Zen Mind – Beginner’s Mind: How to Tap into it

Beginner's Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

What would you rather be, a beginner or an expert?

The answer seems clear, doesn’t it? Most people would choose to be an expert, and not a beginner.

In fact, many people hate being a noobie, rookie, greenhorn novice, or tenderfoot – or whatever derogatory words we use for beginners.

However, there’s an advantage to being a beginner. As a beginner we have no expectations, no fixed view of ourselves. We are open and receptive.

This is Beginner’s Mind. It’s a Zen state of mind.

What if we approached everything we did with this mind?

What would life be like?

Let’s take a look at eleven aspects of Beginner’s Mind and see how they can transform your life:

1. Take one step at a time.

We tend to think in sequences. For example, when we go grocery shopping, our mind is on what we need to buy and where to shop. We’re likely to skip over all the little experiences on the way: locking the front door, seeing the neighbour standing at the window, rain splattering on the windscreen, the noise of traffic, and so on.

The same thing happens when we learn something new. We’re always looking towards what we’ll know or be able to do in the future, instead of focusing on the next step right now.

Take one step at a time without worrying about the journey.

2. Fall down seven times, get up eight times.

Yesterday a friend of mine brought her toddler to visit. The little girl, Stephanie, is just learning to walk. She would pull herself up, wobble along a few steps and then plop down on her bottom. She had a determined look on her face and got up again, over and over. When did you last learn something with such determination and such little obvious success?

Celebrate falling down as well as getting up: it’s all part of learning.

3. Use Don’t Know mind.

In martial arts, a don’t know mind is the wisdom of the warrior. Because we can easily get it wrong by prejudging a situation. When faced with a big opponent or a big challenge, we might assume that we will lose out. And when faced with an opponent who seems smaller or weaker, or a challenge that seems surmountable, we might assume that we will be on top. In both scenarios our judgment might be wrong.

Don’t know means keeping an open mind and responding according to circumstances, not according to how we assume things will be. It leaves room for intuition.

Let go of knowing – that’s real wisdom.

4. Live without shoulds.

I could write a whole book about how I should be, what I should have done and what I should be doing, couldn’t you? The world seems to be full of experts on my life who like to tell me what I should be doing. Living with Beginner’s Mind means letting go of shoulds. I’m not advocating living without our own moral standards. I think that most of our shoulds reflect other peoples’ ideas on what our life should look like. We can let go of them.

Shake off shoulds and own your life.

5. Make use of experience.

Beginner’s Mind is great, but it’s not so useful when crossing the road. You don’t want to be squashed flat by a car in the process of learning anew that you need to get out of the way! It’s always good to use our experience and native wisdom. That’s how we learn. Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean negating experience; it means keeping an open mind on how to apply our experience to each new circumstance.

Use your native wisdom and experience.

6. Let go of being an expert.

We are all experts. Experts in our job, in raising children, in crossing the road, in signing our name. It’s difficult to let go of being an expert. Because it means confessing that we really know nothing. What we know belongs to the past. Whereas this moment now is new and offers its unique challenges. If I let go of being an expert, I can listen to others with an open mind. Then I can find that even a beginner has something to teach me.

Letting go of being an expert enables you to keep learning.

7. Experience the moment fully.

Have you ever taken a small kid to the movies for the first time? Everything is amazing for them. They stare at the bright lights in the foyer. They investigate each popcorn with great concentration. They stare at everyone sitting around them. They flinch when the music starts. They scramble on to your lap when the monster appears on screen. They laugh out loud when it’s funny. They live each moment.

Just imagine living like that! Most of the time we live in a daydream in which we think of the past, and dream of the future. Meanwhile life runs on without us. Without us being present, that is. We miss so much when we live in a daze. Beginner’s Mind allows us to take it all in. Then even ordinary things begin to shine.

Live life to the full – one moment at a time.

8. Disregard common sense.

‘Common sense’ is what the culture we live in regards as ‘normal’. If inventors like Da Vinci or Edison had stayed with a ‘common sense’ mindset, our life would be very different because their inventions changed the world. In an interview Thomas Edison said about energy:

“Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine as energy. I’ll do the trick myself if some one else doesn’t get at it.”

I bet you that Edison’s fellow citizen’s thought he was crazy. “Turn sunlight into energy – how absurd!” they would have said because his idea didn’t fit with the common sense of the time.

Release yourself from common sense and become creative.

10. Discard fear of failure.

When did you last start something new? Was it maybe a while back? As children we are always starting something new. Then, as we go through our twenties, thirties, and further, we become more hesitant about being a beginner again. Why? Maybe because we don’t want to look silly when we fail.

There are always plenty of people ready to snigger when we take the first wobbly steps. But it’s our choice whether to take notice or not.

Immerse yourself in your actions and forget the watchers.

11. Use the spirit of enquiry.

Beginner’s Mind is about using the spirit of enquiry – without getting stuck in preconceived ideas. There’s a Zen story about this:

A professor once visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.

“The cup is full!” said the professor. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said the master, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

You can see how this story applies not only to learning about Zen, but to learning about anything at all. The spirit of enquiry is the mind that is open to the unknown, and empty of pre-conceived ideas.

Focus on questions, not on answers.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have a sense of how precious Beginner’s Mind is. It can transform the way we experience life. It makes life exciting and fresh, and keeps us young and eager to learn.

However, there are some questions that are still unresolved in my mind. The main one is: what about goal setting? Doesn’t that clash with Beginner’s Mind? Goal setting is about imagining the future, and building one’s life around one’s hopes and expectations. Personally, I aspire to Beginner’s Mind, and I set goals. But it sometimes feels like a culture clash. What’s your sense of this?

Let’s have a conversation. What’s your experience of Beginner’s Mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

About the author:

Mary Jaksch is the blogger behind Goodlife ZEN and Writetodone.com. She  is an authorized Zen Master. This post is an update of her guest post originally published on Zenhabits.net.

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  1. This quote from Suzuki Roishi is one of my favorite spiritual quotes. He was so brilliant! I love the idea of living without concepts, the essence of beginner’s mind. You’ve spelled out the elements of beginner’s mind so well here. It’s certainly what I aspire towards.

    Does it clash with goal setting? That’s a really interesting question, Mary! My sense is that there are times when you know what to do without thinking about it too much. In other words, the goals arise from a sense of clarity rather than from strained conceptual thinking. It seems that letting go of concepts creates more space for clarity and insight to arise, more flexibility, more options, more creativity and so we are more able to be in the ordinary world in an intelligent way.

    • Andre says:

      I want to point out somethings Sandra stated ” strained conceptual thinking, letting go of concepts creates more space for clarity and insight to arise, more flexibility, more options, more creativity”.

      I’m now in my late 20’s and feel that strained conceptual thinking has taken a front seat in mind. I always love to sing and really became serious about it around 17. I learned how to record my own vocals and write lyrics using my own home studio. When I first started I was flexible, creative and had unlimited options to the sound of my art. However as time went along I started turning my passion for singing into stress and tainting my vocal sound into artist I loved, along with using gained experience from recording which negatively affected my creative flow. Little did I realize that this behavior would soon block experiences, happiness and cause stress in my adult life.

      In life at some point we start off as beginners, at that state we are at a Zen point. As we gain knowledge in that area we allow it to change or Zen mindset into strained conceptual thinking.

      This is the problem! How do you stay open minded and flexible thought wise, when your past experiences and knowledge argues with the Zen concept. We feel I been here before, I know the outcome and if I ignore what I know then I only have myself to blame for the bad outcome that will come!

      This is a tricky area. It is impossible to forget life concepts we learned from our past, unless something takes place that affects are memories, so now what? We have to change how we apply this learned information and become risk takers to points beyond what we usually let them.

      Ex; John has been in the dating game for 3 years. Throughout those years he have come into contact with various characters
      (Liars, cheaters, weird, beautiful, free spirited, dark spirited, etc). John is approached by a interested person but instantly allows his past experiences to affect how he respond to the person instead taking another risk to learn that person!

      Remember, life is about experiences and our mindset as well as past experiences determine what new experiences we will have. If you are a person that feel your life is not turning out the way you planned, don’t continue to apply your past life concepts into your future. Look back at what past opinions and experiences are blocking you form making a left at the corner then a right. Letting go or taking risk in areas of your life that you block off will surely bring a change in your life that you have not been seeing.

  2. Dan Garner says:

    I am constantly looking for ways to keep the beginner’s mind. Looks like a very useful list.


    Dan @ ZenPresence dot com

  3. Ciara Conlon says:

    Hi Mary, I too am conflicted as I know goal setting works and can help to create a better life but I believe in the power of the beginners mind for true happiness and purpose. My take on it is that there is a time for goals setting and a time for letting go. I set goals, work hard and try to let go of all outcomes. Focusing on what I want without forcing the situation.

  4. Mark Sims says:

    Hi Mary, I think setting goals are important, but not to write them down in stone. Keeping a beginners mind, keeps you open to the potential possibilities that can present them selves as you take the journey.
    Some times your intuition takes you onto another path that you didn’t know existed and that can add to the joy of new experiences.

  5. Amelia says:

    The thing I love about beginners mind is the enthusiasm that comes with it – everything is exciting! If you lose sight of beginners mind you lose this to an extent, which is when boredom and restlessness sets in. I try to maintain beginners mind mostly to continue to be inspired, everyday, about everything in life.
    I can see a lot of Kaicho’s Technique and Spirit in this post, very nicely written. Osu 🙂

  6. Thanks for your post Mary.

    The magic thing about a beginner’s mind is surely that it helps us stay open to the magic of little moments, as you so deftly point out in your first instruction, “One step at a time.” The older I get the more I realize that when I am truly in that ‘beginner’s mind’ (though paradoxically enjoying the wisdom of an older mind) it takes so little to be happy.

    Almost anything is enough. Why, saying hello to a serving lady at a coffee shop or taking a moment to admire a tree. Or listening to the sounds of children at play — as my wife and I did this afternoon while enjoying a football game.
    It’s always a privilege to share your spirit Mary. Hugs.

  7. Mary,
    I love Beginner’s Mind. I just did apost about it last October. It has enabled me to finish the book I was working on without getting stuck in all the things that could go wrong.
    Thanks for these reminders!!

  8. This is one of my favorite all time spiritual quotes! Suzuki Roishi was so brilliant. I like the way you have approached beginner’s mind from so many angles, showing exactly just how powerful it is.

    My sense is that spontaneous wisdom arises from beginner’s mind so that goals don’t have to be created with the conceptual mind in the same way. There’s clarity about the future without having to necessarily be a future architect.

  9. amazingmess says:

    Beginner mind and planning, calculating mind are as two wings or two legs. With one alone it is impossible to fly or walk. At least it is imho. However pleasant and playfull beginner mind may be, no train would ride and no plane would fly with beginner mind alone. But somehow the two ‘mindsets’ don’t go together. It seems I can’t have them both at the same time. So I have to switch times aiw. Take some time in beginner mind and take some other time in planning and reflecting mind.

  10. Shawn says:

    Every moment is an opportunity to practice beginner’s mind. Many times, those moments are very subtle. For me, it means letting go of the “discursive mind,” the one that (tries to) narrates every action in my day.

    I like to step back from that narration and see my actions clearly, without judging, without commentary. When you are a “beginner,” it is difficult to comment on what you are doing, whether that is baking bread or doing yoga. All you can do is notice each movement, each action … what is it like … how do you feel … where does your mind drift?

    This is my practice on my yoga mat, but also when I step off it and shovel the driveway, talk to my partner, or play with my cats.

  11. Doug says:

    Hi Mary:

    2. fall down seven times, get up eight times.

    That’s about the best advice I’ve had all month!

  12. Galen Pearl says:

    I use this quote at near the beginning of my book, and I try to embrace it every day. As I recall, you practice martial arts, so you can probably appreciate this. I have a black belt in taekwondo, but I have recently shifted to kung fu, where I am a white belt again. Literally beginner’s mind–ha!

  13. Thanks for this article which is a good and timely reminder about the value of being a student: of stepping back from the pose of confidence. About 12 years ago, I quit a job that I had stopped enjoying but didn’t know what I was going to do next. At the same time, I was learning to fly and working towards my PPL. I found it very hard at first to be a student and have a 21 year old tell me what to do (I had been the CEO of a biggish company with an ego to match) especially as I found it difficult to master the skills required. However, once I decided to stop trying to be the boss and stop trying to know it all, I started learning better and enjoying it more. I think learning and following are skills like teaching and leadership but we don’t get to practice them and we don’t get taught them.

  14. Hi!
    Very inspirational. Loved all the 10 commandments to a good life 🙂 especially the one on fear of failure 🙂

  15. Sean says:

    Do not fear failure. It is part of life. Falling down may feel like a knife. But there’s a light after every strife. You will not succeed if you do not fail at least once. If you fail, try, try and try again. Also, you do not truly fail until you proclaim that you do. At that point, you have truly been defeated.

  16. Shawn Ryan says:

    #7 Living in the moment is probably still the hardest for me. I am usually daydreaming about the future. This post has inspired me to be more in the present moment. It’s hard, but I am going to have a beginner’s mind and be mindful of my thoughts on a more consistant basis. Thanks for this post!

  17. Iris Vaninetti says:

    hago terapia hace tiempo, debido principalmente a mi gran incapacidad para disfrutar y mi depresión consecuente. Acabo de leer este artículo y lo comparto plenamente. Sin embargo he experimentado particular angustia con respecto a experience the moment fully or discard fear of failure. Sé que de lograrlo me sentiría excelente, pero ¿Cómo lograrlo? Anoche, mientras mi novio dormía plácidamente, yo estaba despierta sintiéndome incapaz de disfrutar el momento, al punto de desear que se fuera. Siento que recién estoy por el primer paso: take one step at a time. me cuesta mucho aunque sé que es un proceso largo. No obstante eso, tengo mucho miedo de perder personas en el camino hasta avanzar, no sé que hacer en el ahora. ¿Podrías darme alguna orientación?
    Muchas gracias por compartir tus artículos.

  18. amanda says:

    ‘Discard fear of failure and you will be a winner’this is the best quote i have even seen..
    Fear of failure can stop us from succeeding in life and at work, so we should take steps to avoid this.

  19. kavetha says:

    What a cool collection of ways to explore the beginners mind!
    When I was first introduced to Zen and beginners mind many years ago, I remember foolishly thinking that it meant ignorant; as in “not knowledgable”. Then I met some amazing teachers, who showed me the wisdom in seeing things new, with curiosity and wonder. This article reminds us all to do that more. Thanks Mary.

    No wonder children are so awed by every day things. What a wonderful way to see life 🙂

  20. Chang says:

    Dear Mary,
    Thank you for such a wonderful post!
    I’ve recently started a lifestyle blog. And your post keeps me motivated to follow my calling!
    I wish you all the best!

  21. […] Original Page: http://goodlifezen.com/2012/11/24/beginners-mind/ […]

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