What is the beginner’s mind?
The Beginner’s Mind refers to openness, curiosity, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. It’s a concept I encourage my students and coaching clients to embrace when writing to make the most of the creative process.
The term comes from the world of Zen Buddhism and the concept of, Shoshin, which is a way of looking at every situation as if it were new to you.
The late Shunryu Suzuki wrote about Shoshin in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“If your mind is empty … it is open to everything. There are many possibilities in the beginner’s mind, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.“
Recently, I spent a week dogsitting for my daughter’s 7-month-old puppy, Nelly. Watching her on our daily walks, I was struck by her profound curiosity, even about the things that scared her. Much as I encourage my writers to follow their “first ideas,” Nelly was an expert at picking up a scent and following it to the next one and the next—open and curious about everything around her.
You were once a beginner at life.
If you watch how children play, they do it with intense curiosity, wonder, and amazement. A child navigates the world without preconceived ideas and expectations that limit their perspective—everything is new and exciting.
I used to call my young daughter the “why, why girl” for her constant questioning of everything. This is what children do; they learn by asking what, why, and how. They haven’t yet learned to pretend they know the answers. They are beginners, and they’re okay with it.
As children, we played “pretend” by tapping into the world of make-believe. As adults, we pretend we know what we don’t know, thereby shutting down the avenue to exploration and learning. While an expert might know a lot about any given subject, the expert mindset limits our access to the world of possibilities.
Years ago, I took a sculpting class where one of our first assignments was to sculpt a head. Sure, I know how to do this, I thought as I placed a large lump of clay at one end of my dining table. Later that afternoon, my adolescent daughter found me near tears staring at a misshapen mound. When she asked me what was wrong, I replied that I didn’t know how to do it, couldn’t do it, and was no good at it.
“Mom,” she said, “that’s why you’re taking the class, so you can learn how to do it.”
In thinking back on that day, I realize that if I’d come at it from a beginner’s perspective, for that is what I was, rather than from an I’m-already-an-expert standpoint, I probably would have had a good time learning a new skill. Once I let go of the pretense that I knew what I was doing, I had a great time learning to sculpt clay— and even produced something that looked like a human head.
Being an expert comes with limitations.
Have you ever had the experience where something you once enjoyed has lost its luster, become boring, and left you feeling stuck or in a rut? Are you an expert in something but find it increasingly difficult to have clarity about or find solutions for new challenges?
Cultivating a beginner’s mind is a great way to get unstuck. You see your situation through a new lens that engenders curiosity, playfulness, and a sense of wonder.
Even for the expert, a beginner’s perspective can open the mind to creative problem-solving and a fresh perspective on familiar problems. There is always something new to learn, and the beginner’s mind can help you access the new and exciting.
The beginner’s mindset is also helpful in freeing yourself from expectations, whether about a relationship, work, friends, or even how a particular dish should taste. When you can approach a situation without expectations, you are free to enjoy what’s in front of you with curiosity, wonder, and gratitude.
Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but I believe it’s worth the effort. Give it a try, and you’ll see what I mean.
Here are five suggestions to help cultivate this neutral, puppy-like Zen beginner’s mind.
1. Awareness is key to cultivating the beginner’s mind.
Being aware of what’s going on in your mind (for better or worse) is essential if you want to create space for your beginner to bloom.
Be curious about the narrative you’re hearing concerning how you should feel and what you expect to happen. Shoulds and expectations fill our lives, and it’s worth taking the time to sort through them to see if they actually serve you.
Think about how often you jump to conclusions when someone doesn’t show up for you as you expected or an event unfolds in an unexpected direction. Do you immediately think negatively—they’re mad at me, or did I make a mistake coming here?
Make it a habit to question your reactions and attitudes. Don’t make yourself wrong for having them but be curious. Without awareness and curiosity, nothing is likely to change. Suppose you can focus on the bare essentials of an event rather than the narrative around it. In that case, you’re one step closer to the beginner’s mind.
2. Slowing down is key to cultivating the beginner’s mind.
Meditation is one of the fastest routes to experiencing the beginner’s mind. There are many meditation styles and many websites and books to support your efforts. Meditation is slowing down and being present.
However, if meditation isn’t your thing (but give it a chance), consciously slowing down is the next best thing. There’s definitely something to that adage of “stopping to smell the roses.”
Try this. At least once a day, complete a task as slowly and consciously as possible. Luxuriate in each moment. For example, make your bed as slowly as possible and see what happens. What’s the chatter in your head telling you? How does your body feel?
3. Being in the moment is key to cultivating the beginner’s mind.
You miss so much when you are on auto-pilot and simply going through the motions. Slow down and be present with all your attention only on the task at hand. Engage your curiosity and rediscover aspects of a task you often do unconsciously.
Washing dishes is often given as an example, as it’s something we’ve done forever and probably rushed through. Try being present with every fiber of your being. Engage your senses; what do you feel, hear, see and touch? Take your time, rediscovering every aspect of the task.
Act with intention and live in the present moment throughout the entire experience.
4. Change your routine to cultivate the beginner’s mind.
If you’ve traveled much, you know that a change in scenery can be refreshing and invigorating. You see the new sights with wonder and might even begin to look around with a fresh perspective. Sometimes, this new perspective travels home with you and becomes incorporated into your daily life resulting in new ideas and directions.
This refreshment can be practiced easily daily without going anywhere by changing your routine.
If you have a regular daily walk, change the route, even if it’s only to veer down a side street for a minute or two. Do you always wash in the same pattern every time in the shower, feet first, then work your way up? Try the reverse. Do you always order the same meal in a particular restaurant? Try a new dish.
Being open to new ways of doing things is essential in cultivating the beginner’s mind.
5. Let go of preconceived ideas to cultivate the beginner’s mind.
The art of “not-knowing” is something you want to embrace. When you have a preconceived idea of what a particular outcome should be, it ties you to that outcome and doesn’t leave room for discovery. Letting go of the outcome and what you think should happen opens you to a world of potential and surprises.
I talk about this often with my coaching clients and writing students. If you can permit yourself to “not-know” when working on a storyline, developing a character, or exploring ideas, you’re likelier to hit that vein of inspiration.
Cultivating a beginner’s mind allows you to see the world around you with fresh eyes, and it engenders joy, playfulness, wonder, inspiration, and creativity. Let me know how it goes.