The Importance of Approaching Things with Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki (1905-1971)

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. (from Wikipedia)

I find, when I am taking a class from another teacher, I learn so much more when I can put aside everything I think I know about that subject and anything remotely related to that subject. It’s a form of getting out of my own way. My ego is so invested in me being right, in me having all the information already, because that feels safe, that my head will frequently say “oh, yes, I know” and I stop listening. I will always miss something when I do this.

I have a practice I have adapted from Theresa Bullard, one of my first Kabbalah teachers, that I use when approaching material I want to get more out of, especially when I already know something about the subject. I take a cup of water, and I pour everything I think I know about the broadest umbrella of the topic I can think of (say, healing) into that cup. I then pour that water into something where Mother Nature can recycle it into something more useful.

I am, of course, not actually getting rid of my pre-existing knowledge. I am setting the intention of approaching the information as if I did not have pre-existing knowledge, so that I can absorb as much as possible. When I have beginner’s mind, I no longer need the instructor and the rest of the class to know all of what I know. I no longer need to feel that I know more about the instructor on a section of their material. I no longer have to worry that I am getting enough out of the class.
I get to be present, and simply absorb what is offered, so that I can assimilate it into my greater body of knowledge later.

This is not conjecture. Not only has it been a part of Zen Buddhist practice for years, as a way to be truly present, science is now corroborating that people will learn more if they can take on the beginner’s mind. Steve Jobs practiced it. Dr. Kevin Tidgewell of Duquesne University practices it. Jackie Barretta tells us that experts are the last people to include in creative brainstorming sessions.

When I am teaching, especially a large body of work, I will do one of two things to help my students get into the beginner’s mind. I will have them do an in-depth (no pun intended) grounding exercise, or I will have them do a water exercise. Sometimes, when it’s going to be a class in which we go over even more information that I usually offer in a short amount of time, I may have them do both. I don’t like to waste my students’ time and money, and I don’t like to waste my energy. It is important to me that people who come to me for learning get the most out of it they can (otherwise, what are we doing?), and I can tell when they are not present to the information. Don’t get me wrong, I love having people in my classes who have some background knowledge, because I know they are serious about their studies. Which is honestly why I do my utmost to help them find their beginner’s mind.

Resources on Beginner’s Mind:
Zen Habits: Approaching Life With Beginner’s Mind
Jack Kornfield: The Beauty of Beginner’s Mind
Inc: 11 Ways to Develop Beginner’s Mind
Daily Zen: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
A Lecture on Beginner’s Mind by Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman
Experience Life: Beginner’s Mind
Unstuck Advice: 6 tips to cultivate a beginner’s mind

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dana says:

    Beautiful insight … thank you .. you’re a wonderful teacher I learn so much from you always and hope to continue to x

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