Advanced, humble, intellectual and intuitively wise. It’s the stuff the beginner’s mind is made of.
I first learned of the traditional Japanese concept, Shoshin, or beginner’s mind while doing my undergrad in psychology and religious studies. I remember reading Zen Flesh, Zen Bones cover to cover in one day. It’s a collection of zen wisdom that does one thing– leaves you curious. When it showed up again several years later in grad school in my clinical counseling class, it was symbolic of the very concept of a beginner’s mind– time to attune the semi-trained mind to receive new information and allow the already-stored, pre-conceived information to be reconsidered and reshaped.
Shoshin asks you to ask yourself, am I listening for new information out in the world or subconsciously am I just validating my current ways? In the western world, or at least here in the States, traditionally learning takes place linearly, so that eventually you reach “expert” status in a subject. You know how this goes. We’ve all heard adults asking little children barely four years old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our cultural way of learning demands that open, beginner’s mind to plan and start stuffing it full of information that can be used later. Grade school, high school, college, grad school are all journeys toward that expert status. This is often at the cost of not having enough time to consider the potential learning that exists in the periphery– that which is outside the linear quest toward expertness. This practice can sometimes close us off, and, while we’re not doing it intentionally per se, it’s just how we’ve been conditioned here in the west.
You might be asking, “But why is expert status a bad thing?”
It’s not. It can, however, limit our ability to stay fresh when we only repeat behaviors we’ve been exposed to or conditioned toward. When we know about a certain thing, our beliefs become shaped by that thing. We think we’ve heard it all and know it all about that one specific thing we are an expert at, but in thinking this way, we start to filter information only from that reference point. We listen in a protected, self-serving or even lazy way. When we listen with our expert mind, we’re limiting what we can take in because we’re approaching incoming information with our minds too full to make room for the new. Our preconceived notions tend to crowd our mental space, only leaving standing room for new info.
To embrace the beginner’s mind, consider this: The knowledge that got you to where you are now is not what is is going to get you to where you are going or where you want to go. Becoming humble will. Becoming open-minded will. Reflecting from your more intuitive and innately-wise side will.
Consider a few of the thoughts Shunryu Suzuki (the Buddhist monk responsible for bringing zen Buddhism to the west) suggests we meditate over. He recommends softening our expert minds to balance our vast knowledge in a way that creates space for evolution– not necessarily adding another layer to store.
He says, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
If you are an expert, you know it all. You’ve studied, practiced, and are experienced on that particular subject, but… if you are an expert, have you considered that perhaps you– more than anyone– needs to pay attention even more closely to newness? For greater learning to take place in a way that helps elevate our understanding on a deep level, first it must require mental space. An empty, clear, ready-to-receive mind can build new neurological networks if we give it permission to.
But how do we empty our minds?
Shunryu Suzuki advises: “We should not hoard knowledge; we should be free from our knowledge.” This concept has made its way into modern business circles– the idea is to give away your knowledge and your ideas so that your mind will be open to stay in the flow. We cling so tightly to “our” own ideas that in doing so we can become stale in the work space, or we limit our ability to see a more clear perspective.
Paul Arden, the famous creative director of the world-renowned advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and author of the bestseller, “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” discusses this concept of giving away our ideas. He says something like, “Hey, they’re not your ideas anyway. Give those ideas away to create space for something new, otherwise your work will no longer be a contribution, but rather a flat constant.”
Ready to begin? (Pun intended.) Here are the ingredients for a beginner’s mind:
1 | Ditch the shoulds in life
2 | Resist judgement
3 | Resolve fear of failure (because who needs that pit in their stomach?)
4 | Focus on curiosity and asking questions
5 | Honor your expert status by thanking it for bringing you to this very moment that allows you to let it go
The following are my personal faves to enrich your beginner’s mind. Check them out, and you may surprise yourself at what you’re capable of cultivating!
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. It’s more zen poetry than anything else, but this little book is full of contemplations for even the most advanced of us. Pop this in your bag and allow it to serve as your symbol that you’re ready to embrace the beginner’s mind.
Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite. Another one by Paul Arden of Saatchi & Saatchi. With this one he encourages his readers to embrace the unconventional. In an otherwise restrictive world, Arden suggests we can practice Shoshin by taking risks– specifically risking ego to take a chance on something. If you’re feeling stuck in your job or a relationship isn’t jiving and you’re not sure how to make a move, pick this one up.
Remember, life is not a race. You don’t need to win every debate, you don’t need to be right, and you don’t always need to contribute. Allow yourself to become a real listener by assigning value to the unknown.
Are you practicing Shoshin already? How has this traditional practice helped you align in both your personal and professional life? Share a mind-clearing tip with our community in the comments below.
Christine has dedicated her career to helping others understand the science of happiness and its powerful effects on everyday human health by harnessing the power of the epigenetic landscape. She is available for both private and professional consultations. Please contact her here.