. New perspectives. Beginner’s mind contributes to deeper gratitude, encouraging us not to lose sight of the many wonderful things in life that lift us up. It helps us to appreciate what we might otherwise take for granted.
Shoshin also aids us in being more creative. When we see a similar set of problems at home or work repeatedly, habits of thinking become imbedded, but deliberately experiencing a problem through beginner’s mind can provide a fresh perspective and we can explore opportunities that we never considered before.
Beginner’s mind helps us become re-acquainted with the interesting aspects of everything we do. Adopting the mindset of a child can help us become less serious and more playful and curious with whatever activity we’re focused on. The world is full of beauty and wonder, but if we view life through the lens of “same stuff, different day,” we’ll miss the magnificence of what’s around us.
When we’re practicing beginner’s mind, we aren’t burdened with prejudgments and preconceptions. We drop the “shoulds,” which eliminates disappointment and frustration with any experience because there’s no preset story that we’re telling ourselves. It’s a brand-new experience where we don’t know what to expect.
Shoshin isn’t just about tasks and activities we perform. It can also enhance relationships with others. Consider talking to someone that you find annoying or frustrating because they aren’t meeting your expectations in that moment. Seeing them through fresh eyes, you begin to notice that they’re just trying to be happy, too, or that they’re struggling just like you. Human beings are deeply mysterious and we actually know very little about another person. Without our stories, which we all make up, we listen more deeply and can discover new perspectives about a person we may have known for years. This can transform your relationship with that person.
Beginner’s mind can also decrease anxiety because the practice embraces not knowing. Instead of worrying or stressing about what might happen, which is where the anxiety starts building, we can become curious about it, lighting up a completely different part of our brains and allowing us to explore possibilities instead of made-up problems.
Novelist and essayist Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
How do we make this shift to develop a beginner’s mind? Keep in mind that this can be challenging at first because we’re used to knowing what we know, and our egos always want to be right, so we feel safe having expertise in many areas of our lives.
Begin by noticing the stories you tell yourself. Again, this is perfectly natural and we all do it. We make assumptions or fill in the blanks about a subject because we dislike not knowing. But that’s why this is a great first step towards beginner’s mind. Be gentle with yourself but start questioning every assumption that pops into your mind. Why did you make that assumption? Do you have any proof that it’s true? Look at your story from multiple angles. The more you practice this, the better you’ll become at catching yourself in future situations and you’ll start feeling much less upset about circumstances you can’t control.
Observe children for inspiration. Notice how they react to the world around them. Start asking the same types of questions they ask, like what is this, why is it this way, how does it work? Whether you’re questioning yourself or actually asking others these questions, you’ll start learning more about subjects you may have thought you already knew everything about.
Another excellent exercise is to do something with a child and see it through their eyes. I wrote a long time ago about taking my grandchildren to Disneyland for the first time. It was absolutely transformational and purely joyful to return to a place I’d been many times over the years and had many preconceived ideas about what would happen, only to see it through their eyes of excitement and wonder. It can be the same with a park, a museum, a beach or even a movie. Let their wonder and awe take you straight to beginner’s mind.
As I mentioned earlier, note the "shoulds" in your life. Identify your expectations as you enter a situation and then question them. Whatever you believe should happen, recognize that the should is based on preconceived notions and expectations and ties you to a specific outcome. If you can let go of the need to predetermine what should happen, the world can surprise you which further encourages open-mindedness.
Practicing mindfulness can also help. Slow down and pay attention so that you can notice when you go on autopilot. Take your time with people and tasks, remaining aware of what you’re doing and experiencing. Slow down physically, which tends to cause your mind to slow down as well. Bring yourself back to the present moment any time you notice that your mind is wandering.
Practice seeing clearly through mindfulness meditation. The practice is to non-judgmentally observe thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they rise and pass in the present moment. To strengthen beginner’s mind in meditation, notice when you start to expect how things should go, like what you’ll feel, or what you’ll think. This awareness of expectation provides an opportunity to let go and return the attention to the breath. Every meditation is different, and so is each breath. Remind yourself of that and notice the next breath with an open mind.
If you’ve got a severe case of monkey mind, where the brain just won’t focus on what you want and your mind argues with you that you already know what will happen in any given situation, you might consider trying to switch things up. Try eating or writing with your non-dominant hand and notice all of the differences from these normal routine activities. If you normally sit in the same chair to watch television, sit somewhere else or move the chair to the other side of the room and notice what you see differently. If you take the same route on your walks, try reversing the route or walking on the other side of the road. Simply notice all of the new things you see or hear. These simple activities can help activate your beginner’s mind and help move you to daily practices that will help you be more open, curious, flexible and present.
We’re human, so we get distracted, we make mistakes, we forget to pay attention, no matter how much we’ve studied or how long we’ve meditated. But there’s no pressure in mindfulness to attain or perfect anything, so we don’t need to work toward a goal of becoming an expert. Our lives in fact will be more interesting, joyful and fulfilling if we can remain a beginner in mind and heart. Even after doing the same practice or activity thousands of times, we can always discover something new. We can remain life-long learners and explorers through a beginner’s mind and enjoy the world through fresh eyes. Are you ready to try a different perspective?