When he was 16, Einstein performed a thought experiment. He wondered if he could outrun a beam of light. Granted, Einstein’s visualizations were lofty, unlike the fascinations of most 16-year-olds I know—Nintendo Switch lite, Hollywood makeup mirror, DIY mochi kits. Einstein’s single thought experiment changed the course of human history in the 20th century. We finally understood that space and time are relative. Einstein’s discoveries resulted from unbridled curiosity—or as Zen Buddhism calls it, the ability to have a “beginner’s mind.”
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few - Shunryu Suzuki - Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind introduced Zen Buddhism to America. The book is devoid of lofty prose or breathtaking storylines. But the depth and simplicity of the message stand out.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind isn’t just a popular spiritual book. The life lessons in the book have attracted a wide range of mainstream audiences. Among them is legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson who went on to write his own book Sacred Hoops, in which he says:
Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.
This post is about the beginner’s mind—what it is, why it matters, and how to bring shoshin – the Zen Buddhist term for beginner’s mind to our daily activities.
What is a beginner’s mind?
a. Imagine traveling to a new country in a part of the world you’ve never visited before. The sights, the smells, the colors, the weather, the people—everything is vastly different from what you are used to. Your sense perceptions go on overdrive. They inundate you as you try to capture and retain all these new-to-you ambiances.
b. In contrast, think of your daily work commute—something you’ve done almost every week now, for seven years. What sensations stand out for you? My guess is not many. You are on autopilot mode.
When you are new to a situation or approach a problem as a newbie, you are open to possibilities and adventures. You are said to have a beginner’s mind.
A beginner’s mind is one of openness. It is devoid of preconceived notions. You approach situations without firmly held opinions. You walk into difficult circumstances not as an expert but as a beginner.
The beginner’s mind is an empty mind.
The objective of practicing Zen meditation is to approach all activities with a beginner’s mind, even when you are not a beginner.
When you first learn to drive, you are highly attentive to your environment—you notice how you grip the steering wheel, how your feet feel against the brakes, etc. You are hyperaware of other cars on the road. But with a few months of driving, it’s easy to mentally check out when driving—to multitask on other activities.
But with a beginner’s mindset, you approach every drive as a novice. As a result, you enjoy the experience more. Instead of having memorable experiences that are few and far between, a beginner’s mindset makes every hour of every day rich with variety.
Why adopt a Beginner’s Mind?
1. Gets rid of fear
The primary benefit to going in with a beginner’s mind instead of as an expert is that it helps you get rid of the fear of failure.
Let’s say you approach a situation you’ve already labeled as challenging. Right off the bat, you walk into it with a preconceived notion. You hope your efforts will get you the result you deserve/seek. This, in turn, makes you act out of fear. The fear then translates into anxiety and makes the overall experience uncomfortable—something you’d like to avoid doing in the future.
Instead, if you approach any situation with shoshin, regardless of whether you succeed or fail, your actions won’t carry the load of fear.
2. Enhances quality of life
We throw around the phrase quality-of-life all the time. But, in reality, aren’t we simply checking off boxes on our to-do lists in our eagerness to go from one project to another? Without an empty mind, we go about our activities unintentionally, flitting like a deer in headlights.
Bringing curiosity to any activity, even something we’ve done hundreds of thousands of times, such as eating, will help elevate the experience from mundane to spiritual.
3. Unleashes creativity
In the book Zen mind, beginner’s mind, Shunryu Suzuki says,
Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.
This. ABB—Always be a beginner.
True learning and creativity require us to forget what we think we know, so we are prepared to transcend our limiting beliefs to learn more.
4. Banishes impostor syndrome
You feel like an impostor only when you have a sense of expertise in a field. If you approach an activity as a beginner, it takes a big load off your shoulders. Being the underdog is liberating. It lets you focus on the action instead of the pretense. You are free to make mistakes without being judged. What’s not to love about that?
5. Makes us grateful
Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues but the parent of all others – Cicero
We could all do with a little more gratitude in our lives. The best things to be grateful for are often the little things. Being mindful and bringing a beginner’s mind to things we do and use daily is a great way to sow the seeds for gratitude.
How to Adopt a Beginner’s Mind?
1. Be a child
Not in the sense of throwing tantrums, but learn to look at the world with wonder.
Ever tried going for a short walk with a four-year-old? An otherwise 5-minute walk could well take 20 minutes. And, believe me, those would be the best 20 minutes of your day (and possibly test your patience as well.) The child will stop to pick pebbles off the ground, or to examine a flower, or to watch a bird fly, or any one of the myriad things that spark her curiosity. Hers is truly a beginner’s mind in action.
We were all children once. Sadly, we grew up and forgot what it was to have that kind of unbridled curiosity.
We are stumped when a four-year-old asks, “Does the sun go down at night so that another planet could use the light?” Such thoughts don’t occur in our minds.
Artificial Intelligence researchers have taught A.I. machines to code, write novels, drive cars, and play chess. But, to this day, these machines cannot emulate the mind of really young children.
In an article published in the Smithsonian magazine, Alison Gopnik, famous author, TED speaker, and Professor of psychology, says this about some of the research she’s witnessed:
Research has shown systematically that preschoolers are better at coming up with unlikely hypotheses than older children and adults. We have almost no idea how this kind of creative learning and innovation is possible.
While we may not understand children’s neural pathways, we can emulate their wonderment by bringing childlike curiosity to our actions.
2. Any activity is practice material
The best part of practicing beginner’s mind is you don’t need any particular place, occasion, or equipment. Every single thing you do during the course of the day is practice material.
If you’re going for a walk, don’t simply plug in your headphones and start walking. Approach the walk like a beginner. Experience what it feels like when you put one foot in front of the other. Notice if the pavement you’re on is uneven. Feel the breeze (or stillness) in the air. Allow your senses to be bombarded but pay attention to those sensations. Notice if these sensations trigger emotions or memories in you.
Eating, exercising, cooking, cleaning, commuting (and many more) are all activities where you have a chance to test your beginner’s mind practice.
3. Think lantern, not spotlight
Alison Gopnik (referenced earlier in the post) describes two types of consciousness—lantern, and spotlight.
Spotlight consciousness is essentially when you tune out everything and focus on the task at hand. When you ask an adult to get from place A to B in five minutes, they typically focus on just getting to point B, potentially ignoring what happens along the way.
Lantern consciousness is when the consciousness is like a lantern—the consciousness is diffused. This is what happens when you ask a child to go from point A to B. The five minutes could turn into fifty minutes, depending on the distractions that catch the child’s eye.
There are times in life when we need both. A beginner’s mind should be conscious like a lantern. The mind should be able to absorb experiences from all directions.
Who’d have thunk a meditation practice may have something to do with making you mindful? Okay, that was sarcasm. I state the obvious here: to get better on the field, aka daily life, it’s best to hone your beginner’s mind practice on the meditation cushion.
As opposed to a concentration practice such as vipassana, a more open-ended approach such as mindfulness is better suited to cultivating a beginner’s mind.
When meditating, observe what catches your attention—without getting into the storyline. Is it a physical sensation (an itch on your back), a memory, an emotion that’s vying for your attention? Pay attention to the feeling without judgment. There are no rights or wrongs. All you care for is the direct experience. It is what is.
5. Challenge assumptions
Beware of the Einstellung effect. It is the tendency to approach a problem with a predetermined solution based on experience. Scientists tested subjects on a series of water jar problems. After solving many problems using one equation, the subjects tended to solve later problems using the same method, even when a more straightforward solution was available.
While experience is good, the flip side is that we tend to default to the familiar.
Breakthroughs happen when you challenge assumptions.
I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! – Richard Feynman
As adults, we are great at possessing information rather than taking the time to accumulate knowledge. There is a big difference between the two. We are good at regurgitating facts. We can fluff-talk our way through stuff without a fundamental understanding of first principles. Most of us live in this zone—of knowing enough to be somewhat valuable. Barely.
However, innovations and progress—material or spiritual—require an element of curiosity. Scientists have shown that the hippocampus (seat of learning) and the pleasure chemical dopamine are activated together when curious. In other words, the brain rewards you simply to learn something new.
Curiosity, in turn, requires we come to the table with a beginner’s mind—a mind empty of prejudices, preconceived notions, or expectations. If you can do that, the world is your oyster.
Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough — Richard Feynman