zen habits : breathe

How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen.

I’m an expert at many things. And I’m sick of it. Being an expert, that is. Because being an expert is boring. That’s why I started kite surfing a few month ago. I wanted to be a beginner again.

Kite surfing looks easy – until you try it. The challenge is to control both kite and board. A kite is unpredictable. One moment it’s behaving. Next, it’s totally out of control. Like the time when my kite took off – and I was suddenly swept off my feet and into the air. I could see my instructor far below: eyes agog and jaws agape. Then I crashed down into the sea. Next moment I was being dragged backwards under water at high speed like an out-of-control torpedo. Finally I managed to come up for air. Rather alarming, but on the whole great fun!

I love being a beginner again. I love following impossible instructions. I love failing gloriously!

This is Beginner’s Mind. It’s a Zen state of mind.

What if we had that approach to everything we did? What would life be like?

Let’s take a look at seven aspects of Beginner’s Mind and see how they can transform our life:

1. Take one step at a time. We tend to think in sequences. For example, when we go grocery shopping, our mind is on what we need to buy and where to shop. We’re likely to skip over all the little experiences on the way: locking the front door, seeing the neighbour standing at the window, rain splattering on the windscreen, the noise of traffic, and so on.

The same thing happens when we learn something new. We’re always looking towards what we’ll know or be able to do in the future, instead of focusing on the next step right now. I’m definitely guilty of that. You too?

2. Fall down seven times, get up eight times. Yesterday a friend of mine brought her toddler to visit. The little girl, Stephanie, is just learning to walk. She would pull herself up, wobble along a few steps and then plop down on her bottom. She had a determined look on her face and got up again, over and over. When did we last learn something with such determination and such little obvious success?

3. Use Don’t Know mind. In martial arts, a don’t know mind is the wisdom of the warrior. Because we can easily get it wrong by prejudging a situation. When faced with a big opponent or a big challenge, we might assume that we will lose out. And when faced with an opponent who seems smaller or weaker, or a challenge that seems surmountable, we might assume that we will be on top. In both scenarios our judgment might be wrong. Don’t know means keeping an open mind and responding according to circumstances, not according to how we assume things will be. A don’t know mind leaves room for intuition.

I think don’t know mind has wider implications. Because, we really only know things up to now. Let me give you an example: I have a couple of dear friends who are moving into adolescence. It’s a time of great change. One day they’re still playing Ninjas, next day they’re confiding in me about the kiss their boyfriend stole behind the bikeshed. If I had a fixed view of who they are, I’d miss all the changes along the way and lose connection with them.

4. Live without shoulds. I could write a whole book about how I should be, what I should have done and what I should be doing, couldn’t you? The world seems to be full of experts on my life who like to tell me what I should be doing. Living with Beginner’s Mind means letting go of shoulds. I’m not advocating living without our own moral standards. I think that most of our shoulds reflect other peoples’ ideas on what our life should look like. We can let go of them.

6. Make use of experience. Beginner’s Mind is great, but it’s not so useful when crossing the road. You don’t want to be squashed flat by a car in the process of learning anew that you need to get out of the way! It’s always good to use our experience and native wisdom. That’s how we learn. Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean negating experience; it means keeping an open mind on how to apply our experience to each new circumstance.

7. Let go of being an expert. We are all experts. Experts in our job, in raising children, in crossing the road, in signing our name. It’s difficult to let go of being an expert. Because it means confessing that we really know nothing. What we know belongs to the past. Whereas this moment now is new and offers its unique challenges. If I let go of being an expert, I can listen to others with an open mind. Then I can find that even a beginner has something to teach me.

8. Experience the moment fully. Have you ever taken a small kid to the movies for the first time? Everything is amazing for them. They stare at the bright lights in the foyer. They investigate each popcorn with great concentration. They stare at everyone sitting around them. They flinch when the music starts. They scramble on to your lap when the monster appears on screen. They laugh out loud when it’s funny. They live each moment.

Just imagine living like that! Most of the time we live in a daydream in which we think of the past, and dream of the future. Meanwhile life runs on without us. Without us being present, that is. We miss so much when we live in a daze. Beginner’s Mind allows us to take it all in. Then even ordinary things begin to shine.

9. Disregard common sense. ‘Common sense’ is what the culture we live in regards as ‘normal’. If inventors like Da Vinci or Edison had stayed with a ‘common sense’ mindset, our life would be very different because their inventions changed the world. In an interview Thomas Edison said about energy:

“Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine as energy. I’ll do the trick myself if some one else doesn’t get at it.”

I bet you that Edison’s fellow citizen’s thought he was crazy. “Turn sunlight into energy – how absurd!” they would have said because his idea didn’t fit with the common sense of the time.

10. Discard fear of failure. When did you last start something new? Was it maybe a while back? As children we are always starting something new. Then, as we go through our twenties, thirties, and further, we become more hesitant about being a beginner again. Why? Maybe because we don’t want to look silly when we fail.

There are always plenty of people ready to snigger when we take the first wobbly steps. But it’s our choice whether to take notice or not.

11. Use the spirit of enquiry. Beginner’s Mind is about using the spirit of enquiry – without getting stuck in preconceived ideas. There’s a Zen story about this:

A professor once visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.

“The cup is full!” said the professor. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said the master, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

You can see how this story applies not only to learning about Zen, but to learning about anything at all. The spirit of enquiry is the mind that is open to the unknown, and empty of pre-conceived ideas.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have a sense of how precious Beginner’s Mind is. It can transform the way we experience life. It makes life exciting and fresh, and keeps us young and eager to learn.

However, there are some questions that are still unresolved in my mind. The main one is: what about goal setting? Doesn’t that clash with Beginner’s Mind? Goal setting is about imagining the future, and building one’s life around one’s hopes and expectations. Personally, I aspire to Beginner’s Mind, and I set goals. But it sometimes feels like a culture clash. What’s your sense of this?

Let’s have a conversation. What’s your experience of Beginner’s Mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Mary Jaksch is a Zen master, psychotherapist, and author. She’s a Karate Black Belt, and loves dancing Argentine tango in skimpy dresses. Read Mary’s blog, Goodlife Zen.

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