Adopting Beginner’s Mind As The First Step To Mastery

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Suzuki Roshi

Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind”, is one of many paradoxical Zen Buddhist teachings. The idea is that as soon as we feel we are an expert in a particular field, we close ourselves off from further growth and development. We are encouraged, instead, to adopt a novice mindset. To let go of our preconceptions and see unfolding events through fresh eyes, as a beginner.

EMPTY YOUR CUP

“You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in.” Zen Proverb

Before the pandemic, I travelled for most of the year. In each new city I visited, I found a studio I liked the look of and signed up for the beginner class. Every time, I learned something new. An alignment cue offered differently gave me a new perspective on a pose. Or an instruction in meditation unlocked a deeper understanding of the technique. Even after putting in my 10,000 hours of practice, I still feel that it is my foundations that need the most work. 

The fancy stuff in yoga, arm balances and poses that require tremendous flexibility, are incredibly impressive but I personally am more interested in learning (and teaching) the basics. In my experience, these are the aspects of the practice that give profound, long-term benefits. Can I breathe rhythmically, in and out through the nose, throughout the entire practice? Can I hold each strength pose longer than is comfortable? Can I improve upon my alignment? And stay focused on the sensations of breathing for the duration of Final Resting Pose? Working diligently on each of these skills will help you to move better and feel more comfortable in your body.

HOW WE LEARN

“The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them.” Ellen Langer

We learn in a variety of ways. We learn from teachers in a formal setting and we imitate those around us. We learn through intuition and also experientially, through trial and error. We learn from experts, amateurs, rivals and friends—sometimes deliberately and often unconsciously. Much of the time, we don’t remember how, when or where we learned something. At some point, it just seemed self-evident.

But what if that thing you “know” isn’t true? Or is no longer true? Or is only true in certain circumstances? Or is so not true that it is causing you harm? What if the way that you sit is at the root of your lower back pain? Or your asymmetrical running gait is setting you up for a hip replacement? It’s vital that we continually question our beliefs and assumptions and check back in with what we’ve learned to see if it still holds true. We need to ensure that we’re not cutting ourselves off from development and growth or allowing ourselves to be funnelled into the same limited set of experiences, over and over. Adopting “beginner’s mind” shines a light on our blindspots, giving us the opportunity to start from first principles and undo our bad habits.

LISTEN UP

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Epictetus

The trouble with knowing something is that when you think you know the answer, you stop listening. Often, however, something critical has changed or you glossed over an important detail during the learning process. There is always going to be more that you don’t know than you do, so it’s best to stay receptive and open-minded when you want to get really good at something. 

In a yoga class, the tendency is to assume that you know what’s coming up next and to jump ahead. It’s incredibly hard to resist the urge to preempt your teacher’s cues. But when you do that, you miss out on a whole world of nuance, subtlety and the opportunity for fresh insights. See what it feels like to stay behind the cues. To wait patiently for each new instruction before taking any action. Try not to anticipate what’s coming next—allowing each moment to unfold in front of you and assessing it in real time. You can also try this technique off the mat in conversation. There’s no greater gift you can give someone than to listen, without jumping in and assuming that you know what they’re about to say next.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

One of the consequences of adopting “beginner’s mind” is that your experience becomes richer, more colourful and more vibrant. Like a kaleidoscope. The idea is to imitate the naivety and delight of a child entering an unfamiliar environment. At that age, we’re like sponges, absorbing every small detail—alert to minutiae and drawn to a broad spectrum of stimuli. We’re happy to repeat the same activity over and over and over again without any loss of enthusiasm—curious to see what happens next time and eager to learn as much as we can.

If you imagine that you don’t know how to do a pose, the chances are you’ll learn something new. Even if you’re an absolute grand master of that pose, you can learn something about the difference between your body now and three weeks ago or between practicing that pose when you’re fully warmed up or at the beginning of a session. You might notice differences between one side of your body and the other, or observe subtle shifts in your experience when you tweak one small variable. No two moments are the same and that alone is worth examining. I regularly look up new instructions for familiar poses. For example, in Warrior 2, your teacher might encourage you to “press into the outside edge of your back foot”. I’ll try the cue on for a few weeks—sometimes it sticks and other times I decide that it doesn’t improve the pose for me right now and I let it go. This practice keeps the poses and sequences alive for me over the long-term.

EGO IS THE ENEMY

“He who tries to shine dims his own light.” Lao Tzu

The trouble with getting good at something is that we receive praise and positive feedback that leads us to believe our own hype. It may be true that we’re objectively better at that thing we have been working on but the ego is sneaky. The smug feeling we have of proficiency may feel great but it’s likely to be an impediment to learning. The ego is constantly comparing itself to others, which can be healthy and advantageous at certain times but not if we feel that better is the same as good enough.

Comparing yourself to others takes you out of the present. It’s a distraction that draws your focus away from your internal experience. I remember when I first started attending yoga classes, I was constantly watching in the mirror to see if I could go deeper into Seated Forward Bend than my neighbour or if my Warrior 2 alignment was closer to the teacher’s instructions than the other students. In yoga, it doesn’t make the blindest bit of difference what someone else is doing. It’s not a team sport. And in fact ego, if left unchecked, can get you hurt. The goals in the type of yoga that makes sense to me are to become an expert in how to service your own engine and improve your sense of self-efficacy. And for these two objectives, adopting “beginner’s mind” is a great strategy. 

BEGINNER’S MIND IN PRACTICE

“It’s almost infinite how deep you can go. How good you can get.” Boyd Varty

Choose a yoga video—maybe one that you’re already familiar with, and set an intention to move through the poses as a beginner. Aim to listen closely to the cues and allow your experience to unfold, from one moment to the next. Try not to slip into autopilot, paying attention to every detail. Be curious and let go of the tension of needing to achieve a specific objective. Try not to be in a rush to complete the routine. Just observe the sensations in your body as you move, stretch and breathe. 

This is a profoundly mindful practice that can trigger a deep state of bliss and appreciation. 

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