How, When and Why to use the ‘Beginner’s Mind’ Practice

Having a ‘beginner’s mind’ means training yourself to view your current, past and future experiences with greater openness and flexibility.

The practice is beneficial for a variety of reasons, but generally speaking, it will increase your joy quota, and decrease your anxiety/worry quota.

A lot of us behave like know-it-alls when experiencing our lives, which sets us up for negativity. The beginner’s mind practice helps you to approach things with curiosity, rather than your preconceived ideas.

Approaching things with a beginner’s mind helps you to cultivate humility, which is one of the self-knowledge muscles. Over time, it makes you more capable of learning and growth, and more positive, creative, and resilient.

Here’s the whats, hows and whys of this cool little practice.

Where did beginner’s mind come from?

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin, is from Zen Buddhism. Originally it referred to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level.

The concept was extended beyond studying scenarios into the wider perspective of meaning dropping expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind and fresh eyes.

Consider the curiosity and wonder of a child engaged in learning something new. That’s beginner’s mind.

How exactly does it help with anything?

Why I love beginner’s mind:

  • I’ll use beginner’s mind during my daily activities because it helps me to be more engaged in life and less in my head. Look around you and you’ll see that most people are living somewhere between their head and their smartphone. When I am out walking, even on familiar routes, I like to pretend it’s the first time. I feel better for having been present, and I always notice new things in my surroundings. 
  • Shunryu Suzuki said “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” In other words, when you think you know all there is to know about something, you stop being open to learning and new possibilities. Cultivating a beginner’s mind helps me to listen to people and pay attention when otherwise I’d probably switch off.
  • Practicing beginner’s mind helps me to find a perspective when I’m dealing with bad news and difficult emotions such as frustration and sadness. I find that by reminding myself of how little I know in the grand scheme of things, it helps me to accept certain situations.
  • I’ll also use beginner’s mind to help me to be more compassionate and understanding of others. By seeing people with “fresh eyes”, it helps me to relate in a more open-hearted way instead of believing in my own interpretations.

How do you practice ‘beginner’s mind’

It’s basically a case of ‘just do it’, and do it as often as you remember. As I mentioned, I like to practice beginner’s mind with every day activities such as walking, yoga and interacting with my people, and I apply the attitude when I am contemplating current challenges too.

Here are a few specific ways and/or occasions to practice:

Notice judgments and opinions more, and question them

A simple place to start is by embracing more openness with regard to your judgments (and really, everything is a judgment). Noticing opinions relies on a capacity for mindfulness or meta-cognition.

Try the ‘I don’t know’ mind contemplation

The author Jack Kornfield has a powerful contemplation that asks you to consider all the things within and around you that you don’t fully understand. This is great for getting a perspective.

Jack Kornfield’s I Don’t Know contemplation, from Wise Heart:

Use this practice to bring wisdom to a situation of inner or outer conflict. Initially begin by sitting. Later you can practice in social situations.

Sit quietly and easily, focusing on your breath or body. When you feel settled, bring to mind a time ten years ahead. Recognize that you don’t know what will happen then. Feel the not knowing and relax with it. Think of the earth spinning through space with hundreds of thousands of people being born and dying every day. Where does each life come from? How did it start? There are so many things we don’t know. Feel the truth of don’t know mind, relax and become comfortable with it.

Now, bring to mind a conflict, inner or outer. Be aware of all the thoughts and opinions you have about how it should be, about how they should be. Now recognize that you don’t really know. Maybe the wrong thing will lead to something better. You don’t know.

Consider how would it be to approach yourself, the situation, the other people with don’t know mind. Feel it. Don’t know. Not sure. No fixed opinion. Allow yourself to want to understand anew. Approach it with don’t know mind. With openness. How does don’t know mind affect the situation? Does it improve it, make it wiser, easier? More relaxed?

Practice don’t know mind until you are comfortable resting in uncertainty, until you can do your best and laugh and say “Don’t know.”

‘Yes, no, maybe’ practice

Another suggestion, from Deepak Chopra, is when considering anything, use ‘yes, no, maybe.’ I’m not saying become wishy-washy and indecisive; just consider that few things in life are black-and-white.

Pay attention to sensations

Try taking a beginner’s mind towards whatever you’re feeling. Be curious about sensations accompanying your emotions. In this way, beginner’s mind can help you to improve your emotional health.

Use it when you are talking to people who you tend to struggle with

Blogger Leo Babuta says “You can practice whenever you talk to another human being, dropping your ideas of how they should be and instead emptying your mind and seeing them as they are.”

Go be a newbie

Finally, you could actually go do something that you are a complete beginner at. That’s probably the fastest way to remind yourself how it feels to be full of alive and full of rapturous attention.

I really recommend Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice for more inspiration on cultivating a beginner’s mind.

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