Cultivating the Beginner’s Mind

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Cultivating the Beginner’s Mind

Children rush joyously into every experience, simply enjoying the now-ness of it. No reservations, no expectations or fear of failure – just zest for living. You can’t stop time – but you can recapture that freshness you brought to life when there was no such thing as “What if I can’t?”

As an adult, mental obstacles may deter you from wholeheartedly embracing the moment. You want to take an adventurous trip, join a book club, enroll in a drawing class … but doubts crowd in. You never traveled alone before. You won’t know a soul. The last picture you drew was back in elementary school, and your friend laughed at it. Or maybe you simply need to clean house and the very idea bores you to death.

Cultivating a beginner’s mind can free you of debilitating doubts and presuppositions and allow you to explore new experiences or approach familiar ones in a new way, says Canyon Ranch in Tucson Life Management therapist John Shukwit, M.A., L.P.C.

It all starts with being aware of the present moment, says John. “Practicing mindfulness opens the door to the beginner’s mind. It allows us to be open to what’s actually happening, and to cultivate a sense of curiosity.”

Needless tension can occur when you think you know what’s going to happen. The phone rings: You tense, because you’re sure it’s someone you’d rather not talk to. You can almost feel your blood pressure rising. Reset: Turns out it’s somebody else, and you have a great conversation.

Expect the unexpected
To live life to its fullest potential, try not to allow assumptions to gain the upper hand, says John. “When I was in second grade, I had a music teacher who told me I couldn’t sing. And so, guess what? I didn’t – for years. Then, in college, I learned to play guitar, and started playing and singing with a friend. It gave me enormous satisfaction. We need to stop playing those old tapes – whether we believe what someone else says, or what we tell ourselves.”

When you’re contemplating that exotic trip or fun class, letting yourself believe “I can’t” just decreases the possibilities, he says. “It limits how we see the situation, and we react rather than responding. Perception is not reality – it’s simply perception. We need to act on what we know instead of what we think we know. The 12-Step Program uses the acronym F.E.A.R. – False Expectations Appear Real. Fear may be real, but the thoughts that give rise to them may not be.”

You fantasize about trying a dance class, but you know you have several left feet – or do you? A beginner’s mind will help you overcome your own stories and be open to what’s actually going on, says John. “Remind yourself that no one knows you and they’re not expecting anything of you. So what if you don’t have rhythm?” Just give it a shot: If you go in without expectations, you’re likely to surprise yourself by having a lot of fun.

Go with the flow
Think of the beginner’s mind as the “don’t-know mind,” says John. “When we figure we know what will happen, we set ourselves up and it brings in tension. When we just observe what’s going on, it leaves us open to what arises, untainted by judgment. In any situation, it’s fine to have expectations, but be flexible. You’re prepared, but it might be completely different from what you anticipated.”

Whether you’re facing a party you don’t expect to enjoy or a chore you think you hate, banish those preconceptions and be present and open. “Bring your attention to your breath or the sensations in your body or focus on the task at hand. Old patterns of fear or boredom break down because they’re not being fed. Changing our relation to what’s external and what’s internal to us has enormous ramifications.”

Creating change
Are you in the habit of holding back and trading caution for adventure? It’s never too late to change, John assures. “Brain research shows that our brains have neuroplasticity. That means you really can teach old dogs new tricks. The brain can be rewired. Habits contain no awareness; it only takes awareness, intention and repetition to start a new, more liberating, routine – one that you choose.

“Re-creating beginner’s mind is simple, but it’s not easy,” says John. “Set an intention and work on it regularly. See what you notice. Once you’ve had the experience, you’ll like how you feel.”


Presence    Awareness    Intention  Repetition

Cultivating beginner’s mind starts with mindfulness. When you pair mindfulness with a wish to open yourself to exciting new possibilities, change can begin. Simply be present, be aware, set an intention –  and practice.