Beginner’s mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.

– Shunryu Suzuki

Suzuki here talks about a beginner’s mindset, which all of us can benefit from in any area of life. In many ways, it’s our natural state of mind. It’s what we see in healthy children and adults. And yet, we sometimes leave the beginner’s mindset. Why? And what can we do about it?

BEGINNER’S MIND

What Shunryu Suzuki talks about is a beginner’s mindset of receptivity, curiosity, and a readiness for learning.

In a conventional sense, we are somewhere on the beginner-expert scale in any field. We may be more or less familiar with a field than others. We may have more or less knowledge. We may be more or less skilled. And we can still adopt and benefit from the mindset of a beginner.

TWO TYPES OF EXPERT’S MIND

The expert mindset comes in two forms.

One think it knows and closes itself off from new discoveries and learning. It’s immature. And, really, it’s caught up in scary stories about what it means to be receptive and more aligned with reality. This is the one Suzuki refers to in the quote.

The other is more mature and less caught up in fearful stories. It allows the natural receptivity and curiosity of the mind to come out, and it’s consciously more aligned with reality. This is the real expert’s mind. It’s the mind of the ones who are real experts.

TWO TYPES OF BEGINNER’S MIND

Similarly, beginner’s mind comes in two forms. It can be more or less mature and skilled.

An immature beginner may think she knows more than she does. She may think she’ll learn what there is to learn quickly. She may think there is an endpoint and finishing line.

A more mature beginner knows how little she knows. She knows it takes time. She knows there is no endpoint and no finishing line. We can learn anywhere and from anyone. There is always more to learn, explore, and get to know about anything.

THE WAYS WE LEAVE BEGINNER’S MIND

We can leave beginner’s mind in several different ways. In each case, we miss out on discovering or learning something – whether it’s about a topic, others, ourselves, the world, or reality.

For instance, we meet someone who is more skilled at something than we are, this trigger a sense of lack in us, and we react to that sense of lack by telling ourselves we are an expert. We go out of receptivity, curiosity, and interest in learning.

We may be more skilled than the ones around us, they tell us we are an expert, so we tell ourselves we know. We have arrived. And here too, we go out of receptivity, curiosity, and an interest in ongoing learning.

We find ourselves in a situation where something is presented at a basic level, we tell ourselves we know better and have nothing to learn from it, so we miss out.

We find we are naturally gifted at something, float on this for a while, and miss out on real progress.

We can leave beginner’s mind in yet another way.

We tell ourselves we are no good at something, so we don’t even try.

We tell ourselves “she or he won’t like me” so we don’t even try getting to know them.

In my case, I have a pattern of telling myself “it’s too obvious and boring” when it comes to my own insights or familiarity with what I write about here. I often do it with these articles (which is a reason one of three remains unpublished even if finished). Or when I consider sharing these things in another way.

WHEN WE LEAVE BEGINNER’S MIND

If a beginner’s mind works so well, and it’s what we see in healthy children and adults, why don’t we adopt and function from it more often?

The main answer lies in our fears. We have unmet fears and unquestioned painful beliefs. Instead of befriending and exploring these, we react to them. And we react to them by telling ourselves we know and that there is safety in knowing.

We seek a sense of safety in tell ourselves we know. We feel we have something solid to rest on, even if it’s true in only a very limited sense. And this tends to close our minds. We are less open to continuing to learn.

Said another way, we take on a protective identity. Any time we identify with an identity, it’s for protection purposes. We tell ourselves that’s who we are. We find a sense of more solid footing, even if this identity may be painful. And we close down our mind by doing this. We are less receptive to what’s actually here and available to us.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Any time I notice I adopt the mindset of someone who knows, it’s a sign I go into a protective identity. I am reacting to my own fears and unquestioned beliefs. And when I notice this, I can explore it in any way that works for me.

For instance, I can use a version of the befriend & awaken process which includes elements from a range of approaches. I notice the contraction in me. Feel the physical sensations. Thank it for protecting me. Notice the painful beliefs and identities behind it, and find what’s more true for me. Explore what this part of me really needs (love, safety, being seen, support?) and give it to it. Notice that my nature is its nature. And so on. And rest in and take time with each of these.

BEGINNER’S MIND & EXPLORING WHAT WE ARE

I suspect Suzuki wasn’t only giving good life advice in the quote. He pointed to an essential orientation if we wish to explore what we are in our own first-person experience.

If we are to notice our nature, we need to set aside what we think we know about what we are. We need to set aside what we tell ourselves about what we are. And instead, notice.

And that requires beginner’s mind.

A BEGINNER’S MIND IS ALIGNED WITH REALITY

Why does the mindset of a beginner work? Why does it help us learn?

The surface answer is that receptivity, curiosity, and an open mind creates the conditions for real learning.

And the more basic reason is that it’s aligned with reality.

There is always more to learn. It’s an ongoing process.

What we think we know is always provisional and up for revision.

There is always someone else who knows more than us about a field or parts of a field.

Even beginners can know more about certain things than we do and we can learn from them.

What we humans collectively know is a drop in the ocean of what there is to know and get familiar with.

Any map – any mental representation – is a question about the world. It’s different in kind from what it refers to. It’s a simplification. And reality is always more than and different from our maps.

What we know and are familiar with is about the past. And what’s here now is fresh and different. (Even when a thought says otherwise.)

And when it comes to our nature, realizing what we are is something we can only do through direct noticing. We have to set aside what thoughts tell us and instead notice. Often guided by structured inquiry and a good guide familiar with the terrain.

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Beginner’s mind: What it is and isn’t

We are all “just starting” our spiritual journey. To believe one has advanced, by even a step, is to erase one’s own footprints before they are trodden. ?

A comment in an online group. I assume it was in response to me posting a link to The Way of Liberation by Adyashanti, and commenting that it’s a book helpful both to beginners and people further along the spiritual path. 

If spirituality is about truth and reality, then ideology doesn’t mix very well with it. We may start out with different ideologies, but we have to abandon each of them at some point. And that includes non-dual ideologies. 

The quote above is from an online group I am a member of and illustrates a non-dual ideology common in some circles. We hear something that has truth in it, and take it on as an ideology and over-apply it. 

So what is beginner’s mind? To me it’s receptivity, sincerity, curiosity. A willingness to let cherished views go when we encounter something that seems more aligned with reality.

And also, keeping an eye out for where we hold onto fixed views – usually for comfort and safety. Knowing that any thought or idea can help us orient and function in the world without having any final or absolute truth in it. 

And what is it not? It’s not being stupid. It’s not pretending we don’t know what we know (in an ordinary human limited somewhat flawed sense). It’s not discounting our experience. It’s not discounting that people have different levels – and types – of experience, maturity, clarity, wisdom, and skills. 

Ideologies can seem comforting and safe. But if we are sincere, we need to look a little closer. We need to find what’s more true for us, including that it may and probably will change as we gain more experience. 

There is truth to the quote above. We are just “starting” on our spiritual journey as there is always further to go. As what we are – that which allows and is this content of experience – we don’t advance. And our footprints are always erased as past, future, and present are ideas and not something tangible we can find anywhere. It has truth in it.

And yet, it’s not true in the sense that we don’t gain experience, and we are at different levels of insight, clarity, skills and so on. It’s also not true in the sense that all books are equally helpful to beginners and more experienced people. Books are pointers, and pointers can be seen medicine for different conditions. They apply to some people in some situations, and not to others in other situations. You wouldn’t give a Microsoft programmer a beginner’s introduction to programming. And you wouldn’t start a beginner out with the most advanced books. 

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