A Beginner’s Mind



BY JEAN MARIE JOHNSON

It was the ‘90s. I had a new job, a “new” husband, a “new” 1870s house. Well, other than the job, nothing was exactly new, but all new to me.  I threw myself into those fresh experiences with a sense of happy exhilaration and a no-time- to-lose mindset. The job was a slam-dunk, a perfect fit at the time for my experience, education, and inclinations. The rest, however, was another story. I started gardening for the first time. Thank you, Martha Stewart! I read magazines like “Old House Journal” and “Victorian Homes” to pick up on the 19thcentury esthetic, and we signed up for ballroom dancing lessons. Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I signed us up. My new husband had just returned from a long business trip and was worn out. In the meantime, I had managed to stub my big toe in a big way and was hobbling about.

“Do you still want to go?”

“Of course, why not?”

“Well, I’m pretty tired and you’re barely walking.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine, and you’ll perk up once we’re there.”

My new hubby relented and off we went. Suffice it to say that we were a mess. Between Dean being dead on his feet and me being a near facsimile of dead weight, it looked – and felt – hopeless. And even though we returned for a second, clumsy round, we didn’t seem to have the right attitude or mindset about the whole thing. We gave up.

I’ve been thinking about the starts and stops I’ve initiated and terminated, those I’ve continued with and those I’ve given up on over the years. I realize that whether or not I stayed with a given thing had everything to do with the mindset I brought to it. It’s a drain being conscious, isn’t it? Even so, as we navigate a world much changed by a global pandemic, that mindset of how we approach and experience “newness” matters more than ever. The key, I think, lies in adopting a “Beginner’s Mind.”

In Japanese, “Beginner’s Mind” is called Shoshin. It means exactly that: the mind of a true beginner. Kids bring a beginner’s mind to everything. They do so unabashedly, with relentless curiosity and imagination. They ask questions, explore, and throw themselves into the new experience, the new learning. Looking back, I realize that in terms of gardening and decorating, I did that, without having a framework or a term to define it. But as for the ballroom dancing, not so much. When we adopt a beginner’s mind we are:

  • Free of preconceived notions of what “should” be
  • Free of expectations about what will happen, or what the outcome will be
  • Filled with curiosity about what is
  • Open to possibility

I think the primary reason my later-in-life, leap of faith move to the South has been filled with so much joy is because I’ve brought a beginner’s mind to all of the newness.  Absent the “should be’s,” and the predefined desired outcomes, I have immersed myself with curiosity, suspended judgment, and been open to all possibilities. There is enormous freedom and even peace in that! No matter where you are right now, you can cultivate a beginner’s mind, one that is open to possibility. Consider these three tips:

Take the backseat in a conversation.  Suspend what you think you know to make room for new understanding and insights.

Bring a fresh set of eyes to something familiar. Imagine you are doing an everyday activity like brushing your teeth or making your bed for the first time. What do you notice?

Observe your automatic judgments. Pay attention to how often your go-to response is “that’s good” or “that’s bad.”  When we suspend those autopilot interpretations, we make room for accepting things as they are, not as we evaluate them through our own beliefs and expectations.

If your mind is empty…it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
~ Shunryu Suzuki


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