Practising Beginner's Mind
"Bringing a childlike wonder and a beginner’s mind to life maximises both success and joy"
Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind." It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would – Wikepedia
The practise of ‘beginners mind’ is a well-known concept in the fields of Self-Help and Spiritual Enlightenment.
After an intensive course in training as a Shamanic Practitioner, Chrissie applied to another institution to supplement her knowledge and add to her skillset. On application and in explaining that she had already undergone training, she was asked to present with ‘beginner’s mind.’ Did this mean that she should immediately forget everything that had gone before and embark on the training as a total beginner?
If so, what would be the benefit to both student and teacher? What would be the ultimate benefit to her clients?
It is understandable that a teacher may want to begin imparting information to a clean slate, but what if the learned student could share things that might enhance the course? It was not easy.
Clearly, to practise beginner’s mind requires humility.
What, then are the benefits of beginner’s mind?
· It gifts us with the joy of experiencing every positive situation as if we are seeing it for the first time, with the sense of innocence and wonder of a child. This positively affects our body chemistry and enhances wellbeing.
· It allows us to come at any given situation with a completely fresh perspective, no limiting beliefs and no judgement. To judge something, we must have a preconceived idea of how it should be. By practising beginner’s mind, our decisions are not contaminated by past experience. When we do this, others are free to respond without having our expectations placed upon them.
· It enables us to experience every negative situation without the burden of past experience causing us to imagine and prepare for worst case scenarios and the unpleasant physiological response that this brings. This allows us to learn from the current experience without prejudgement.
· It allows us to live in the present moment, appreciating that revisiting past experiences creates the same chemical changes in our bodies as the experiences themselves, thus liberating us and sparing us from the symptoms of chronic stress.
Throughout life, it is natural for us to collect knowledge, skills, and expertise as we carve out our role and take our place in the world. We have discussed previously how societies operate in such a way that there is a place for every individual, and it is our unique skill sets and aptitudes that contribute towards the whole.
When children are young, they are often asked what they would like to be when they grow up. When certain talents are observed in the young, they may be encouraged and honed. There is an unconscious emphasis on finding our niche so that we may take our place in the world, providing a service for others and, in turn, sustenance for ourselves.
We become experts at what we do. It is the nature of the human psyche to learn from experience, and we make it our business to learn a trade or skillset. In an ideal situation, everyone’s needs are met by the individual talents and knowledge of the diverse community. There is balance.
Whatever age we are, most of us have directed a good deal of energy towards becoming adept at something. How then, do we shift our mindset to suspend all that we have learned, without keenly feeling the loss, and transform ourselves from ‘expert’ to ‘beginner?
It is difficult to embark on this without invoking fear. The fear of not being heard or recognised for our knowledge and understanding is one that has echoes of childhood. It comes from a time before expertise. A time when we were beginning. A time when we had to strive to be noticed. We all have worked so hard to move away from that. To gain respect. To be listened to. Does this not undermine all that work?
In resisting, we might even convince ourselves that we cannot present as a beginner because it would prevent those around us from benefitting from all that we have to offer. It is very hard to resist giving an opinion when we have all the knowledge to back it up and we know that we can help.
As we have said many times before, fear arises when we feel that we may lose something. This may include possessions, health, relationships, respect, social standing, or status. We can clearly see what is at stake for us when we first embark on the practise of ‘beginner’s mind.’
When fear is present, Ego is provoked. To us that feels ‘icky.’ The purpose of Ego is to preserve our safety. When we detect the presence of provoked Ego, it is wise to observe it kindly and respectfully within ourselves, press pause, and consciously choose our response. Read more about Ego here:
When we first entertain the idea of letting go of ourselves as ‘learned expert,’ we can gently observe the resistance that arises within us, understanding that its purpose is to keep us safe.
We can explore our attachments to the roles that we play within our lives and the lives of others and who we are when we are not wearing those labels.
We can explore those processes with curiosity and, despite some observed discomfort, imagine what it might feel like to start again, with a fresh sheet of paper.
There may be further and more specific reasons why practicing ‘beginners mind’ might evoke fear. When we have been hurt by someone or experienced an unpleasant situation because of the behaviour of another, we use that information to arm ourselves for protection in similar future situations. We become defended by our preconceptions. This keeps us emotionally rooted to the past. But does practising ‘beginners mind’ mean that we should forget all that we have endured and walk innocently into situations that could present as dangerous without our prior that knowledge that is keeping us safe? Not exactly.
Practising ‘beginners mind’ is a subtle art.
Imagine that you have been recently very hurt during a family argument and that there is a ‘get together’ planned that will inevitably involve your having to interact with those who have upset you. You do not wish to close the door on your family, and you cannot continuously make excuses to not attend gatherings. How do you proceed with ’beginners mind?’
· Before attending the gathering, reassess your boundaries with the people concerned. Here you may use the information you have available from previous events, but it is wise to completely step back and detach from any emotions that recalling an unpleasant situation brings up for you. Step into the shoes of your Observer Self and assess what is needed to put space between you and any potential recurrence of that pattern of interaction. From this detached viewpoint, you can create new boundaries. These will be individual to your own situation. For example: you may choose to avoid being drawn into conversations about certain topics or you may decide to politely decline any separate invitations by those individuals involved. Set these as clear intentions before meeting. Do not attach any emotion or explanation. You do not need to relive it. They are simply the new rules.
· Having cultivated the habit of regularly assessing your boundaries, you are protected. You can now invoke ‘beginners mind.’ This means attending the family gathering with none of the ‘baggage’ that the previous argument created. You meet everyone as if nothing has gone before. You come at everything and everyone from a position of respect because you are not prejudging anyone based on past events. You are not expecting conflict. You are placing no expectations on anyone. This is a clean slate. When you behave in this way, you will notice that others respond by mirroring you. You influence the mood of the party. In such a state of presence, you can respond to challenge if it is presented in the here and now, but your response will not be tainted by past experience. When we no longer place expectations on others, they are free to pleasantly surprise us.
Practising ‘beginners mind’ can greatly improve our understanding of the Self. It can also liberate us from the role of ‘expert’ which ultimately constrains us and presents as an obstacle to experiencing the whole of life with wide open eyes.
How do we begin to practise ‘beginners mind?’
Prepare by cultivating the habit of reassessing and reframing your boundaries accordingly in all situations as they unfold. Do this without emotion. If you have been adversely affected by something, you can step into the shoes of your Observer Self, witness the process, and calmly adjust. Set your new rules based on current information rather than on events that have gone before.
Now by set the intention to experience your ‘Beginner Self.’
This is the part of you that is awoken at the very start of something completely new. The wide-eyed innocent who is completely open and ready to learn. To absorb every new piece of information that is given. Utterly humble. Totally free of expectations. Filled with enthusiasm and the energy that is created by the presence of a blank page and a set of bright felt tip pens. You know this part of the Self. You have experienced her/him many times before. Become acquainted again.
Now set the intention to invite your Beginner Self into all situations without exception. Approach all meetings, projects, events and journeys through the eyes of this part of the psyche. Open your eyes and ears wide to all possibilities. Let go of all expectations. Forgo any sense of limitation or constraint.
Open yourself up to the idea of the unexpected. Of surprise. Of pure unbound potential.
Know that by invoking your Beginner Self you are not erasing your lifetime of knowledge and experience. You are practising compartmentalisation. You are abandoning the habit of consistently bringing your expertise to the fore. Your need to do this comes from a place of fear and you are releasing that need. Instead, you are willing to see each situation completely anew. To start over. To learn. As you practise this, you will become increasingly confident in your ability to resist reaching for your hard-earned collection of knowledge and experience. As you become more skilled, you will place less importance on what you already know, and your focus will shift towards a totally new way of seeing.
As always, practise keen observation of the process, taking account of how the Universe responds to the shifts that you have made. Indulge in gratitude for every positive effect that your ‘beginner’s mind’ creates and for every lesson and new insight that it brings.
Resolve to greet each brand-new day with the childlike wonder that it deserves, because it is, after all, a chance to begin again.
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