Tag Archives: beginner’s mind

eye never before never again 070916

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” ― Rachel Carson

I open my eyes, all I see is trees. Overlays of green leaves, columns of gray bark and lemon light. When we travel in our camper, we sleep windows-open-shades-up so when we wake, we see trees –and each others’ sleepy faces.

While traveling, I often think of Rachel Carson’s profound words. Since I’m going to new places, ones to which I am unlikely to return, both things are true: I am often seeing things for the first…and last time.

When we’re in a new place and I know this is the first and last time, I look with more than my eyes: I breathe in the smells, feel the sensations, listen deeply, taste the essence, and with my eyes, I look for all the details I can find.

Look out a window. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever taken in this view or that it was the last. How would that change the way you saw it?

Look at someone you care about, imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen their face or that it was the last. How would that change the way you look at them?

Look at your own hand. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen your hand or that you were leaving your body and this was the last. How would that change how you saw your hand, your body?

Never before. Never again. This is a courageous, whole-hearted way of looking at the world that requires the curious, open eyes of the very young and the tender, wise eyes of the very old.

Rachel Carson’s quote is related to the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind (a previous Focus Pocus post is here and the original lecture from which the concept of Beginner’s Mind comes here). Writer James Clear wrote a nice piece about the concept last week in relationship to learning and mastering something. In it, he warns that expertise and experience can be hindrance that lulls the mind into a trance of “knowing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that, I’ve done that, I already know that.”

But have you really?

Clear writes:

The problem is that when you are an expert you actually need to pay more attention, not less. Why? Because when you are already familiar with 98 percent of the information on a topic, you need to listen very carefully to pick up on the remaining 2 percent.

The same is true for familiarity. When you’ve been somewhere often or done something a lot or lived with someone for decades, you actually need to pay more attention, not less.

So it turns out that going to new places and seeing new things is the easy part. In those situations, it’s natural to open up and really let them in. The real practice begins when we are in the familiar, where we must pay more attention to the things that make up our lives.

For while it may be obvious when you see something for the first time, we rarely know when we are seeing it for the last.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the hey the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

P12 Gandhi quote

Principle 12 – Continuing Education

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Principle 12, Continuing Education, is about making a personal and professional commitment to your ongoing growth and education with Nia. This principle is more than a concept and a practice; it is a way of living.


From conscious actions such as speaking, to unconscious functions such the pumping of your heart, your body lives and breathes with a natural intelligence that is always taking in information—always learning about itself so it can make adjustments to support its highest state of functioning. By merging the two intelligences of sensing and thinking, you tap into an awareness we call the “thinking body.” Here, your true capacity for perception and self-knowing unfolds. To access the thinking body is to develop body literacy—the ability to listen, understand and consciously respond to the information your body communicates to your mind via sensation. Once you develop body literacy, every sensation becomes a powerful form of education you can use to transform your life.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

On Friday, November 14, Charlottesville hosts a TEDx conference: a day of local and international speakers sharing ideas worth spreading. I have the great good fortune to be the speaker coach for Jim Harshaw, who will be giving a TEDx talk called “Why I Teach My Children to Fail.” On the face of it, Jim’s talk is about failure as part of the process toward success, but really, what he’s talking about is continuing education. (Coincidence that Principle 12 falls on the week of TEDx? I think not.) Continuing education is about constantly choosing to step beyond what we already know into new areas of learning and growth.

Continuing Education is about being willing to suck.

During Nia trainings, Nia Founder Carlos Rosas would remind us over and over that the only way we’d improve as teachers (or partners or parents or people) is to be willing to suck: to be willing to flail and not know and stumble and forget everything and totally, completely stink. In Zen Buddhism this practice is called “shoshin” or “beginner’s mind” (I wrote about this a while back). Shoshin is an attitude of openness and curiosity, a willingness to learn something new, even when practicing at an advanced level. In some ways, then, the longer we practice and the more we know, the more challenging Principle 12 (aka shoshin, aka beginner’s mind, aka willingness to suck) can be.

Often I forget that learning and practice are two different things. Once I’ve learned something, I can practice it over and over and train myself to do it more easefully. But learning is awkward. As my brain and body endeavor to do something unfamiliar, I feel vulnerable and clumsy and uncomfortable. Awkward is simply what it feels like to learn.

And, if I’m really in the spirit and practice of Principle 12, I seek out that awkward feeling even while doing things that I’ve done a thousand times before. Continuing education is to be willing to suck — even at things we’ve done for a long time.

No matter what you want to do better ~ teach Nia, play ice hockey, parent a child, sing opera, give a TED Talk ~ some part of that learning will feel spazzy and uncomfortable. At some point in the learning process, you will suck. You will flail and fail. As Jim Harshaw will say on Friday at TEDx, the inevitable failures aren’t bad things to be avoided but are simply part of the process of continuing your education and enhancing your life.

It takes courage to be willing to suck, so Continuing Education takes courage. It is much more comfortable to stay in safe, known territory than to risk suckage. But it is only by finding that courage and taking those risks that we can be our best and discover what is possible.


BeginnersMind2“Beginner’s mind = many possibilities; expert’s mind = few.” — Shunryu Suzuki (paraphrase)

Being a “Black Belt” doesn’t mean that you know everything.  Being a Black Belt means now I am a student.

What are you a “Black Belt” in?  Maybe a career (being a lawyer) or something practical (how to change a tire).  What if you approached “Black Belt” activities with Beginner’s Mind?  An attitude of openness, eagerness, and without preconceptions, as a beginner would.

Beginner’s Mind bucks the culture of expert worship.  If you do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm like you’d never done it before, what would be different?

PS Please “like” Focus Pocus on Facebook!  And if a post resonates with you, please share it!

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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