Resource: “Beginner’s Mind”
What is beginner’s mind? It’s dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. If you’ve ever learned something new, you can remember what that’s like: you’re probably confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning, but you’re also looking at everything as if it’s brand new, perhaps with curiosity and wonder. That’s beginner’s mind.
But imagine if you could apply this to every activity. Take eating breakfast, for example:
- You start by seeing the activity of eating with fresh eyes, as if you don’t know what to expect, as if you hadn’t done it thousands of times already.
- You really look at the food, the bowl, the spoon, and try to see the details that you might not normally notice.
- You truly notice the textures, tastes, smells, sights of the food, pay close attention as if you don’t already know how the food will taste. Everything seems new, perhaps even full of wonder.
- You don’t take anything for granted, and appreciate every bite as a gift. It’s temporary, fleeting, and precious.
As you can see, this practice of beginner’s mind transforms the activity.
Why It Matters
When you practice beginner’s mind with an activity:
- Better experiences: You aren’t clouded by prejudgments, preconceptions, fantasies about what it should be or assumptions about how you already know it will be. When you don’t have these, you can’t be disappointed or frustrated by the experience, because there’s no fantasy or preconception to compare it to.
- Better relationships: If you are talking to someone else, instead of being frustrated by them because they aren’t meeting your ideal, you can see them with fresh eyes and notice that they’re just trying to be happy, that they have good intentions (even if they’re not your intentions), and they are struggling just like you are. This transforms your relationship with the person.
- Less procrastination: If you’re procrastinating on a big work task, you could look at it with beginner’s mind and instead of worrying about how hard the task will be or how you might fail at it … you can be curious about what the task will be like. You can notice the details of doing the task, instead of trying to get away from them.
- Less anxiety: If you have an upcoming event or meeting that you’re anxious about … instead of worrying about what might happen, you can open yourself up to being curious about what will happen, let go of your preconceived ideas about the outcome and instead embrace not knowing, embrace being present and finding gratitude in the moment for what you’re doing and who you’re meeting.
As you can see, the practice of beginner’s mind can transform any activity, get rid of a lot of our difficulties, allow us to be more flexible, open, curious, grateful, present.
I’m not saying all of this happens automagically. It takes practice, but it’s worth the practice.
How to Practice
Beginner’s mind is what we practice in meditation. Instead of sitting in meditation and thinking you know what your breath will be like, or the present moment in front of you will be like … you pay attention. See it with fresh eyes. Drop your preconceived ideas and just look clearly at what’s in front of you.
A daily meditation practice is extremely useful in developing this beginner’s mind. Here’s how to practice:
- Sit comfortably and upright in a quiet place.
- Pay attention to your body, then your breath, trying to see them clearly and freshly.
- When you notice yourself having preconceived ideas, wandering from the present moment, thinking you know how it will be … just notice that.
- See if you can drop the ideas and thoughts and fantasies and stories that are filling up your head. Empty yourself so you can see what’s actually in front of you. See what your breath is actually like, right now, instead of what you think it will be or what you’re thinking about.
Repeat the last few steps, over and over. See the thoughts and fantasies, empty yourself and see what’s actually there with fresh eyes.
You can practice this right now, with whatever is in front of you. With how your body feels, how your breath feels, whatever else is around you.
You can practice whenever you do any activity, from brushing your teeth to washing the dishes to walking and driving and working out and using your phone.
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. Notice their good heart, their difficulties, and be grateful for them as they are. Love them for who they are and find compassion for their struggles.
This is the practice. Do it with a smile, and with love, with fresh eyes and gratitude for the only universe we’ll ever get â€” the actual one in front of us.
In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki declares: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
When you approach relationships with a beginner’s mind (i.e., free of assumptions) and remain open to many possible explanations for your partner’s behavior, you’re more likely to achieve relationship success – and to prevent unhealthy responses to made-up stories.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Perception becomes reality whether it’s accurate or not. Instead, the beginner’s mind teaches us to be curious – so that when a partner catches us off guard (inevitable in any relationship), we simply share what we noticed – without judgment or complaint – and ask about it.
In doing so, we:
Clear assumptions. By asking questions, we give our partner the opportunity to clear up or discuss any assumptions we might have made. Sometimes cultural differences or childhood upbringing can impact relationships, including norms around gender roles or appropriate topics for discussion. By being curious, we pave the way for either person to say “this is my default, but totally happy to adjust” or “actually, this is really important to me” – all good things to know in a relationship.
The alternative is to make assumptions that a partner is insensitive, selfish, not fun, not interested, high maintenance…the list goes on. Actions are not intentions, and people might act a certain way based on a habit from childhood, learned behavior from a past relationship, or another reason that has yet to be shared. But unless we ask, we don’t know. And if we don’t know, we can’t respond effectively.
Work with a more accurate picture. Opening up discussion might unearth an issue that your partner hasn’t mentioned, but that is impacting the relationship, nonetheless. For example, maybe a recent heartbreak has been causing your partner to hold back more than he or she otherwise would. Maybe recent work demands have been weighing heavily on your partner. But without this context, it’s hard for you to correctly interpret behavior or to design the relationship so that it feels comfortable for both parties.
Optimize our relationship. Asking questions can optimize (and even save) a relationship. My friend Adam began a long distance relationship with Maya. In the beginning he was crazy about her, and even contemplated asking her to move to San Francisco. But then Maya began wanting to talk on the phone every night, sometimes for hours, and Adam began to feel overwhelmed given his work schedule and the way he preferred to spend his time in the evenings.
He said his lack of desire for all the phone time had nothing to do with his level of feelings for her – he really liked her a lot. But over time, the phone calls began to feel burdensome. Eventually, that burden began to impact his feelings about the relationship.
He also assumed that Maya would always need more connection in the relationship than he felt comfortable giving, which made him question their long-term compatibility. Adam eventually ended the relationship, but admits he hasn’t met anyone since Maya that he’s liked as much.
I can’t say for certain, but I wonder whether Adam and Maya could have saved their relationship if they had asked more questions. Rather than focusing on their differences, they might have started a more productive conversation by asking what they both had in common, such as their mutual attraction and their desire for the relationship to work.
Next, they might have asked each other questions in an attempt to understand the other’s perspective. In this way, Maya would have had the opportunity to learn why Adam wasn’t comfortable with the lengthy phone calls, and Adam would have had the chance to know why the calls felt so important to Maya. From this shared place of understanding, the two might have aligned on a plan going forward that felt good for both of them, adjusting as needed. Having recently sat with Adam while he complained about dating in San Francisco, my guess is that he would have ended up a lot happier having had this conversation.
Unless you learn to have a beginner’s mind and be curious without judgment – you can never be fully present with who your partner actually is – only with who you’ve made them up to be. And you can’t respond appropriately if you’re responding to a made-up story rather than what’s actually true.