Beginning Again with a Beginner’s Mind.

The beginner’s mind is seeing the world through the beginner’s eyes. The phrase beginner’s mind comes from the Zen Buddhism term, Shoshin. It refers to the paradox of the more you know about a subject the more likely you are to have a closed mind to further learning. As the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970): ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.’

Recently as I began my Coaching Practitioner Diploma at Sandown Business School, I was encouraged to have a beginner’s mind. I admit I had not heard of this concept and I immediately began to explore what it meant. I also admit I felt resistance immediately once I discovered what it did mean. Did I want to believe I was starting something from the very beginning, yet again? So, I began to explore and research the concept of a beginner’s mind and see if I could really allow myself to be a true beginner again.

Before trying something new, you have past experiences, preconceived notions, and ideas about what it might be like. But what about when you do have some experience with a topic or situation? As a CBT therapist, I was beginning my coaching journey with some knowledge and interest in neuroscience, how the brain works, and how people are motivated, so I wondered how I can have a beginner’s mind when I didn’t feel like a complete beginner.

I decided to adopt some research-backed strategies to develop a beginner’s mind. Here’s what I did.

1: I started to examine how I was by asking myself more questions.

A beginner’s mind is curious and open, so I started asking myself questions.

I began by developing my self-awareness of how I was at that moment. Research has shown there are three helpful questions to ask yourself at first.

What is going on for me right now? Physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I started with the physical. Research shows by focusing on three areas you can develop a real awareness of how you are physically. How is my posture? How is my facial expression? Now how is my body, where is the tension?

Now mentally, is my mind clear, is my mind full, is it clear?

What am I adding emotionally? Am I in a good mood? Am I worried?

By asking myself these questions I became more aware of how I was and what I may be bringing to the situation.

2: I welcomed the lack of pressure I put on myself to know everything or anything.

I started to genuinely welcome not having to know everything. As a therapist, I often felt, especially at the beginning, the pressure of having to know everything about the mind, CBT, mental health, etc. Now I realise that I will never know everything, and this opens up the constant opportunity to learn more and more.

3: I explored lots of possibilities, solutions, and answers rather than focussing on one.

As a beginner, I became aware that there wasn’t a definitive answer. Everything was on the table. As a result, there was an endless supply of possibilities. When I found a solution, I went back to the table and looked for another. This built the muscle in my brain and became easier, and I became more open to a world of possibilities.

4: I started ignoring the stories I told myself.

Our brains love to give us answers as to why things happen so that we can make meaning of things, experiences, and situations. As a result, I became very aware that my brain was jumping to conclusions. It was making assumptions.These assumptions were keeping my mind closed to other possibilities. So, I started becoming aware of how it sounded in my brain when it was making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. I began recognising that some of the assumptions and conclusions were in fact incorrect. My brain is smart but it’s often wrong. So, I started the process of looking at every assumption and questioning it. I explored more angles. I flipped the assumption. I started asking myself why I had made that assumption. After a few weeks, I became better at catching myself and making assumptions.

5: I started becoming more curious about how my children saw new experiences and the world.

I read that to develop Shoshin in your life you need to look at life and its experiences through the eyes of a child. I started observing my children. I am sure they were wondering why their mother was staring at them more often.  I started questioning them when they questioned me. I would ask them why they had asked me a question rather than giving them the answer. This gave me an insight into how they were thinking about something. I started asking them questions like the ones they would ask me. Why is the sky blue? Why do you play in midfield? What do you like about that player specifically? I then started applying it to my own life. Why do I like this food? What is it about this material that I like? How do I maximise brain power? I moved away from the notion that I had all the answers and started truly believing that I have some answers, some are incorrect and there are more possibilities out there.

6: I started pausing more.

I turned off my autopilot button. Well, that may not be fully true. But I tried to slow down, act with more intention and focus on the mundane more. Another important part of Shoshin is to pause. In Shoshin you are encouraged to pause before replying to ensure you have fully understood someone. I tried to do this when someone was finished speaking with me, but I must admit it felt a little awkward at first. I became more used to taking a pause, checking in to see if I had fully understood, and then replying. I also started physically slowing down when completing tasks and my mind soon followed.

7: I told my ego to chill out and give me a break.

Research shows that awe quietens the ego. I tried to inject more awe into my life. When we are led by the ego, we want to be right and receive some acknowledgment for being the expert. The ego loves to be right. To have a beginner’s mind I needed to acknowledge that I am not right, and I don’t know everything. To do this I became more consciously interested in seeing reality as it is and not how my ego would like it to be. One of the main barriers to a beginner’s mind is confirmation bias. This is the tendency we have, led by our egos, to find information that supports our beliefs and existing views. I became more aware of my confirmation bias, and I started recognising when my brain filtered information to suit my own narrative.

8: I removed the word ‘should’ from my vocabulary.

The word ‘should’ ties us to an expected outcome. It’s also a word that can put us under pressure. I know I often explore the word ‘should’ in therapy sessions with clients but rarely had I explored how the word was having an impact on me. I discovered it was linked to a mindset focussed on pre-conceived expectations. I particularly used this in coaching sessions when I moved away from predicting where the session was going or what someone was going to say and focussed instead on presencing and giving myself permission to be surprised.

Having applied these strategies for a month, here’s what I gained.

1: I began approaching problems with more creativity and a fresher perspective as I began looking at situations from many different angles. This took time and practice but became easier.

2: I gained a sense of playfulness and fun about situations. I was no longer looking at situations based on how they had gone before or based on how they ‘should’ go. I opened my mind to alternatives. This really injected a sense of fun into the equation.

3: I was more grateful as I was more present, more open, and far more curious. In becoming more grateful I noticed that I became less anxious. I became more flexible in my thinking and instead of having a preconceived notion of how something would go, I opened my mind to alternatives.

4: My knowledge became deeper. I began to look at feedback as positive and helpful. I asked for help more. I questioned myself more than I had ever done before. This led to more answers and more possibilities.

Research shows that having a beginner’s approach to life is more of a state than a trait. It’s ongoing. And so, I am not finished. I will continue to ask questions, pause, recognise my ego, and see the world through the eyes of a child.

What once lit me up with excitement had moved into the mundane. What once felt wonderful had moved to ordinary and boring. I have spent the past number of weeks moving things around once more. It reminds me of the quote from Joseph Goldstein, “We begin with beginner’s mind, and then, if we’re lucky, we deepen it, or return to it.”

By Nicola Culloty

Student, Practitioner Diploma in Coaching with Science, Artistry and Systems


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