You’ve spent all these years building your body of knowledge, accumulating understanding, and wrapping your brain around stuff. You finally know how to ride the bike, why would you want to put the training wheels back on?


By David Jones


Allow me to sing the praises of Beginner’s Mind.

It has helped me with Religious Deconstruction and has reawakened my curiosity about things I’d learned long ago. It also challenges me to reconsider all the teachings, views, and understandings that I or others hold. But folks hate being outed about what they don’t know.

Maybe, particularly in America, we want others to see us as experienced instead of inexperienced, knowledgeable instead of ignorant about a thing, a pro and not a noob, self-assured instead of vulnerable.

When I used to repair computers, I often had a few books from the For Dummies series nearby. One time a friend told me he would never have those books around because he didn’t want anyone thinking he was a dummy. I replied that I used them, and was actually fixing his computer.

So let’s break down some misunderstandings about what Beginner’s Mind is, as well as how and why we’d benefit from using it.

But what is Beginner’s Mind, exactly?

It’s a way of thinking about and engaging the universe anew, seeing it with different eyes, as if for the first time. While it’s related to folks who are new to something, it’s more than mere inexperience.

Imagine two children are in guitar class. Neither have even held one before, so the teacher hands each of them a beginner’s guitar. One holds it, strums the strings, feels for the most comfortable way to hold it, etc. The other child holds it exactly as it was handed to them, staring blankly at it and the teacher as if they’d been handed a tree limb and didn’t know why. Both are inexperienced, but which one seems to want to learn? Which one strikes you as a beginner?

There’s a reason Beginner’s Mind is also called Student Mind.

It goes by other names too, such as Original Mind, Child Mind, Teachable Mind, Empty Mind, and I Don’t Know Mind. But it’s definitely not Inexperienced Mind, Ignorant Mind, Stupid Mind, or Closed Mind.

More to the point, Beginner’s Mind actually has to do with the mindset and attitude we have when engaging something which we HAVE some experience with. The Japanese word “shoshin” relates to having the mind or spirit of someone who is beginning something with intent, eagerness, wonder, and excitement.

It’s really about returning to square one by choice. It’s about giving up our determination to be an expert, even if we are experts. As Shunryu Suzuki says in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Student Mind: Becoming Teachable Again.

Imagine you’re driving to see an old friend who lives a couple of hours away. Normally you take the same route every time, but today you take a different highway. Suddenly you see things you’ve never seen before on all your travels to see your friend. Because you didn’t default to your old path, you’ve become open to new things you might never have encountered otherwise.

Routines can make us experts but also limit our possibilities. Things become a habit and we forget to be watchful and engaged: we forget to be mindful.

Life’s about cycles. When we become experts in a thing we can become stuck in our current cycle and the wheel of experience does not turn. If we want to turn the wheel we must return to the beginning again to start the new cycle. It’s a rebirth of sorts, and it’s vital to keep the Dharma alive within us, not letting it become a stone monument to our lost possibility.

It’s a trap to know something so definitely, so certainly, that the very bias of it blinds us to anything and everything else. The expert becomes imprisoned by their knowledge, and struggles to be free again.

Why Would I Want A Beginner’s Mind?

You’ve spent all these years building your body of knowledge, accumulating understanding, and wrapping your brain around stuff. You finally know how to ride the bike, why would you want to put the training wheels back on?

One word: possibilities.

To be clear, you’re not forgetting anything you’ve learned. You won’t jettison all your knowledge and wisdom and hummus recipes and song lyrics which are pretty close to accurate. Nothing will be stolen from you, not even one second of effort you invested into previous study. But you won’t have all that as your default way of processing and engaging life. You’ll be open to lots of other ways of seeing and understanding in addition to what you’re used to. That’s what we call “possibilities.”

If that’s hard to do, you can apply Don’t Know Mind.

That’s a term used n Zen for answering every relevant question (especially the internal ones like “What does this mean?”) with the answer “I don’t know.” Importantly, Suzuki, quoted by Gil Fronsdal in his talk on Not Knowing, says “Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” It just means you’re going to keep your mind open and approach it as if encountering it for the first time, without preconceived definitions and categories, and—most importantly—free from judgements or existing biases.

Finally, Beginner’s Mind is a facet of Mindfulness, a tool to free us from any ruts we’re in, to help us kick off our dogmas and comfortable biases, to let us be free to encounter things again for the first time. Be excited at the wonder of the mundane, immerse yourself in the familiar, and see what you notice that you hadn’t before.

By taking yourself off autopilot, ridding yourself of assumptions and expectations as defaults, and awakening to the things a new student might notice and appreciate, you’ll see the value of Beginner’s Mind in your practice and life.

But then again, I don’t know.


Photo: Pixabay


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