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Beginner’s Mind

“The less we know about something, the more fun we have.”-Tom Maggliozzi

Shoshin is a concept in Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of indexopenness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject or performing a task. It even applies to studying something at an advanced level, just like a beginner would. The term is most commonly applied to the study Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts, but there is probably a lot of wisdom in this concept for all of us.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are a few.”- Shunryu Suzuki

Like many Zen concepts, the phrase “beginner’s mind” is likely to be overlooked, underestimated, and possibly ridiculed for being too simplistic. In Asian culture, most things are not what they first appear to be. A second, or even a third look, often brings a deeper insight or an “a ha” moment of understanding. Most Zen concepts are designed to be pondered at first, then understood, and then applied. The idea behind beginner’s mind is that you suspend judgment, self evaluation, and assessment when taking on a new activity. You just put your ego in check and just do the exercise. Get into the experience and perform the task as non-judgementally as possible. Suspend everything you know, think you know, believe, and imagine and just do.

If you look back over the course of your life, there are probably hundreds of activities that you learned to do, and eventually do well, because you possessed beginner’s mind. You were probably much younger and not so full of yourself. You learned through imitation, in a rote manner, because you didn’t know any better. You learned to do things such as tying your shoes, tell time, (remember non digital watches?) learned algebra and foreign languages, ride a two wheel bike, and drive a car. As a child, you did not possess the inner critic that often holds you back as an adult, the questioning, critical, “yeah but..,” self-conscious aspect of your personality that takes the fun out of things.

imagesWhen an adult is trying to apply the concept of beginner’s mind, the idea is to remain open-minded and to focus on the experience rather than the outcome. Rather than judge or imagine how you must look or appear to others, focus on the process so that you can see what you experience, getting curious about what you are doing. Almost 25 years ago I began studying an Okinawan martial art known as uechi ryu karate do. Learning a traditional martial art is an incredibly interesting venture. You are learning a skill that is, in its essence, athletic, but is taught in a very non-Western manner. You are welcomed by all the students, in fact they all line up, shake your hand, and introduce themselves. You then get into formation with the rest of them and imitate what they are doing. My first teacher, Walter Mattson, started the class by telling me, “I teach as though you are looking in a mirror, so you don’t have to think ‘my right, your right,’ just follow along as best you can.” For the next two hours I learned as I did when I was a child, looking at others and following along as well as I could. Over the years I’ve seen many students attend their first class and not come back. I often wonder if they did so because they were unable to handle an activity that was focusing on the activity itself and not them.

As adults, there are probably a lot of things that we wish we did when we were younger. Many adults think that these activities are no longer possible. We suffer from the “Tyranny of the Toos,” as in, too old, too late, too tired, etc. Next time you think of an activity that you wish you learned years ago, ask yourself why you are not learning it now. My guess is that after you identify some aspect of the Tyranny of the Toos, you will have some visual of yourself fumbling and stumbling through an awkward process and evaluating yourself negatively. If you are not careful, you won’t even attempt this activity. It won’t necessarily be because you can’t do it, it’s more likely to be because your ego gets in the way. You’re probably very successful in most areas of your personal and professional life, and your ego won’t allow you to risk looking stupid, even to yourself. Too bad.

No matter how old, wise, or experienced in life that one gets we are never too old to tap into our shoshinbeginner’s mind. In uechi ryu karate do there is an expression, “Even teachers have teachers.” No matter how good one gets in the art, or how long one has been practicing, there is always an instructor to be emulated and consulted. This keeps the performance of the art on target, but more importantly, preserves beginner’s mind. Next time you’re considering that new exercise class, studying that foreign language, taking up golf, or that cooking class you thought about, ask yourself what’s holding you back. Don’t let your ego rob you of the joy and wonderment of beginner’s mind.

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”- Shunryu Suzuki



P. S. Contact me if interested in online mindbody coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

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