Do you ever roll your eyes when you hear about the concept of “Beginner’s Mind”? Like if I just suspend judgement for a moment and make-believe that I’m a baby and don’t know anything at all, suddenly everything in my life will be solved. Riiight.
Well…kind of, actually.
As humans, we are experts at drawing lines from A to B and finding patterns that make life more efficient with subconscious lightning quick speed. We’ve done it since the moment we were born and we do it constantly throughout the day – if we are having a conversation with a relative we find annoying, we know how we are going to feel about what they say before they’ve even said it. In fact, this plays out in our conversations all the time: Try and have a conversation, or better yet, an argument, where you don’t think at all about what you are going to say until the other person is completely finished speaking. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
So how do we learn to differentiate between patterns that serve us, don’t exist, and patterns that we can trust and use with good judgement?
You guessed it: Beginner’s Mind.
Did you know that studies have shown that one of the reasons children are better at learning a second language than adults is that they aren’t afraid of making mistakes in front of fluent speakers of the language they are trying to learn? Adults, on the other hand, fear failure or looking like they aren’t proficient at something and shy away from taking risks in front of other adults while learning the language. Think about that. It’s in the creativity and even wrong use of the rules that children become experts while most adults never achieve mastery. It’s in the willingness to not be the expert that children gain a better understanding!
As soon as we view ourselves as the teacher or expert, we stunt our growth because we stop learning. When we approach a situation, even a mundane every day task like eating an apple, with curiosity and mindfulness, we experience things far beyond what someone who assumes they know what that apple tastes like and what the experience will be when they eat it. That same principle translates to our relationships with others and especially with ourselves.
Pausing for a moment when our child asks a question we already have a formulated answer to. Eating breakfast while aware of the tastes and sensations, even thinking about where it came from. Taking a breath and observing why we are so critical of ourselves in a certain area. Waiting to formulate a response in our own head when someone else is talking are all forms of Beginner’s Mind. Often when I try to listen to someone else without thinking of a response I am surprised to find that my response is a question rather than a statement. The conversation takes me places I wouldn’t have expected, and I learn from it.
Beginner’s Mind comes from Zen Buddhism, which has an ancient legend that illustrates this beautifully. The story goes that there was once a wise Zen Master who people came from far and wide to seek wisdom from. One day a person of high social status came to him, asking the Zen Master to show him the way to Enlightenment and teach him more about Zen. The Zen Master invited him in for tea and while the Zen Master prepared the tea, the man began talking extensively about all of his knowledge regarding Enlightenment. He droned on and on, clearly feeling very pleased with himself. As the Zen Master began to pour the tea in the man’s cup, he continued pouring even as it filled to the brim and spilled over, even going so far as to continue pouring when it began to pour onto the man’s beautiful and expensive robes. The man exclaimed “Stop! Stop! You fool, what are you doing?!” The Zen Master replied, “Your mind is like this cup, so full it cannot hold anything else. No new ideas or thoughts. Come back to me when you have emptied your mind and I will teach you about Enlightenment.”
Beginner’s Mind is not abandoning reason or common sense. It’s making space in our cup to discover new solutions, experiences, and relationships. Instead of assuming that we learned everything we needed to know in the first few years of our life, we are open to limitless possibilities. It’s simply suspending judgement for the moment – the judgements we make so quickly we don’t even realize we are making them – and instead being curious about a situation. When we do that, we open up just a little space to possibly learn something. We stop the exhausting ritual of resisting anything that doesn’t immediately fit with our perception of life and pause. Relax. Learn.