What is Beginner’s Mind and Why is it so Important?

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Having myself a Ph.D. in physics and hearing what many people have to say about quantum mechanics, I am the last person to doubt the great importance of expertise. But, as we will see, beginner’s mind is not the opposite of expertise.

Beginner’s mind is a way of looking at the world free of prejudice as if it were seen for the first time. The clear advantage of this attitude is that it gives more freedom in how we react toward events.

Let me take you on a journey through Beginner’s Mind. And if you stay until the end of the article, I’ll give some tips on how you too can cultivate beginner’s mind in your life.

What exactly is Beginner’s mind?

The richness of present-moment experience is the richness of life itself. Too often we let our thinking and our beliefs about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they really are. We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extra-or­dinariness of the ordinary. To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what has been called “beginner’s mind,” a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Beginner’s mind is a concept that is very important in zen Buddhism. There, it is called ‘shoshin’. There is a very famous book by Shunryu Suzuki on this topic. It is called ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s mind is a mind that tries to look at the world as if it is ever new. For this to happen, you need to let go of your pre-conceptions. Most of them anyway.

But, you might object, the world is not always new. I look around and it looks just the same as yesterday.

Well, on the macro level, you can say that indeed, the world did not change a lot.

But look at all the details. Flowers have grown or have decayed. People that yesterday were happy are now sad and vise versa. It might have been raining yesterday and now the sun is shining.

Ok, Ok, a few things have changed. So what?

Exploring Beginners mind

Any new skill is exciting. And it is also when you are a beginner that you can make the most progress. Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks

To convince you of the importance of beginner’s mind, I’d like to take you down a trip down memory lane. Remember when you first got something you really enjoyed buying or receiving. Remember how excited you were?

It was nice and shiny and you were all excited about it. You showed it to your friends and they also really liked it. It was a great time.

But what happened next? A few weeks later it becomes habitual. Sometimes it only takes a few days for the new to be gone.

We have seen it all and it is just some other tool. It does not give us the same joy or satisfaction anymore.

When I got my very first smartphone, I took two days off from work just to be able to play with it. I tested every option and installed dozens of applications to test how this thing was working. Oh man, I was so in love 😉

What if we could keep a part of this initial enthusiasm? Not all, obviously. That would be too intense. But what if we could keep the joy of seeing our smartphone or jewel? Anew, fresh every day.

Wouldn’t that increase our well-being? I know it would.

The reverse argument in favor of beginner’s mind.

All beginnings are difficult. Just persevere, one stitch at the time, and this will turn into a scarf. Image courtesy of Will

We cannot experience beginner’s mind if we do not let go of our judgments and pre-conceptions.

Most of what is said in the meditation traditions, like mindfulness, is to let us experience more joy and more freedom.

When we let go of how we think the situation is, or how a certain person is, this gives us both more joy and freedom.

Let’s take the example of a person you dislike for some reason.

Usually, only the sight of this person makes us go bananas. We start to fret about what they will say or do next. Often, this is sufficient to ruin the afternoon, or even the whole day.

What if we were able to look at this person with fresh eyes. Sure, they might disappoint us again. But it might be one of these rare days where they are nice to us. Looking at them with all of our prejudices would make us miss this beautiful occasion.

What Beginners’s mind isn’t

Wise men don’t judge – they seek to understand.

Wei Wu Wei

Looking at things as if everything is new does not mean we start to act like we are idiots and let people take advantage of us for the n-th time. Or that we walk into dangerous situations when we clearly know it is dangerous.

We have gained a lot of experience and this has clearly enriched our lives. So we really need to take advantage of our knowledge and expertise.

As in the quote, the aim of beginner’s mind is to be open to the possibilities of whatever is happening in the present moment and to add this on top of the understanding we already had of the world.

What is the importance of Beginner’s Mind?

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

 Arthur C. Clarke: Law 1 and 2 of Clarkes three laws

I really like Arthur C. Clarke. He is the writer of the book ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’, which was turned into a classic movie by Stanley Kubrick.

Clarke is also known for his 3 laws, of which I here cite the number 2. And to me, it perfectly captures 2 aspects of beginner’s mind.

I was made aware of the working these laws by an old physics professor whose name I long forgot. As a young Ph.D. student, I attended a conference and one of the old professors gave an overview talk of his field and the advances made since he joined, 40 years earlier.

But he ended his talk to be always on the lookout for what you did not expect. He warned us that, yes, we should investigate the obvious (we should not miss the obvious!), but if we stopped at that, we would miss the unexpected.

And it is in the unexpected that the great rewards were lying. And he gave a few examples of things that were discovered in this way.

It was his way of stating that we need to be careful to not fall in the trap of confirmation bias.

According to wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or support one’s prior personal beliefs or values

As you can see, cultivating shoshin is a way to counteract this fundamental tendency we have as humans. And even revered elderly professors acknowledge that.

Beginner’s mind is an excellent remedy for all kinds of biasses we have in our lives. Photo courtesy of Trending Topics 2019

What beginner’s mind can mean in your life

What benefits can you expect in your life when you develop this fundamental capacity?

  • Less prejudice: as you start approaching events with an open mind, you will see that your tendency to judge the situation as bad or good, will lessen. According to Buddhists, this tendency is one of the main sources of our suffering.
  • Improved relationships: people will love you for being open to them. Furthermore, when you start to really listen to what people have to say, they really do notice. Usually, they like you better.
  • Reduced anxiety: fear of fear, or fear of what might happen are greatly reduced when practicing shoshin.
  • Less procrastination: as our fear of the new and daunting task is reduced, we start to work more easily.
  • Greater flow: As you drop how things should be, they can be what they are. You can then enter this blissful zone called flow where you just do what you need to do. But the important thing about flow is that is always (yes, always) associated with greater well-being.
  • More fun: when I go to a party and I do not feel like it, I usually do not have a lot of fun. However, when I make up my mind to just ‘go with the flow’, the experience is much improved 9 times out of 10.

Exercises to develop Beginner’s mind

There is absolutely no better way to practice beginner’s mind than meditation. Any kind of meditation.

In my post with tips to improve your meditation, I share a recipe for meditations sessions with a purpose.

The purpose can be different at each session, but I’d advise taking the same purpose for at least a week or 2.

So, taking beginner’s mind is a great purpose for meditation. Actually, I always take on shoshin as an extra purpose. If I do not remind myself, I get frustrated because the meditation is going as I expected. Or is not as deep as last time.

It learned me to be humble also.

Informal exercises.

There are a lot of informal meditation practices you can use to develop beginner’s mind. Here are a handful.

  • Notice when you judge: whenever that happens, go in analysis mode. you should question the thoughts. By this I mean you should ask the question to yourself: “Am I absolutely sure that … is true?”. Also remember that for any opinion you have, somebody has the exact opposite opinion. So who is to tell who is right?
  • Get curious: try to actively discover the new in some person or place or event that you are really familiar with. In the beginning, it will be hard to come up with something, but you will be really surprised when the ideas start coming in. This is a great way to develop your creativity. A great bonus.
  • Play dumb: pretend that you do not know anything about the topic. This is very similar to the previous one, but now, you can ask ‘naive questions’. You might feel a little hesitant to do this at first, but once you get over this, this is a lot of fun. My experience is that very often you ask better questions when you do this.
  • Notice when you say ‘should’: ‘should’ is a telltale sign that you are not in shoshin! When you notice you dong that, reflect on the situation and try to find something new.
  • Do a silly walk: I love Monty Python’s silly walk. When you do a silly walk, you will hear the ‘shoulds’ scream in your head. An excellent occasion to practice!

Concluding words

Thanks for reading this article. It is embedded in a larger series on the 9 attitudes that are foundational to mindfulness.

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.