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.
“One conscious breath -in and out- is a meditation.”
Did you know that out of all the systems in the body, the respiratory system is the only one that can be controlled either consciously or unconsciously? By choosing to consciously control what is usually an unconscious process, you can change unconscious patterns in your thinking. Want to change the way you respond to things that trigger you to anger, fear, or shame? Start with the way you breathe. Notice if you’re holding your breath or breathing shallowly during stressful situations, then make a conscious choice to breathe more deeply and more fully.
When talking about breath, we can’t neglect addressing prana, which is tied to our breath. “Prana” is a Sanskrit word meaning “life force”. It represents absolute, divine energy. According to ancient masters, “Prana is a mystical force that is found in all living physical entities, but which is non-physical. It is in the air without being air. It is in water without being water. it is in food without being food.” Ancient sages taught that wherever there is life, there is prana. They also taught that each person is allotted a number a breaths for their lifetime, and that conscious breathing would lengthen a person’s lifespan. Scientifically, this is true, because mindful breathing over time is shown to reduce stress, which is linked to a large assortment of chronic health problems.
Pranayam is the use of breathing techniques to control the movement of prana- the life force energy- through our bodies. Though prana comes into our bodies with the air, it doesn’t necessarily go to the lungs. Prana can be directed to different areas of the body through conscious breathing. Even a slight change in the way your breathe can change the way you feel and see the world. If you want to change your mental or emotional state, change your breath. Do these breath exercises in bed, seated at your desk, in the car, while making dinner, as part of a more formal meditation, or even discretely during a stressful workday (which for me includes my writing and working from home time, running my kids around during carpool, studying, cooking, and running the household). Here are my favorite 3 simple go-to pranayama, or breathing exercises:
North- South Breathing (aka Alternate Nostril Breathing)
This breathing technique puts the mind and body into harmony. It balances the right and left hemispheres of your brain. I love to use this pranayam to start my meditation time, and it is also extremely helpful to remain calm and grounded during transition times, such as ending the workday and moving into family time, before public speaking, or shifting into productivity mode. North-South breathing helps create a sense of well-being, and can even help mitigate headaches and other stress-related symptoms. Here’s how to do it:
- Use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril, and gently and fully inhale through the left nostril.
- Then close the left nostril with the index finger of your right hand and exhale through the right nostril.
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
- Continue repeating, alternating nostrils after each inhalation- so you exhale and inhale on one side, then switch and do the same on the other side, alternating which side you are breathing on.
- As you alternate sides, visualize the air passing in and out as a cleansing light.
- Complete 12 complete rounds of North- South breathing.
*Breathing through the left nostril is associated with Calmness, Empathy, Sensitivity.
*Breathing through the right nostril is associated with Concentration, Alertness, Readiness-for-action, Willpower
This breath technique is a lifesaver during frustrating and stressful situations, especially ones that trigger anger and powerlessness. Best of all, it is sooooo simple.
- Breathe in slowly for 7 counts, then breathe out for 11 counts (You are free to alter the numbers and do any variation of this).
The important thing is that you are breathing out for a longer time period than you are breathing in. This may take a little practice but you don’t need to count slowly- it should be comfortable. The trick is to space your breathing so that you are inhaling and exhaling evenly over the 7 or 11- count span. By emphasizing exhaling during this exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. (Remember the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? The sympathetic nervous system is where your “fight or flight” response occurs- the stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting and digesting- the relaxation response.) The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heartbeat and relaxes the circulation, nerves, and digestive system. It relaxes us and promotes elimination of waste and toxins, both physically and emotionally.
Humming breath is a very soothing, anxiety- relieving breathing exercise. It is also very simple, but it might feel awkward to do around other people, so it’s best done when you won’t be worried about anyone raising their eyebrows at you. That said, it can be a very powerful experience to do Humming Breath with others in a group meditation setting.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose.
- Hum “Mmmmmmmmm” — in an even tone as you exhale. Hum until the very bottom of your exhalation, but do not strain.
- Repeat this inhale/humming exhale cycle for as long as it feels good. For some this is a few breaths, for others, a few minutes. If you’d like a set amount of time, try starting with 3 minutes.
- Finish with a few deep, normalizing breaths.
What do you think? Can you find a way to incorporate more conscious breathing into your day? We’d love to hear your experiences.
PS- Follow us on Instagram! We’ll be talking a lot more about the specifics of breath this week, so check us out for how-to videos and personal application of this information!
I recently read an op-ed article by a mental health professional asserting that meditation offered no benefits over exercise and relaxation. My first thought was “If this were true, no one would be meditating, and this huge trend wouldn’t exist!” Indeed, the National Institutes of Health report that 18 million people in the U.S. practice some form of meditation (although this is only 8% of the adult population). source After my sense of righteous indignation wore off, I made a few observations.
1. Exercise and relaxation definitely have their place as far as things that affect our mental health and well being. In the future I’ll share some of the current research showing that exercise can be more effective than anti-anxiety medication in reducing anxiety. Pretty impressive stuff. Incorporating meditation with physical activity and relaxation time would definitely decrease anxiety and stress and promote wellbeing. Here’s the thing though: the “relaxation response”- a term coined by Harvard medical professor Herbert Benson in the 1970s- is just the name for what happens physiologically in your body when you meditate. This includes changes like lowering blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, muscle tension, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the blood. So meditation evokes a relaxation response which is really an anti- stress response, or an anti- fight-or-flight response. (Read more about Herbert Benson’s research in his book, The Relaxation Response, or if you want the summarized version, here’s a great article from Psychology Today explaining his main points)
2. Your “relaxation” might not be all that relaxing…. think of the last time you had relaxation time. Were you actually consciously relaxing? If so, good for you! Or were you treating your chronic stress by “zoning out”, or engaging in numbing behaviors (including media consumption, emotional eating, or any form of substance abuse)? This kind of mindless relaxation does little, if anything, to combat the very real and harmful effects of chronic stress (which can lead to heart disease, digestive disorders, chronic stress and chronic pain, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and hypertension, just to name a few). Conscious- that is, aware, or mindful- relaxation will combat those effects through the above mentioned relaxation response.
3. We use meditation and breathing exercises (pranayam) at times to move prana (life force energy) through the body in order to achieve greater levels of peace, body energy, and to process emotions. Exercise also moves prana through the body, and it would not be a huge stretch to say that certain exercise is, in fact, a form of meditation.
4. It is worth asking ourselves what the purpose of meditation actually is. Is meditation just a means of helping our bodies chill out, or vanquishing stress? I would say… no. I think those could be reasons to start a meditation practice, and they are certainly pleasant “side effects” of meditation, but I would assert that the purpose of meditation is actually to commune with your creator, or God, or The Source, or whatever language is most descriptive of what you believe. I listened to an interview once where Deepak Chopra said that the purpose of meditation is to enter the God- space. That wording is very thought provoking. To me, the God- space is an energetic place where we can perceive the seeds of divinity within us. Being in the God- space allows us to have a truer sense of self, cultivate peace in our hearts and in the world, and see positive change in our lives by becoming truer to the version of our self that is whole, or put another way, it allows us to change our habits in ways that contribute to our happiness and well-being.
I don’t think this needs to be a question of whether to meditate or to exercise/ relax/ etc. It’s not one vs. the other. Each has pretty solid reasons behind practicing them. So is it worth it? Does meditation have any benefit over exercise and/or relaxation? That depends on you. I wouldn’t give up exercising because I meditate, and I wouldn’t give up meditating because I exercise (although the two do overlap). I will say that meditation elevates my exercise and makes my relaxation time more restorative. It is essential to my physical and emotional health. It’s way more than just relaxation. So to me, yeah, it’s totally worth it.
Hi, I'm Rochelle!
I'm glad you're here. Here's me in a nutshell.... I am a Registered Nurse, Meditation and Breathwork Educator, Mindful Jewelry Creatrix, and Bibliophile.
I live in Utah with my husband, three boys, and our dog Samwise.
I love to hike and backpack, make music and art, and have deep conversations with family and friends.
I am a recovering perfectionist and control freak. I found my way to meditation a decade ago as a way for me to address anxiety, postpartum depression, and chronic illness. Every day is a journey, and for me it's all about finding the calm inside of the chaos.