There is an idea that has started repeating itself in my life.
So much so, that it is becoming a theme woven into my life’s pattern. It is now part of the mehndi writing spreading over my canvas.
I first learned about the idea in a dialectic therapy group. I was there to receive. The group started each week with an exercise of beginner’s mind. The exercise was to observe and consider an everyday object as if it was completely unfamiliar; a thing can take on new meaning when you forget how you use it and what memories you’ve attached to it.
We’d sit in a circle and all meditate on a coffee cup, for example. It’s difficult to spend two minutes evaluating something with minds “innocent of preconceptions and expectations, prejudices and judgments,” as teacher Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman describes it. It’s even harder to state your observations in front of a group. You hear your own preconceptions about the mug spill out. Plus, you sound stupid (“It’s white. It’s curved. I see the ceiling light on the side of it. It looks cheap”).
For weeks I felt foolish doing something so obvious. Then, I felt foolish that I had no great or wise revelations about the thing sitting indifferently in front of me. “Let go of the need to add value,” writes James Clear. “Many people, especially high achievers, have an overwhelming need to provide value to the people around them. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing. But in practice, it can handicap your success because you never have a conversation where you just shut up and listen.”
It’s hard to shut up. Even talking to myself.
The coffee cup exercise is interesting because it hoists the mind out of its typical perspective and positions it in a new stance, humbled. I felt like an idiot. Ready to learn. So much of our “learning” is wading through material until we latch onto ideas we were predisposed to agree with in the first place. It’s hard to actually learn something, especially when you are knowledgable.
We may truly know some thing, or be sure of a way to do things (we might even be experts). But we do not know all things, all ways. Our way is not the most valuable. It’s a drop in the bucket. Most of us listen until we find validating information, not new information.
Things are not always so.
Beginner’s Mind is called Shoshin in Zen Buddhism. Shoshin teaches us to consider things eagerly, as if they are brand new to us. Expertise and experience can block new learning because we tend to cherrypick information that fits our beliefs.
The less entrenched you are in your beliefs, the more you expose yourself to possibility. Beliefs are not wrong; that is not my argument. My argument is that knowledge is duplicitous when it prevents further learning.
Here’s a confusing part for me: knowing versus not knowing. It my mind, those things are opposite, dualistic. You either know it, or you don’t. But in this concept of Shoshin, there is black, white, and a gray option.
There is a parable of a student embarking on a pilgrimage. His teacher asks him what is the meaning of his journey and where is he going. The student responds, “I do not know. Not knowing is the most intimate.”
(Well shit, that sounds extremely vague and gray to me too. Let me explain.)
The student not knowing his way is not as simple as whether he has a map and destination or not. The student’s “not knowing” is more of an “I don’t know, I’m going to go see.”
a. I know.
b. I don’t know.
c. I don’t know, yet.
It’s a lot like growing up, but it doesn’t matter what age you are. This third type of not knowing is non-dualistic. It’s not set up against knowing. I’m going to set out on pilgrimage and see what I learn, each moment. Moment by moment.
The idea of not knowing is intimate (sometimes translated “nearest” in the parable) to the student because he is in his most open, most vulnerable place to experience and learn on his journey. His ‘not knowing’ is a quest to find out something that he doesn’t already know.
When he spoke of “beginner’s mind,” I think Suzuki Roshi was pointing to that kind of mind that’s not already made up. The mind that’s just investigating, open to whatever occurs, curious. Seeking, but not with expectation or grasping. Just being there and observing and seeing what occurs. Being ready for whatever experience arises in this moment.
Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman
When we don’t exercise beginner’s mind, we automatically push away or cling to ideas because of what we already know. It’s awfully hard to be open and hold things nearest while pushing other things away.
The things we know are not always so just because we know them.
On a personal note
As a child, you excel at beginner’s mind. You have no schemas for your life; there is no writing on your skin.
I remember when I first started to venture outside of my family and going to friend’s houses. For some reason, each was intensely interesting to me. One house was expensive and I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, one had horses and scary dogs, one had no dad, one had sheets instead of doors.
I think it’s probably normal to first learn what is in the circle closest to you and slowly venture out, or widen your circle as things enter it, not unlike a mandala.
I started to notice how other families got along. How my friends’ houses felt inside. Each family has their own culture. I was captivated by it even through high school. I always wanted to know what was behind the front door and house numbers.
Being observant allowed me to name things in my own house accurately. It taught me to be able to fact-find. Beginners mind is important to me because I don’t feel that all of the things I’ve learned in my life are trustworthy. I don’t want to hold onto a thought for sixty years because I don’t know another one.
Some people know what they know. Friends who are too fearful to let their arms down and accept the intimacy of new thoughts. I can’t blame them. Sometimes the new thoughts hurt. Make us grieve. They steal our contentedness. They almost always challenge us to change and that is uncomfortable. Painful, even.
I do not want to be agarbatti: incense that gives off a pleasant smell to others while smoldering inside. I choose to be the traveler.