Practising Beginner's Mind
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
"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.
For more see ‘How to Rise – A Complete Resilience Manual’ from Sheldon Press. It takes you on a journey of self-discovery sharing over 60 tools and techniques, including meditations with purpose, visualisation exercises and practical tools to help improve your mental wellbeing, reduce anxiety and allow you to take control of your life.