Tag Archives: Mindful Curiosity

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?

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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!

Today is September 1, 2012.  It’s official.  My Radical Sabbatical is over.  It was just what I needed and I learned so much, but it definitely didn’t go how I thought it would.   But then again, what does?

Last week, I was listening to a talk by Joan Borysenko called Fire in the Soul – Positive Spiritual Practices for Healing.  The talk was one produced by the National Institute for the Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) as part of their series on spirituality and healing.  I’ve been enjoying the NICABM talks all summer and they have introduced me to lots of powerful ideas and teachers.  But to be honest, I’d never heard of Dr. Borysenko and didn’t really think the topic would speak to me particularly.

In part of her talk, though, Dr. Borysenko talked about the experience that has been called “The Dark Night of the Soul”:  those times when we lose our way and things fall apart.  My ears pricked up:  that’s what happened to me!  I remember sitting in my kitchen telling my husband that I was lost.  It was that feeling that led me to the sabbatical.  I had thought of it as a mid-life crisis or a Nia crisis, but not a dark night of the soul.

Yet as she described the three parts of the Dark Night, I could see that this was my experience.  And it’s not just me, this is a human experience.  We tell the story over and over:  Odysseus, The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, Star Wars.

In all these stories and in our lives, the process of the Dark Night happens in three parts:

(1) separate from what was

(2) the interim time when things are no longer but not yet (also called the Liminal Time) and

(3) return transformed.

When the bottom drops out it can be scary and it can also be a time to invite transformation.

In all the classic stories and myths, and in my own Radical Sabbatical, it is the second stage – the liminal time — that is both the most challenging and the most important.  Whether it is sailing on the sea, walking the yellow brick road, or flying on the Millennium Falcon, the in-between time shapes the experience.  The liminal time is when the really juicy stuff happens!

As Dr. Borysenko explains, how someone handles the liminal time is pivotal.  They can get hopeless and depressed, feeling like they are being punished; or they can take it as an opportunity to make new choices based on what is working and what isn’t.  She says, “There is the possibility to return from the dark night with something more precious to offer.”

In John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time (see full text in the Helpful Info menu at right) he writes “‘The old is not old enough to have died away; the new is still too young to be born.’”  The liminal time can be uncomfortable.  It takes patience.  It is time between time.  The liminal time is about being in the unknown.  That’s the whole point.

Often when I’m in the interim time, I look for a way of ending it quickly; to find a resolution and relieve myself of the slippery-ness of the unfamiliar unknown.  And to really let the interim time do what it needs to do, I can’t rush it.  Dr. Borysenko offers three skills weathering Liminal Times:

  • Realism
  • Faith
  • Mindful curiosity

Realism.  When we’re on the brink of stepping away from what was, it can be tempting to fall into optimism or pessimism.  I can stalwartly tell myself, “I have to do what I have to do.  Consequences be damned!  Everything will work out.” (See me standing on the precipice with my fist at my heart and the breeze blowing my super hero cape.) On the other extreme, at 3am, as I stare at the ceiling, I can drop into helplessness and hopelessness and get mired in the muck of despair. (See me as a black and white stick figure, crumpled in the corner with a scribble mark over my head.)  Neither is particularly helpful.  What is helpful is getting real.  How can I support myself or get the support I need?  Where will I live?  What can I realistically do?  What do I really need to make this change?  Realism allows us to step into the liminal time with the resources to make the journey.

Mindful curiosity.  When I have awareness and curiosity about what is happening within me and around me, I can be open, spacious, and flexible.  Mindful curiosity leads to creativity and expansive thinking.  Creativity and expansive thinking opens up new options, new ways of looking at myself and my circumstances.  Without mindful curiosity, I can easily get stuck in my habits and patterns (which, come to think of it, probably brought me to the brink in the first place).  Mindful curiosity opens up my peripheral vision so I can see lots of possible directions to go.

Faith.  Faith is a bit of a tricky word for me.  Dr. Borysenko points out that faith can be religious, but not necessarily.  I see it as trust:  trusting that even though I don’t understand what is happening now, that there is a larger perspective that I don’t yet (and may never) have.  Faith in this sense in my ability to see myself on a rite of passage rather than as a victim of circumstance.  Faith allows me to feel the discomfort of the unknown and relax into it, remembering that it is part of the process.

As I neared the end of my sabbatical, I found that I wanted to tell the story of my experience – both the specifics and the universal.  I loved the intellectual analysis that Dr. Borysenko offered and the insights that any of the classic Dark Night stories reveal.  But I’m not a psychologist.  I’m not a philosopher (well, maybe a little bit).  I’m not a film maker.  I’m a Nia teacher.  I wanted to tell the story of my Radical Sabbatical – and these times of transition and transformation that we all go through – with the music, movement and magic of Nia.

Tomorrow, I’ll post a description of the Radical Sabbatical routine:  the music, the experience, and how we can play in the transitional times and allow them to transform us.  If you dance the routine with me, it may enrich the dance.  If you don’t, the music and lyrics may shed light on your own transitional times.  Either way, I’m happy to share the yellow brick road that I walked (and sometimes skipped and sometimes schlepped and sometimes danced) along.  I hope you’ll come back and read again tomorrow!



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