zen and the art of beginner’s mind / by Michael Sloyer

I spend a great deal of time, effort, and mental stamina trying to become an expert in my own life. Over the years, I have developed habits and routines that that keep me focused, on time, and on a path to obtain whatever it may be that I want out of life. But as my ways of doing and ways of thinking become more ingrained, the boundaries of what’s possible in life can feel like they are stagnant or even shrinking. So even though this expertise may “work” in the most literal sense of the word, it is not actually working in the most important sense of the word. As the Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin as the Zen Buddhists call it, is the idea that we should approach life as if we are doing it for the first time — without prior knowledge, beliefs, or expectations. Beginner’s mind is humbling. Because we are not good at things we do for the first time. Beginner’s mind is limitless. Because we have not yet encountered any obstacles that might get in our way. Beginner’s mind is creative. Because there are not yet practical considerations to constrain our ideas and our actions. Beginner’s mind inspires awe. Because we tend to feel amazed by things we have not yet experienced before. Beginner’s mind is exciting. Because we feel like we are doing it for the first time.

Beginner’s mind runs in direct contrast to a few of the syndromes from which I suffer.

  • The “I know” syndrome
  • The “what’s the point” syndrome
  • The “smartest guy in the room” syndrome
  • The “Socratic method” syndrome (aka the “death by logic” syndrome)
  • The “I’m too old/good for that” syndrome
  • The “efficiency” syndrome
  • The “I’ll be happy when” syndrome

With beginner’s mind, I seem to be relieved of all these syndromes.

  • I definitely don’t know
  • I am the least knowledgeable guy in the room
  • The point is to figure out the point
  • I don’t yet have the information to use proper logic
  • I cannot know that I am too old/good for something I have not experienced before
  • I cannot think about efficiency and optimization when I don’t know how to do it in the first place
  • I have no choice but to be fully present now if I am going to learn something new

Anyone who knows me (or who has read my blog before) knows that I am constantly questioning my motivations and preferences. A common question I have is: are my hobbies my hobbies because I truly enjoy them or because I enjoy the idea of being someone who enjoys them. Understanding my own experiences with beginner’s mind and the feelings of love, oneness, and passion I have when I operate with beginner’s mind has made me more confident that my hobbies are genuinely activities that I enjoy.

Take traveling to new places, as an example. This activity literally has “built in” beginner’s mind tendencies. Other than the superficial information gleaned from a guidebook or a friend’s recommendation, we have very limited information when we travel to a new place. Everything is a novelty. Our senses are consumed by stimuli we are encountering for the first time. Our beginner’s mind goes on autopilot. We cannot help but feel wonderful feelings of curiosity and awe. We are humbled by our ignorance. We ask questions like “Why” and “How” with greater frequency and with a more passionate inquisitiveness than we do in our daily lives.

Photography also naturally lends itself to beginner’s mind proficiency. As photographers, we are using our camera as a cropping tool for the world. Though we may have come across the objects or people we are capturing before, the way we capture them and the specific circumstances under which we capture them are unique. As Bresson reminds us, “Life is once, forever.” Through the viewfinder of a camera, we find beauty in the conventional and enchantment in the everyday. We become an artist with the world as our canvas. We notice objects and points of view we have never noticed before. We see the world through a fresh set of curious and creative eyes. We are kids in the candy store of visual delights.

Beginner’s mind can be experienced naturally in many other areas of our lives: when we learn to play an instrument, when we attend the first day of school, when we eat at a new restaurant, when we meet a new group of friends, or when we read a book about a topic that we don’t know much about. I personally would like to exercise my beginner’s mind next year by learning to surf and learing to play an instrument.

But the reality is that novel circumstances and experiences are not the issue. The challenge is to cultivate the experience of beginner’s mind during the more mundane parts of our lives: while we commute to work, while we are interacting with people we interact with everyday, while we are brushing our teeth, etc.

The first step is an awareness that there is actually nothing inherently mundane about mundane things. The only thing mundane about them is our perception of them as mundane. So if we start to see extraordinary in the ordinary, the ordinary won’t seem so ordinary anymore. If you pass a tree on your commute to work everyday, think about the amazing process of photosynthesis and how the tree can convert light energy into nutrition. If you have to interact with an annoying colleague at work everyday, contemplate how incredibly infinitesimal the odds actually were of this human being ever coming into existence. If you feel bored by the world around you, look up and contemplate the size of the universe and how there are likely to be other universes out there that are just like it.

So is beginner’s mind a vaccine for the syndromes I mentioned above? Absolutely not. It is merely a transient therapy, providing hits of inspiration, humility, and awe. But like therapy, beginner’s mind can also be instructive and can put us on the path to enduring solutions. Or more appropriately phrased, it can put us on the path towards greater contentment with what is. Because with beginner’s mind, we start to realize that nothing actually needs fixing. All that’s needed is a little change of internal scenery.