How “beginner’s mind” can help you

How many ways can you use a shoe? Most people can name a dozen. Geniuses can rattle off hundreds. You could once do the same. Then you were taught the “right” way to use shoes. Embrace a beginner’s mind and unleash new levels of creativity and happiness.

Through a child’s eyes

One way scientists track a person’s level of genius is by measuring the person’s ability to see a situation from different perspectives, and thereby come up with new answers and solutions. Sociologists say 98 percent of kindergarten kids are geniuses. But by the time we’re 10 years old, our genius levels plummet by 50 percent. It only gets worse with age.

Why does it matter? As adults, we’ve lost our ability to see the solutions—not to mention fun and joy—right under our noses.

Back to the beginning

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” So wrote Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shambhala, 2011), which popularized the Zen Buddhism concept of shoshin (“beginner’s mind”) in the West.

“Beginner’s mind is a mind free of preconceptions and habitual reactions, open to fully experiencing the present moment,” says Myoshin Kate McCandless, the co-guiding teacher at Mountain Rain Zen Community.

Beginners with benefits

The fields of medicine and therapy are recognizing benefits of beginner’s mind for creative problem solving and gaining new insights, but anyone can use it.

For Dave Sledzinski at the Vancouver Island Zen Sangha, beginner’s mind helps him live with more compassion. He says it helped teach him how our “expertise” causes us to make judgment errors or misunderstand a situation. By living a life that’s less colored by our personal views, we release misunderstandings that upset us.

Beginner’s mind removes also mental blocks. “We can respond flexibly and creatively to changing circumstances, rather than being repeatedly disappointed that life isn’t going the way we want it,” says McCandless.

The next time you’re struggling with a problem at work, try tapping into your “beginner’s mind.”

Practicing a beginner’s mind

Steer yourself toward a beginner’s mind by picking up any object. Try to forget what you know about it, including its name. Simply observe and let curiosity come up with new forms and functions.

McCandless suggests starting with simple everyday activities, like the following.

  • Focus “Let go of multitasking for five minutes, and just do one thing with all your senses engaged,” she says.
  • Slow down “Try eating a muffin as though you have never eaten one before,” says McCandless. “Notice how it looks, smells, tastes, the texture, the sensations of chewing and swallowing.”
  • Step into nature “Go for a walk without headphones,” she suggests. “Observe the street or the forest as though you had never seen it before.”
  • Just be curious “Let your beginner’s mind be full of possibilities.”