Beginner’s Mind

BeginnersMind2“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki (see link to original lecture)

In 2006, when I was preparing to go to the Nia Black Belt training (the highest level of teacher training in Nia), I went to a martial arts demonstration led by a Black Belt Kendo Master.  At the beginning of the demonstration, he asked, “What does being a Black Belt mean?”  Others in the group said, “It means you are an expert,” “It means you know everything,” and, “It means you could kick my ass.”


I groaned internally.  I was deeply anxious about doing the Black Belt training for these very reasons:  I knew I didn’t know everything and certainly didn’t feel like an expert who could kick anyone’s anything.  I was hit with a wave of insecurity about even thinking about becoming a Black Belt.  I felt like a fraud.

But the Kendo Master smiled kindly and said, “No, being a Black Belt means … now I am a student.”

Now I am a student.  Yes, this was it exactly.  I wasn’t purporting to know everything, but Nia was something that I was passionate about and wanted to learn in depth.  This definition helped me see that by becoming a Black Belt, I was saying that NOW I was really ready to study and learn.

This definition of Black Belt connects with the idea of Beginner’s Mind.  Beginner’s Mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism and is defined as an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.


Our American culture is replete with expert worship.  There is a pervasive idea that if we don’t know something, that we should turn to experts to know what to do (or buy or think or be).  And, so this line of thinking goes, whatever the expert says is exactly what we should do (or buy or think or be).

There are two main drawbacks to the expert worship approach.  First, if you are the one turning to an expert, this approach elevates those with experience to an untenable and unrealistic place of all-knowingness.  Second, if you ARE the expert or experienced one, expert worship encourages you to feign that you know all the answers rather than approaching everything, even things you’ve done 1,000 or 10,000 times with the inquisitiveness and freshness of beginner’s mind.


While it is important to gather information from experienced sources when wanting to learn or understand anything, it is important to approach all expert information with a discerning mind and an awareness that no one can know everything about anything.  The greatest teachers are always learning themselves and are willing to be surprised.  I took a wonderful on-line poetry course this fall (see Coursera for their offerings).  The professor, Al Filreis, has been teaching poetry in the Ivy League for 35 years.  More than once, he said, “I’ve been reading this poem for decades and I’ve never thought about it that way before.”  His approach is that we are figuring things out together with all of our experiences and insights as resources.  Beginner’s mind empowers both expert and novice to be open to new information and perspectives.


So what are you a Black Belt in?  What do you love to know/learn/do?  What would you be willing to approach with fresh eyes and an open mind every time?  Whether it is playing the cello, or learning about the Civil War, preparing healthful meals for your family or mowing your own lawn, you are an expert in something.  Beginners mind invites you to do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm as if you’d never done it before.  As we enter into the holiday season, do you feel like you’ve “been there done that”?  Or have you “always” done things this way and feel entrained to those choices?  Whatever it is (especially if you find yourself resisting change or resisting letting go of the idea of yourself as an all-knowing expert), see if you can step in next time with the energy, wonder and excitement of a beginner and see how that changes your experience.  And of course, as always, I’d love to hear all about it.  Do post a comment below!


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