What does it mean to have a beginner’s mind?
I first heard of the phrase many years ago as part of a series I was reading about on meditation and mindfulness. In many ways, the idea of a beginner’s mind runs in the same circles as the other two, but though the other two have gathered a certain amount of vogue about them, the sister idea of a “beginner’s mind” has not garnered quite as much attention.
Or at least, not in my general awareness.
Of course, I might be wrong. Perhaps everyone knows of this mindset as they know of mindfulness and meditation. Or, I am right, and there is something about the beginner’s mindset that throws people.
I tend to believe the latter.
Mostly, because I AM one of those people.
I tried it on for a while, this idea of having a beginner’s mind. The concept sounds lovely. To look on the world with wide-eyed innocence, to see things like it is the very first time, experiencing the awe and excitement of living life as if everything is brand new…yeah. That sounds great.
Until you realize, that you are not, nor have you ever been, someone that looks at anything with wide-eyed innocence. And very rarely in awe and excitement.
The concept is amazing. Because the idea of living a life where we see everything through a lens of potential is amazing. The reality is something entirely different.
At least for my twisted, dark brain.
So. As with all concepts that elude me, I decided to do a bit of digging around, and the more I read, the more I realized that the beginner’s mind is not so much continuously looking at life as shiny and new, but rather a process of not painting ourselves into a corner, which thereby limits our ability to experience and appreciate new things.
The exact quote I’m thinking of is from Shunryu Suzuki and is: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; but in the expert’s, there are few.”
This way of viewing the concept made a little more sense to me. But.
The quote seems to suggest that being an expert is bad.
Which, is, for me, bad.
Because, for me and for many, if we are an expert in something, that something is more than likely tied to who we are identity-wise.
You get my point. We continuously create identity structures out of the things we do and are, and we hold on to those identity structures as a way to understand and find our place in society. This process is integral. It is intrinsic. And it happens no matter how anti-bourgeoisie anyone wants to believes themselves to be.
We automatically create identifiers. Among those identifiers are the ones that are built around what we have expertise in.
How, then, does this tie into the beginner’s mind? Do we cease to label ourselves as experts? Do we throw these structures out the window?
No. That’s chaotic. And has the potential to harm our mental health.
Rather. Finding a beginner’s mind, I am finding, has more to do with pushing our boundaries.
I got a bee in my bonnet (what DOES that mean?) and decided that I was going to take some piano classes at our local community college. I’ve always wanted to play piano and so I signed up for the… yep, you guessed it… beginner’s class.
I loved it. Until it got hard. Then I didn’t love it so much. Then I started to get nervous, which led to making mistakes, which led to more nervousness, which led me to start feeling really bad about myself…
And as I walked across campus after class one winter’s afternoon, feeling a bit low, feeling as if I was “just not getting it,” and feeling quite frustrated with myself, I realized, in one of those fun bursts of insight, that I was feeling like a student again.
I was feeling like a beginner.
It wasn’t pleasant, and I’d forgotten what it was like because it has been so long since I was challenged in a NEW way; in a STUDENT way. That’s not to say that I am not challenged in my writing profession. Or as a parent (all the freaking time). Or as a spouse. Friend. Etc.
Those are all challenging.
But through these challenges, I still have this knowledge that I know what I am doing (for the most part. Parenting, man, do you ever really know?). Therefore, even when my writing is rubbish or I am dealing with deadlines and I am stressed, or any other challenging scenario, I don’t have an “at sea” feeling. I have an established foundation. I have years of bedrock under my feet so even when the going gets rough and the earthquakes of life happen, I have this stability underneath me that I can rely on.
When embarking on something entirely new, that bedrock doesn’t yet exist.
Example: a beginning piano class. For me, this class was a throwback to the days of being young; of being cast about on the tide of life; of not having a foundation.
Here then, is where I come to my point; because, as I was walking across campus that day, I realized that being older, established, and quite content with life, I didn’t/don’t relish these feelings. I like being an expert. Not only is my identity all tied up with my expertise, but also, being a beginner is really, really uncomfortable.
No smooth sailing there.
As Suzuki says, it is all about the mind, not labels or viewpoint, but the mind and making space to experience the new and the unknown. Sure, the act of taking a beginner’s piano class was/is stressful because it is brand new, but that does not, however, automatically move me into this beginner’s mind; rather, it is this shoving out of my comfort zone into this unstable mind, allowing me to examine my perceptions of what a beginner’s mind actually is, and formulating enough of a response from the experience to catalog the entire thing as a lesson.
I believe that was more of what Suzuki speaks of in his book.
A lesson for my own growth.
So dear reader, I could suggest you try the beginner’s mind, and if that verbiage works for you; wonderful.
But really what I more strongly suggest is something else that has gained traction over the decades: push your comfort zones. Maybe do things that scare you, or make you nervous, or that you only dream of doing (unless it is against the law, then, common sense and all that), and see where those roads take you.
It is all a journey, after all, and sometimes it is good to walk a different road or to see the world around us through a different colored lens.