I used to commute to downtown Chicago by train every day.
At first, I enjoyed this new facet of life. The novelty of the experience made it fun and exciting.
But that fresh feeling quickly washed away, turning my commute into a repetitive inconvenience. All this extra time spent getting from one place to another!
I’ll admit, at the time, it felt like a bit of a waste.
So I hurried my way through the morning commute, trying to minimize travel time. Oftentimes, I’d try to shut out the world around me by listening to a podcast.
Fast forward to this year, and it’s been months since I set foot on that train. But recently I happened to retrace the path of my former morning commute.
And instead of feeling the typical annoyances, the enjoyment and wonder of my experience blew me away!
As I boarded the train, I observed countless people living their individual lives as richly and deeply as I was living mine.
When I got off the train, sensations bombarded me from all sides:
- Incredible feats of sky-scraping architecture drew my eyes upward
- A great many machines dutifully served their human controllers while breaking the silence with their voices
- Smells from nearby restaurants (and garbage cans) wafted into my proximity
- Swirling wind brushed my face, and shoved my hair in the direction of its will
The city was teeming with life! Yet somehow it felt like I was noticing this for the first time.
My experience had transformed from it’s previous state.
Seeing such familiar sights as in a new way felt like a real gift.
There’s a concept from Zen Buddhism used to describe this mindset, where everything is fresh and new. It’s called “Beginner’s Mind” and it’s the subject of this article.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust
What is Beginner’s Mind?
Beginner’s Mind (aka Shoshin) is exactly what it sounds like: a term used to describe the mindset of a true beginner.
When you are new to something, you don’t know anything about it. In order to open your mind to learn, and develop understanding, you adopt a unique mindset.
In this state of mind, you are:
- Free of preconceptions of how anything works
- Free of expectations about what will happen
- Filled with curiosity to understand things more deeply
- Open to a world of possibilities, since you don’t yet know what is or isn’t possible
Just think back to what it’s like when little kids learn about something. Children are overflowing with questions. Their imaginations run wild. They ask both simple questions that are obvious, and profound questions that you’ve never considered.
Children are natural at this, because they’re always beginners at something. But as you get older, it’s easy to lose touch with the qualities of mind that once came so naturally.
The Curse of Knowledge
Most people spend their lives trying to become experienced in a field, expert in a subject-area, or skilled at a craft.
Beginner’s Mind seems to run in opposition to that trajectory. Because of this, the idea can feel uncomfortable!
Why would you abandon what you know about the world, even for a moment?
Isn’t it better to have expertise, knowledge, and understanding?
Experience is indeed a wonderful thing. It often helps you do things at a higher level.
But knowledge and understanding of how things work can prevent you from seeing clearly what’s in front of you.
“If your mind is empty…it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
~ Shunryu Suzuki
Benefits of Beginner’s Mind
Cultivating beginner’s mind gives you the opportunity to see the world around you with fresh eyes.
The benefits of this mindset cut across many factors of life, and contribute to:
- Deeper Gratitude: It’s easy to lose sight of the many good things in life that lift you up. By seeing your life from a fresh perspective, you can appreciate what you might otherwise take for granted.
- More Creativity: When you work in a particular field, and see a similar set of problems time and time again, habits of thinking become engrained. But deliberately experiencing a problem with the mind of a beginner can provide a fresh perspective on existing challenges. You’ll explore opportunities that you didn’t previously consider
- Greater Intention: When you’re familiar with something, it’s easy to go into “autopilot”. Beginner’s mind helps you slow you down to see what you’re doing in greater clarity, and avoid the drawbacks of mindlessly “going through the motions.”
- More Fun: Beginner’s mind helps you re-acquaint yourself with the interesting aspects of everything you do. Relive the reasons why you started doing those things in the first place!
- More Playfulness: When did life become so serious? Adopting the mindset of a child can help you get playful, curious, and expansive with whatever subject or activity you’re focused on.
- Greater Wonder: The world is a magnificent place, full of beauty. But if you view life through the lens of “same sh*t as always!” you’ll never have an opportunity to see it.
With all those benefits in mind, you might be wondering…
“How can I start to cultivate beginner’s mind on a regular basis?”
Below are a number of practices to get you started.
10 Exercises to Develop Beginner’s Mind
When you’re used to knowing what you know, thinking like a beginner can be surprisingly challenging!
To make the process of cultivating beginner’s mind in a given scenario easier, try these 10 exercises:
- Identify your expectations, and flip them around
What have you assumed to be true about this experience or topic? Can you 100% know that it’s true? What would happen if you did the opposite?
- Go slowly
With known topics, you tend to operate on autopilot. By deliberately slowing down, you can force yourself to experience each step of a given activity more deeply. Physically slow down your movements, and your mind tends to follow.
- Avoid pre-judgement
When you think you know how something will go, resist the temptation to assume. Instead, take time to wait and see. Can you really know that it will happen in the way you assumed it will?
- Break the topic down into building blocks
Try to distill the topic or exercise into a simpler form. What are the basic elements at play here? How do they relate to one-another? Which elements are most important? Which could you get rid of?
- Get curious by channeling your inner five-year-old
Ask someone to explain a problem or subject to you in as simple language as possible. Don’t assume anything. Ask them the simplest questions, like “Why?” and “How does that work?” and “Why do you do it that way?” and “Can you say more about that?” (Or, swap roles, and try your hand at explaining it in the simplest language possible.)
- Eliminate “should” from your vocabulary
It’s fine to make hypotheses about how something will go. But “should”s attach yourself to an outcome. Let go of any expected outcome to remain open to broader possibilities.
- Get rid of your extra arrows
If you were learning archery for the first time, and had a quiver full of arrows, you might not consider your first shot very thoroughly. After all, if it doesn’t go well, you know you have more attempts. But what if the instructor only gave you one arrow? How might you approach things differently if you knew you only had one shot at it? Seek understanding, and do so mindfully.
- Detach from your ego’s desire to be seen as an expert
The ego likes to protect itself by knowing things and being right. But being right is rarely the real goal. Focus instead on seeing reality as it is, without bias.
- Get fully present to the experience at hand
Open your senses to what you’re experiencing, as if you’d never experienced it before. What do you see/hear/smell/feel/taste? What patterns exist? What is confusing? (Why?) What makes sense? (Why?)
- Meditate to practice seeing clearly, without judgment
In mindfulness meditation, the practice is to non-judgmentally observe the rising and passing of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment. In meditation, notice when you begin 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 to your breathing. Remind yourself that every meditation is different, and that each breath is unique. Then, open yourself to the next breath…And the next…
Begin Again, Begin Again
“We begin with beginner’s mind, and then, if we’re lucky, we deepen it, or return to it.”
~ Joseph Goldstein
At the onset of a new experience, it’s impossible not to have the mindset of a beginner.
But as time moves along, these attitudes drift away. As knowledge and understanding root themselves in your mind, your aperture of consideration narrows.
Cultivating Beginner’s Mind is a way to reverse this limiting tendency.
Seeing things anew brings fresh perspective to old sights, and opens up a world of intrigue and possibility in every day.
The best part about beginner’s mind is that it’s always accessible. Every week, every day, and every moment is an opportunity to begin again.