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Beginner’s Mind

Sheridan Taylor

In which our hero remembers trying to be a Ninja Turtle and explains mindfulness in an exoteric manner.

Back when I thought I was a ninja and was studying Asian philosophies and healing arts to make myself… whatever I imagined I was doing, I focused on Zen. But I suck at Buddhism, it turns out. When studying Zen, I read the writing of Dōgen Zenji, and I learned about “Shoshin.” Shoshin is also in some Japanese martial arts, none of which I’m good at, sadly.

Shoshin means “beginner’s mind.” Like the “white belt mentality,” it reminds me of mindfulness. Maybe it’ll help you. Mindfulness, from my understanding, came to us through Zen, anyway. For some people, mindfulness comes naturally. I’m not one of them. It’s hard.

Beginner’s mind means to look at everything like it’s new to us. Or we’re new to it. Whichever. New means no presumptions or preconceptions. We’re willing to put expectations, even prejudices, aside to learn. When we don’t have know what something “should” be, or don’t already “know” everything, we can’t be disappointed or frustrated because we’re not comparing stuff.

That’s beginner’s mind. Trying to explore without presumptions, biases, or assumptions. If we can put aside preconceptions and assumptions about what we “know” and try to see everything with fresh eyes, we’ll likely learn something. With a beginner’s mind, we realize there is no box; we’re open to options we normally rule out. We problem-solve from a place of curiosity, and find solutions we wouldn’t consider. (Beginner’s mind is really just another way to say, “cognitive flexibility,” but since this isn’t a psychology magazine, we’ll stick with this.)

If the brain “knows” what it’s going to see, it may not see things right in front of it. Once, in the army, we were conducting an observation exercise. Most of us saw the water bottle in a tree, the binoculars in tall grass, etc. About half of us didn’t see a jeep behind a tree. We expected small items. We didn’t expect to see a vehicle and two hundred pounds of chain-smoking bad attitude, and so, some didn’t see either.

Same idea with knowledge. If the brain knows what it’s going to perceive, it dismisses anything else as irrelevant. If we remind the brain to try to see everything as new, it starts to see shit it’s been ignoring. It pays attention and we spend less time ruminating on shit we shouldn’t waste time on, like past grievances or future worries.

I know how tough it is to stay in the moment. I almost died sky-diving three times within six months, because I couldn’t focus on the altimeter! The doohickey that says when to activate my canopy so I don’t plummet to death. I couldn’t pay attention for 30 seconds of freefall; my brain wouldn’t focus on a matter of life or death. Mine!

Sometimes, I “know” everything about someone and stop paying attention when they speak. I “know” what’s coming and I “know” where they’re at on any topic. But that’s bullshit. When I approach that person with a beginner’s mind, I pay attention, actively listen. People know when we’re giving them full attention and return the favour.

When I approach with a beginner’s mind, I stop judging. I don’t see things, or people, as “bad” or “good.” I get a more accurate perception. I do this weird thing I like to call “think,” and stop doing this ineffective thing I call “react.”

When I use the beginner’s mind, I lose failure and anxiety. I approach things creatively and calmer, which brings clarity. I don’t fear and go with the flow, rolling with the punches and working situations in my favour. I stop being scared of being scared, which is the Sheridan Dictionary definition of anxiety.

I’m a better parent. Kids have a beginner’s mind; they’re beginners at everything. I’ve a hard time relating to my kids. The depression blocked the creative, curious part of my brain for years. Kids live in a state of creativity and curiosity. I can relate with the beginner’s mind. I can be innovative and responsive. I don’t get stuck in “how it should be,” don’t get angry, or keep doing what isn’t working.

I stop limiting myself. When I’m open to learning and unafraid, I see and am part of patterns. I stop putting things and people in boxes. I drop divisiveness and disconnection. My life’s more cohesive. Instead of keeping work, relationships, etc. separate, which is impossible, my life becomes an integrated whole, and I do, too. It’s not possible to separate work and family. The subconscious doesn’t work that way. Trying to divide and separate, when it’s literally not possible, creates stress.

Just like I treat depression with gratitude, I treat anxiety with curiosity. The brain only holds one idea at a time and if I’m curious, I can’t be scared. I’m so tired of being scared.