What is Beginner’s Mind?

The Beginner’s Mind is a Zen principle, popularised by Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki teaches that the correct approach to Zen requires a lack of preconceptions, because “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  Beginner’s mind is dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, as you might guess, not really. As with most things, it takes practice and in many ways is unlearning what we have worked so hard to learn. Learning after all is how we use our newly acquired ability or knowledge in conjunction with skills and understanding we already possess. It builds on itself and the beginner’s mind starts new with each experience, no matter how routine. To help you get started, Leo Babauta gives an example of eating breakfast that you can apply to every activity;

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.
This practice of beginner’s mind transforms the activity.

You can also 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.

“When the restrictions you have do not limit you, this is what we mean by practice.”
― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

How to Apply to Your Own Business

Learning to let go of being an expert is key as there are fewer possibilities in the expert mind. This is where it gets extra tricky, especially in business.  We often work so hard to become experts in our field. Especially in spaces and settings where women are not often seen or in positions of power— it is natural to seek authority through expertise. Instead, if you know your strengths and your limitations, you know when to ask for specific help from the right people. Combining limitless wonder and curiosity with knowledge of another helps you foster the tension between expertise and the ability to see with fresh eyes. Stanford University professor Bob Sutton notes that at innovation hotspots such as Ideo, the “beginner’s mind” approach plays an important role, as does the Zen notion of bringing together masters and neophytes. I found this way of thinking hugely helpful while starting up Tribe Porty. I had the following quote on the wall for the first 3 years of the business, reminding me that I was the best person to create my vision and that no one is an expert in all things.

“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.” ―Charlie Chaplin

We like this concept and practice at Keystone and like our wellness rituals, cultivating a beginner’s mind is both simple and very challenging. The craft is in the doing. Developing a beginner’s mind is challenging but it gives you another way to look inward for inspiration. Instead of getting sidetracked looking at everyone else and deeming them experts, it encourages you to trust yourself.  It is a way to support introspection and through that you can find your own original confidence and reminds you to keep curious. It is also quite liberating not to have the pressure of being an expert and find answers from within.

Here are some practices from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen to try;

  • Take one step at a time.
  • Fall down seven times, get up eight times.
  • Use Don’t Know mind.
  • Don’t pre-judge.
  • Live without shoulds.
  • Make use of experience. Don’t negate experience, but keep an open mind on how to apply it to each new circumstance.
  • Let go of being an expert.
  • Experience the moment fully.
  • Disregard common sense.
  • Discard fear of failure.
  • Use the spirit of enquiry.
  • Focus on questions, not answers.

For peace over productivity

illustration of a business women in wonder, practicing her beginner's mind

One last plea for cultivating a beginner’s mind — don’t do it to gain leverage or increase profits. I cringe when I read about eastern practices that are twisted and pushed to promote more productivity. They are missing the point entirely and get cheapened beyond recognition. Develop a beginner’s mind to deepen gratitude, promote creativity, find greater clarity, have more fun, shed judgements and cultivate a sense of wonder. Seeing things anew brings fresh perspective to old sights, and opens up a world of intrigue and possibility in every day.

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