KENNETH COHEN · JULY - AUGUST 2004
How might life be different if we approached it without assumptions and preconceptions, without knowing anything at all.
As our society has become more complex and fast-paced, we’ve become more dependent on routine. We live by the clock: 7 a.m. at the gym; kids to school at 8 a.m.; work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Meal times and bedtimes are determined by our schedule rather than physical needs and desires. We know the shortest, fastest way to do everything.
Routines and habits like these make us efficient in moving through time and space. The problem is, they force our minds into routines and habits, too. Relying on assumptions and habitual modes of thinking creates mental ruts that limit how we act in – and react to – the world around us. In some ways, it discourages us from thinking at all. We simply see and do and experience things in the way we always have – the way we’ve come to expect.
It’s different for young children. Unencumbered by assumptions and to-do lists, they think and act freely, discovering and inventing their world from moment to moment. Experiencing many things for the first time, they approach even the most mundane events with interest and curiosity. They take in both vast views and tiny details, and every day brings learning and surprises.
Such enthusiasm and freethinking seem lost to most adults. But there is a way to recapture the open qualities of a child’s mind. It is called “beginner’s mind.” This concept from Zen Buddhism, called shoshin, invites us to experience life in a way that is unburdened by the past and by previous knowledge. One Zen master called beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”
A beginner’s mind feels open and aware. When we cultivate it, we free ourselves from expectation, but we experience greater anticipation. Because we are alert and constantly taking in new information and experiences, we are renewed moment by moment. An open mind can relieve you from stress, preconception, and prejudice and enrich every aspect of your life.
“The wise person,” said Mencius, in the fourth century b.c., “is one who doesn’t lose the child’s heart and mind.”
It is never too late to recover the qualities of a beginner’s mind, to enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of childhood, to reopen oneself to fresh possibilities.
The key to a beginner’s mind is to simply be aware of how you are experiencing the world. Imagine what it would be like to look at a sunset, to hear a stream or enjoy a work of art without the internal chatter of our brains trying to label our experience and compare it to previous ones.