Beginners Mind Challenge

Guest Post by Angie Hardage

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki


Photo by Robert Collins

Walking into my family’s Thanksgiving gathering, I noticed myself thinking “Ugh!! My brother is going to be obnoxious. He’s probably going to say some insensitive things and try to engage me in a debate.” As a result of this internal dialogue, I could feel my anxiety increasing, my body clenching, preparing for the anticipated “battle,” my breath become more shallow and rapid, and the urge to race back to my car and bolt! And then I remembered. Stop. Breathe. Shift your internal dialogue. “Maybe, but maybe not. What else could happen?”

Beginner’s mind is an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching a person or a situation. It’s a useful strategy for practicing applied mindfulness and staying connected to the present moment when anxiety drags us into “what if” and future-based thinking. Derived from the practice of Zen Buddhism, beginner’s mind consists of the willingness to set aside our stereotypes, assumptions, and learning histories in favor of approaching a person or situation with a child-like sense of wonder. Beginner’s mind encourages us to ask questions and engage with the environment from a perspective of curiosity rather than indulging preconceived ideas, being a teachable spirit rather than engaging in defensiveness. And if you’re like me, this is EASIER SAID THAN DONE!!!

Practicing beginner’s mind requires us to challenge the part of our nervous system that generates assumptions and judgments that are often unconscious efforts to protect ourselves from disappointment, rejection, or the discomfort of uncertainty and ambiguity. We may seek the illusion of safety by imposing order and predictability in a world that is uncertain and unpredictable.   As adults with extensive learning histories, we may learn to see our thoughts as facts and assume that past experiences will predict future experiences. Unfortunately, while that strategy CAN be helpful and accurate in some situations, it can also lead to expectation bias and self-fulfilling prophecies that perpetuate maladaptive patterns, limit our ability to fully engage in the present moment, and interfere with our ability to create new and different experiences. Functioning from a place of judgment and assumptions can also be a form of experiential avoidance – that is, a subconscious effort to protect ourselves from the messiness and potential discomfort of authentically experiencing the full range of our emotions.

Brene Brown touches on this concept in her newest book, Braving the Wilderness. She argues that now more than ever we would benefit individually and collectively from practicing beginner’s mind, challenging our assumptions and stereotypes, and resisting the urge to “sort” ourselves into false dichotomies (us vs. them thinking). Our current sociopolitical climate appears to be rooted in fear and blame. The following excerpt illustrates the utility of practicing beginner’s mind on a collective basis beautifully:

This unconscious way of living then fuels so much anger and blame that people start to turn on one another. It’s only a matter of time until we become fractured, isolated, and driven by our perception of scarcity. We have to find our way back to each other or fear wins.

Applying mindfulness when we notice ourselves pre-judging people or situations empowers us to shift from a fear-based perspective beginner’s mind, characterized by curiosity and willingness. Functioning from this perspective expands the number of options for possible outcomes. My favorite mindfulness quote comes from Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Practicing applied mindfulness in the form of beginner’s mind empowers us to notice our thoughts, feelings, urges, and/or sensations that arise moment by moment and then choose our response with intention. And THAT is our ticket to growth and freedom!

In summary, practicing beginner’s mind consists of 3 simple (but not easy) steps:

  1. Mindfully notice your thoughts, feelings, urges, and sensations.
  2. Challenge your assumptions with questions or statements such as “Maybe, and maybe not.” “What else could happen?” “What else could be true?” I wonder what this person believes about _____?” “I have no idea how this situation is going to turn out, but I’m excited to live into the experience.”
  3. Mindfully attend to your experience, staying connected to the present moment and allowing your experience to be your teacher.

I invite you to join me in practicing beginner’s mind and notice if it impacts your experiences, your relationships, your mood and energy. Allow your experience to be your teacher, and if useful, I encourage you to share with others! And if you’re curious, this year’s Thanksgiving was relaxed and enjoyable. There were no debates, and I even ended up hugging my brother as I thanked him for hosting on my way out the door.

Angie Hardage describes herself as a feminist functional contextualist, an occasional conscientious rabble rouser, a seeker, a teachable spirit, and an advocate of post traumatic growth, a practitioner of ferocious self care and frequent instigator of loving conspiracies.