“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunyu Suzuki.
‘Beginner’s mind’ (or Shoshin in Zen Buddhism) is not just for first-timers. It’s an attitude and mindfulness approach that can be applied to any practice in life, whether it is truly the first or perhaps the hundredth time we’ve completed a task. A beginner’s mind is when we see things with curiosity and openness, just like a beginner experiencing something for the very first time. With this mind, we are eager and free from preconceptions of what’s to come.
Go back to a time in your life when you’ve learnt something new. Perhaps pedaling a bike without stabilizers or taking your first driving lesson. Remember that all-encompassing sensory feeling of the body and mind immersed in new information. Everything is seen with a fresh perspective, as if glazed in awe and fascination.
With repetition we, of course, become skilled and more able to complete a task with ease. Eventually reaching the point where the action can feel automatic. Turning the pedals of a bike becomes second nature and we switch gears unthinkingly when sitting behind the wheel. This is where we can apply a beginner’s mind to experience openly, as if clearing a fog in the glass before us to see plainly what is ahead.
We can apply this valuable beginners mindset to any daily activity. Imagine making a cup of tea in the morning. We do this with such regularity and routine that we hardly notice the body acting and moving through the kitchen to flick the kettle on and load a tea bag in your favourite mug. How can we approach this day-to-day process with the raw mindfulness of a true beginner?
Begin by seeing the activity with fresh eyes, erasing the hundreds of times you’ve made a brew before. Imagine arriving at this experience with no expectations.
Notice the space around you, the objects in the room. Notice the quality of light, any sounds you can hear, be them subtle or striking. Notice the sense of touch as you enact your tea making ritual, the feel of the hand lifting and pouring the water. Feel the heat of the water and notice steam rising from the kettle. Be curious. Tune in to the smallest details of the process. Appreciate that cup and the process that led to it as if it is the first cup of tea you have ever made.
By approaching the everyday with a beginner’s mind the experience is reshaped into something new and unique.
Try applying this to a routine activity in your day-to-day life by choosing something that has become habitual or mundane and breaking it down into its composite sensory experiences. Imagine it as if for the very first time. Notice how your mind becomes fully immersed in the task at hand, unable to drift into planning-mode or lingering on past encounters. The activity is transformed through a curious and present mind.
This is also a great technique to apply in a more structured present-awareness meditation. I find this particularly useful when experiencing anxiety about something in the future. Through this technique we can shift our mindset away from irrational ideas of what may happen and help us embrace the not-knowing and felt-experience of the here and now with a sense of true curiosity.
To practice beginner’s mind, or shoshin, in meditation:
While you can practice this technique at any time or place by yourself I always find it easiest to practice in a guided setting. A teacher will lead you through these prompts and cues, verbally conducting you through the process and checking you back into that present moment when our thoughts undoubtedly drift away from us.