zen habits : breathe

Approaching Life with Beginner’s Mind

By Leo Babauta

A lot of our troubles could be solved by one simple practice.

A lot of joy could be found with the same practice.

And it is simple: practice seeing life with a beginner’s mind.

I’m stealing this of course from Zen Buddhism’s shoshin and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, and I’ve written about it numerous times. But it’s more fundamental than most people realize.

It’s not just something you practice when you’re learning something — though dropping the “expert’s mind” and seeing the learning as a beginner is an important practice in learning. It’s something you can practice every single moment of the day (if you can remember to do so).

What is beginner’s mind? It’s dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. If you’ve ever learned something new, you can remember what that’s like: you’re probably confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning, but you’re also looking at everything as if it’s brand new, perhaps with curiosity and wonder. That’s beginner’s mind.

But imagine if you could apply this to every activity. Take eating breakfast, for example:

As you can see, this practice of beginner’s mind transforms the activity.

Why It Matters

When you practice beginner’s mind with an activity:

As you can see, the practice of beginner’s mind can transform any activity, get rid of a lot of our difficulties, allow us to be more flexible, open, curious, grateful, present.

I’m not saying all of this happens automagically. It takes practice, but it’s worth the practice.

How to Practice

Beginner’s mind is what we practice in meditation. Instead of sitting in meditation and thinking you know what your breath will be like, or the present moment in front of you will be like … you pay attention. See it with fresh eyes. Drop your preconceived ideas and just look clearly at what’s in front of you.

A daily meditation practice is extremely useful in developing this beginner’s mind. Here’s how to practice:

  1. Sit comfortably and upright in a quiet place.
  2. Pay attention to your body, then your breath, trying to see them clearly and freshly.
  3. When you notice yourself having preconceived ideas, wandering from the present moment, thinking you know how it will be … just notice that.
  4. See if you can drop the ideas and thoughts and fantasies and stories that are filling up your head. Empty yourself so you can see what’s actually in front of you. See what your breath is actually like, right now, instead of what you think it will be or what you’re thinking about.

Repeat the last few steps, over and over. See the thoughts and fantasies, empty yourself and see what’s actually there with fresh eyes.

You can practice this right now, with whatever is in front of you. With how your body feels, how your breath feels, whatever else is around you.

You can practice whenever you do any activity, from brushing your teeth to washing the dishes to walking and driving and working out and using your phone.

You can practice whenever you talk to another human being, dropping your ideas of how they should be and instead emptying your mind and seeing them as they are. Notice their good heart, their difficulties, and be grateful for them as they are. Love them for who they are and find compassion for their struggles.

This is the practice. Do it with a smile, and with love, with fresh eyes and gratitude for the only universe we’ll ever get — the actual one in front of us.


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