Beginner’s mind and the Zen practice of curiosity
We often miss creative solutions to life’s challenges because we’re literally too smart for our own good. What if you were to see life through the eyes of a beginner? This is the Zen approach everyone is obsessing over.
How many ways can you use a shoe? Most people can name a dozen. Geniuses can rattle off hundreds. You could once do the same. Then you were taught the “right” way to use shoes. Hit reset by embracing a beginner’s mind and unleash new levels of creativity and happiness.
Looking for unusual ways to use a shoe or paperclip isn’t just for TV quiz shows. One of several ways scientists track a person’s level of genius is by measuring the person’s ability to see a situation from different perspectives, and thereby come up with new answers and solutions.
Sociologists say 98 percent of kindergarten kids are geniuses. But by the time we’re 10 years old, our genius levels plummet by 50 percent. It only gets worse with age.
In a Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine article, researchers hypothesize that this is due to “a conveyor-belt education” that tells children there’s one answer, and only one, at the back of the textbook.
This has become so ingrained in each of us that we’ve lost our ability to see the alternatives right under our noses.
We’ve gone blind to the joy hidden in the present moment. We’ve stifled the unbounded creativity we see in children.
In the 1970s, Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki proposed an idea. Today, people are taking notice.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
So wrote Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shambhala, 2011), which popularized the Zen Buddhism concept of shoshin (“beginner’s mind”) in the West.
“Beginner’s mind is a mind free of preconceptions and habitual reactions, open to fully experiencing the present moment,” says Myoshin Kate McCandless, the co-guiding teacher at Mountain Rain Zen Community. “Of course, we accumulate experience and knowledge as we go through life, but with beginner’s mind we don’t become rigid in our attitudes and behaviours.”
You won’t just find people talking about beginner’s mind in yoga studios or meditation centres.
Doctors now argue that beginner’s mind has huge ramifications in the field of medicine. To tackle modern health problems, such as patient care or the current opioid crisis, we need to see through fresh eyes to find innovative solutions.
“It can feel alien to consider knowledge as a fluid concept,” writes the editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. “You begin to wonder what might have been achieved with the thinking of a kindergarten student.”
Meanwhile, in therapy and social work, counsellors are embracing the practice of “not knowing.” By accepting that they can’t know everything, they can better listen, ask questions, and reveal new insights.
In six experiments, researchers found that when we think we’re experts, we’re significantly more closed-minded and unwilling to consider other viewpoints or ideas.
Our culture’s modern, materialistic search for more often leaves us stressed and negatively affects our happiness and well-being. “Beginner’s mind gives us the capacity to meet each moment of our lives fully, without needing to grasp at what we want,” says McCandless.
Dave Sledzinski at the Vancouver Island Zen Sangha agrees. “We can recognize how our preconceptions cause the unbalanced, disconnected states of mind that lead to stress and anxiety,” he says.
For Sledzinski, beginner’s mind also helps him live with more compassion. He says it helped teach him how our “expertise” causes us to make judgment errors or misunderstand a situation. By living a life that’s less coloured by our personal views, we release the misunderstandings that upset us.
“We learn to appreciate uncertainty of life, and make choices from a place of kindness and compassion,” says Sledzinski.
That’s the complete opposite of how many of us live. We expect our careers or relationships to follow a specific path. When it veers off the trail, we feel the crush of disappointment.
When we’re facing a problem, we think there’s only the one way out. When we’re holding a tool—literally or figuratively—we think there’s just one way to use it.
It’s what psychologists call functional fixedness: mental blocks that hold us back from seeing new approaches that could make our lives better.
Beginner’s mind removes those mental blocks. “We can respond flexibly and creatively to changing circumstances, rather than being repeatedly disappointed that life isn’t going the way we want it,” says McCandless.
Simply shed what you think you know, and let yourself encounter each moment without labels, judgments, or expectations.
“You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise it,” says McCandless. “It’s a natural state, accessible to all. Just observe a child in spontaneous play, exploring their environment!”
She suggests starting with simple everyday activities such as the following.
“Let go of multitasking for five minutes, and just do one thing with all your senses engaged,” she says.
“Try eating a muffin as though you have never eaten one before,” says McCandless. “Notice how it looks, smells, tastes, the texture, the sensations of chewing and swallowing.”
“Go for a walk without headphones,” she suggests. “Observe the street or the forest as though you had never seen it before.”
“Let your beginner’s mind be full of possibilities.”
Thoughts become things. Steer yourself toward a beginner’s mind with these mindfulness tips.
Pick up any object. Try to forget what you know about it, including its name. Simply observe and let curiosity come up with new forms and functions.
The labels we apply to ourselves are constricting. Each one triggers habits, thoughts, or behaviours. See the moment without the filter your identity label would put on it.
“Recognize when your mind is jumping into the future (fantasizing about how we’d like things to become) or delving into the past (worrying that things could go wrong, like they might have),” says Dave Sledzinski at the Vancouver Island Zen Sangha. “Bring your mind back. Deal with things the best that you can here in the moment.”