(Photo used with permission by Dave McLellan)
Shoshin: A Beginner’s Mind
If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism which means “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin
I spent much of my life striving to be an expert. I earned a doctoral degree. I consulted with major organizations. I coached executives. I taught in several universities. All of these endeavors require expertise. Now, however, I’ve left all that behind in order to live a simpler, more mindful life during my retirement. Why am I doing that? Because the striving for expertise was really about the search for my life’s meaning. When, after many years of working hard, the day finally came when I could acknowledge that I WAS considered an expert in my field, I was struck with the shocking realization that I still had not achieved an understanding of my life’s meaning. Expertise, or any goal that depends on acknowledgment, recognition, reward, or feedback from outside ourselves in order to be considered legitimate, isn’t real.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with goals and I’m proud of my career. For the most part, I am happy with my choice of how to make a living. However, just the recognition that my career was nothing more than a way to make a living, was an epiphany for me. Interestingly, I never accorded the same amount of personal significance to my roles of wife and mother. I remember Jim telling me that his late wife, who was his high school sweetheart, wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Their empty nest, many years later, hit her very hard. When my daughter left for college, it didn’t bother me at all. I was proud of her and looked forward to hearing about all her activities. Truth be told, I hoped I could relive my love of learning and career through her. What hit me hard was the realization that she had her own life journey to take on. Sigh.
Isn’t my journey in mindfulness just a replacement for my earlier goals? I don’t think so, or at least, I hope not. Having a beginner’s mind is an important component of living mindfully. To have a beginner’s mind is to look at things as if we are seeing them for the first time, with curiosity. It helps us to see things in a new light, rather than automatically respond to them with the same old patterns of thinking and behavior – the opposite of “expertise.”
Living our lives as if we always “know” keeps us in the past and denies the possibilities and the delights of discovery in each moment as we experience them. One way to make the shift into beginner’s mind is to practice responding to questions with “I don’t know.” For example, Jim thinks of me as an expert in how to raise dogs since I’ve had many furry friends in my life. The other day he asked me why our two Welsh Terriers prefer each other’s food to their own. I have some “educated” guesses as to why but I resisted my usual impulse to reply in an authoritative manner. Instead, I just said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t even add any advice like I usually would, such as “let’s google that question.” Phew – what a relief it was not to have to be the teacher, the voice of experience, the expert!
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should deliberately deny others, or ourselves, the benefit of what we’ve learned in life. I’m only suggesting that letting go of old habits can often enable us to experience life anew without judgments or frozen perspectives. We can newly experience each moment with curiosity, appreciation, and creativity. That is much of what mindfulness offers. Here’s a short story that really speaks to me.
A Story: Empty Your Cup
“A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
An Exercise in Beginner’s Mind
- Look around your bedroom and find one object that you have had for a long time— something that is very familiar to you. It may be a wall hanging, book, plant, or even a piece of clothing.
- Sit down somewhere you can view the object you have chosen, close your eyes (if this feels comfortable), and take a few deep breaths. Set your intention to cultivate beginner’s mind.
- Open your eyes and look at the object you have chosen. Imagine you are from Mars and have never seen anything like it before. Really look at the object without judging it.
- Notice the unique qualities of the object. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Where does it catch shadows or reflect light?
- Continue to really examine the object. Do you notice anything about it that you hadn’t noticed before?
- When you are done looking at the object, reflect on this exercise. Did you learn anything new about the object you chose? What would it mean if we were able to approach everything in our lives with beginner’s mind? Are there objects, people, or situations that you tend to react to “automatically,” as if you already know what they are?