In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
– Zen master Shunryu Suzuki
Have you ever wondered how children can laugh wholeheartedly at the same magic trick over and over again? As if it’s happening for the first time? It’s because they’re right there in the moment, without any evaluation or expectation. No matter how many times they see it, it’s something magical every time.
Athletes, executives, and people working in high-risk situations strive to cultivate this “fresh everytime” attitude. It’s essential for top performance, for responsiveness and understanding. Without it, the tendency is we project our previous experiences, and in the process miss what’s actually happening.
First time every time
In Zen Buddhism, this highly valued mindset is called “beginner’s mind”, or Shoshin. It refers to a state of openness and an absence of preconceptions when learning and practicing an activity – even at an advanced level. The practitioner maintains the same level of curiosity and openness a beginner would have.
No matter how many thousands of times a karate student has practiced a kata, she puts her whole mind and soul into it every time. Regardless of how expert we might be in a given field, having beginner’s mind would mean we approach a situation openly, without layering on our knowledge. Even after climbing hundreds of rock faces, so the whole activity is routine and familiar, a climber with beginner’s mind would approach each new wall with complete curiosity and clear awareness.
Instead of enclosing ourselves into what we know about life, ourselves, others, and situations, we stay open to a myriad of possibilities. This allows us to be flexible, responsive and collaborative.
Modern psychology agrees
A series of experiments conducted by Professor Victor Ottati from Loyola University of Chicago showed that “self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition.” In other words, those who define themselves as experts are more likely to be closed-minded. We’ve all probably experienced having dinner with a group, when one of the members was an “expert” on something, and made it impossible for others to express their views on something, or wouldn’t accept a different position. Maybe it was us!
Business Magnate and legendary entrepreneur Steve Jobs, who practiced Zen meditation, said meditation taught him to concentrate and ignore distractions, as well as to trust intuition and curiosity — “beginner’s mind” — and avoid over analysis and preconceptions. Intuition and curiosity are essential for creativity and problem solving. How can we think outside the box when we perceive things formulaically, or as a repeatable equation, like two plus two always resulting in four?
Always a beginner’s yoga
Beginner’s mind can keep our yoga practice (and life!) interesting and alive. Each pose is a new experience. Each breath is a new beginning. Each meeting is a new encounter. We take nothing for granted.
We stop living on default mode, on automatic pilot. We also stop moving in an unconscious manner, just cruising through a set sequence of poses that provides us with us sense of control over the body. Instead, our curiosity takes us deeper and deeper, to increasingly refined experiences.
Steps to cultivating Beginner’s mind
Here are four simple steps for developing this mindset in your yoga practice.
#1. Fresh approach
Cultivating beginner’s mind starts before you’ve even unrolled your yoga mat. How are you approaching your practice? Are you stuck in some sort of unconscious habitual pattern? Just plodding into a room, unrolling your mat and bashing out a sequence? Is yoga still your teacher or has it become something you DO each day? There’s a subtle distinction here.
Take some time to reflect on your practice, and consider how you can infuse it with a greater sense of the sacred. Maybe developing a ritual before you begin or doing 10 minutes of meditation beforehand to empty out will help freshen it up.
#2. Release the know-it-all
Let go of “knowing the pose” and dive into the direct experience of it, from moment to moment. This means our physical experience stops being predetermined. Instead, we are willing to not know, to NOT be an expert yogi who has seen it all before, but to instead open up to new possibilities. This doesn’t mean we toss away our learning; that would be foolish. It means we temporarily shelve it so we can be fully with our present moment experience.
#3. Accept the edginess
Accept feeling awkward and edgy when experiencing the unknown. We tend to hang on to our past patterns and frames of reference. It’s a coping mechanism we have developed to maintain a sense of equilibrium when learning something new or in an unfamiliar situation. We often react and dismiss: ‘This is not what I know, and it’s scary and unusual so I don’t like it!’. Before we can experience something fully, and enfold it into our being, we have to release our fear and resistance to it. Ironically, the way we do this is by jumping in the deep end, so to speak, and fully opening ourselves to it. Make space and allow yourself to experience the new!
#4. Back to basics
Continue returning to the basics, staying with the fluctuations of body and mind as they’re happening in each moment. Attend to what is, not what you think should be. One way to encourage this constant returning to basics, is by peppering your yoga practice with mini-meditations. These can last for one to three minutes. During each one, return to your breath, bodily and concrete sensations. Ask yourself, what your practice need at that moment?
The year of beginner’s mind
In the time between our first breath at birth and our last at death, we have an opportunity to stand on our two feet, with stability, grace and ease, and to settle into each moment with kindness and live our lives fully, with love and respect for everything and everyone around us.
Beginner’s mind is essential for this way of life. Without it, we largely see the world through our own projections and filters. Ultimately, in the worst case, this can lead to prejudice and hate. Something the world needs a lot less of.
This is why I’m making an intention to make 2018 the year of the beginner’s mind. Join me. Together, let’s cultivate this state of mind and discover a more spacious and inclusive way of being, open to new perspectives and possibilities for our lives. That’s where the magic happens!