“Because you are alive, everything is possible.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh,
by Maggie Wooll
5 ways to cultivate a beginner’s mind (and stay open to the possibility)
Do you remember the amazement you felt the first time you rode a bike? Despite the excitement gained from biking at an early age, most of us no longer approach riding a bike with a beginner’s mind. Instead of feeling wonderful, biking can feel more like a chore than the wonderful experience it once was.
This doesn’t just happen for biking. What once lit you up with curiosity and wonder may not excite you as much once you become an expert. This is where the beginner's mind comes in. Using this concept, you can recapture the sense of excitement, curiosity, and wonder you experience when trying or learning something new — even if it’s no longer new to you.
What is a beginner’s mind?
Having a beginner’s mind means you approach the world through a beginner’s eyes. The term is translated from the original word, Shoshin, which is a word that comes from Zen Buddhism. It means you look at every situation you’re placed in as if it’s the first time you are seeing it. The late Shunryu Suzuki wrote about the concept of Shoshin in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“If your mind is empty … it is open to everything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Think of it this way, a beginner doesn’t have any expectations, preconceived notions, or past experiences to limit their view of a situation. Beginners also have curiosity towards something new and are open and eager to learn. This means that a beginner has access to a world of possibilities. When they try something new there are no existing expectations to limit their mindset about what could (and should) happen. Having a beginner’s mind means developing this mindset even when you already know something or have lots of experience with a topic. On the other hand, an expert mind is an attitude taken when someone believes they know enough about something in order to achieve what they need to do. With this mindset, people make assumptions and don’t tend to ask questions about a given situation before they make a decision. They believe there is one correct solution, and that whatever deviates from this is ‘wrong’. Although an expert may know a lot, an expert mindset provides a narrow point of view that can block you from finding new (and better) solutions to a problem. A beginner, however, will not see a right or wrong way to approach a problem or situation.
Why should you learn to cultivate a beginner’s mind? Past knowledge and preconceptions can cloud your judgment and stop you from seeing a familiar situation clearly. When this happens over and over again, this can lead to feeling stuck or in a rut. Situations that were once wonderful now become stale. The more you experience, the less wonder you’ll be able to find as everything loses its luster. Even if you’re an expert in a topic or situation, it may become increasingly difficult to find solutions for new problems that arise. But when you cultivate a beginner’s mind, you can approach a problem with more creativity and a fresher perspective. Because you bring a fresh perspective to old situations, you can get unstuck and experience something new as a result.
You can gain a sense of playfulness and wonder about topics and situations that become stale over time. Even the topics or situations you know the most about, usually have something you can get newly excited about. A beginner's mind helps you access these new and exciting experiences. A beginner’s mind also helps you develop deeper gratitude and free yourself from expectations about past experiences. If you no longer expect anything specific, every outcome is something to be grateful for. This can help you avoid feelings of disappointment since you aren’t using past experiences as a baseline to judge what is happening now. For example, if you order the same dish every time you go to your favorite restaurant, it may not always taste the same. However, with a beginner’s mind, you focus on the present version of the dish and enjoy what’s in front of you. Developing a more zen and positive attitude also has several health benefits,including a lower mortality rate.
So, you can not only live a happier life, but also a longer one.
Finally, a beginner’s mind can help you become even more of an expert in a topic. That’s because making an effort to look at a situation with fresh eyes will allow you to find new ways to solve problems. This makes your knowledge even richer and multi-faceted.
5 Ways to develop a beginner’s mind
Ready to start experiencing Shoshin, a beginner’s mindset, in your own life? Here are five actionable steps you can take to cultivate a beginner's mind.
1. Ignore the stories past experiences tell you
Your mind can play tricks on you and stress you out by coming up with unnecessary stories. These stories attempt to give you reasons for why things happen. This can lead you to jump to conclusions that aren’t true. For example, if someone you care about doesn’t show up at your birthday dinner, it can be easy to think that they are angry at you or have something against you. But it could simply be because they are sick, had an emergency, or slept through an alarm. Instead of torturing yourself with assumptions based on a past experience, see things as they really are, not as what your mind is telling you. Question every assumption that pops into your head and look at it from several angles. You can also question why you made that assumption in the first place so that you can become better at catching yourself in the future. You’ll start feeling much less upset at situations that you can’t control.
2. Take inspiration from children
For a child, almost everything is new, and they approach these situations with wonder and amazement. They don't live their lives based on a preconceived idea of what it should be. The next time you're around children, notice how they react to the world around them. Take note of how you can learn from them and bring their perspective into your life. Start asking questions like they do: what is this, why is it this way, how does this work? When you ask these questions, whether to yourself or others around you, you’ll start learning more about topics and situations that you believed you were already an expert in. Children are never done learning, and neither are you, which is a wonderful perspective to adopt. You’ll learn much more easily this way.
3. Slow down
When you know how to do something, it’s easy to go to autopilot. Instead of automatically going through the motions, slow down and take your time, rediscovering every aspect of the task. Be aware of what you’re doing and experiencing. Act with intention and live in the present moment throughout the entire experience. If you see yourself going through the motions and acting a certain way, try taking a different approach the next time around. You never know what you could discover.
4. Remove the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary
What ‘should’ happen is based on your preconceived notions and expectations. Saying something ‘should’ happen a certain way ties you to the outcome. Instead, let go of the outcome and of your beliefs about what should happen or how something should be done. Let the world surprise you with new potential outcomes, and keep an open mind.
5. Put your ego on the back burner
If you’re an expert at something, you probably want to be recognized for it. It's good for your ego. But as a result, you may want to be right at all costs. A beginner is almost never right, and as a result, they enjoy new learning experiences. Let go of the need to be right, and approach every situation as an opportunity to learn something new and improve yourself. Live more mindfully with a beginner’s mind. With a beginner's mind, you rediscover the joy of experiencing something new. And yes, even with experiences and topics you’re already familiar with. Here’s a final tip: approach a situation by identifying your expectations first, then questioning those expectations.
Why are they there?
Will having those expectations really improve the experience?
What would it feel like to go through this experience without any expectations?
How to Feel Younger at Any Age
Judi Fordyce’s happy place is a ski resort where she can take in sweeping mountain views and breathe in cool air before pushing off on a run. Most skiers—or anyone passionate about a sport—can relate. What’s different about Fordyce is that she didn’t take up skiing until she was 59, and now, 12 years later, she’s still going strong on the slopes. Around the same time, at 60, Carol Niederlander had just earned her MFA in poetry. She had set up a studio with artists and published some of her work. Now 75, Niederlander works out with a trainer, and in the evening you might find her headed to the symphony or a jazz venue in St. Louis. On weekends, she’s often with a physics professor she met online.
Though both women are keenly aware of their ages they seem almost ageless in the way they don’t fret about the numbers or, more important, about what people think women in their 70s should or shouldn’t do.
Research backs up Fordyce’s opinion: Attitudes about aging can affect how things play out. If you think you’re too old to ski or go back to school, chances are you’ll never do it. For instance, if you’re in your 40s and your friends complain about getting older or talk about how they’re past their prime, you internalize it. But curtailing a certain physical or mental activity—whether it’s traveling or learning a hobby—doesn’t protect you. In fact, putting on the brakes can hasten aging. The reason has to do with neurons, tiny messengers that are responsible for how you process information—and do just about everything else. Until about middle age, the brain constantly births new neurons. That process slows naturally over time and the brain becomes less efficient, McDonough says.
“Challenging yourself seems to create new neurons and connections,” says McDonough.
This isn’t true in all regions of the brain, but it does happen in the part responsible for attention, and this has all sorts of ramifications as a person gets older.
Memory, for one—which many fear will decline as they age—seems to be closely related.
“One reason older adults have poor memories may be not retrieval problems, but attention issues,” McDonough says.
“If your brain isn’t attending to information as well, it doesn’t get into your system, so you can’t remember it.”
Getting Comfortable With Risk
As you get older, seeking novel experiences and challenging yourself may not come as naturally to you.
“When you’re young, the default goal is to do things that are new and exciting, because they have implications for your future,”
But as you move into middle age, time begins to shrink, and your goals may shift to prioritize emotional stability and meaningful experiences and relationships.
Carstensen uses an example of a big party someone is not sure will be fun. A younger person still goes, because she starts considering the what-ifs: What if I met my soulmate? What if I didn’t go and people thought I wasn’t invited? What if something cool happened? “But if an older person is faced with the same type of party, she may well decide not to go,” she says. How, then, do you reconcile your psyche’s desire to enjoy, say, the comfort of spending time with longtime friends with the brain’s need for novelty?
“The ideal is to have both goals coincide,” says Carstensen.
“For example, if someone you trust says there will be a person at that party you should meet, you get the comfort from the emotional connection plus the novelty.”
This dovetails with how Fordyce picked up skiing at 59.
“I first took a ski lesson in college and thought, Meh,” she says. “But when I met my husband 13 years ago, he was a skier, and I tried it again and it clicked.
He is my biggest cheerleader and got me to rethink some things I wasn’t sure I could do or learn at my age.” Some people simply remain open to novelty as they get older or come around to that desire via other paths. Caring for elderly relatives at the ends of their lives was part of the catalyst for Niederlander’s wanting to try more new things.
“It brought home the reality that life has limits and our time is not forever,” she says. “I wanted to do and experience as much as possible.
My family is long-lived, and it felt like a waste to keep doing the same things, even if it was a tad scary to stretch.” One reassuring point: Though it can seem dicey to step out of one’s comfort zone at any age, it feels less risky as the years pass.
Make the Most of Your Age
Want to get more of that younger mindset? Try something new. You needn’t take on a huge task or challenge—just embrace novelty.
“Do something you haven’t done before or that’s not routine,” says McDonough.
Working with a teacher or friend who can guide and challenge you can help you avoid frustration and also has beneficial effects on the brain
Keep an open mind about what aging looks like.
“Most people in their 60s fear aging less than those 20 years younger, because they’re starting to realize it’s not so bad,” Carstensen says. “A raft of improvements come developmentally with age.” Not only do people tend to be happier and calmer as they age, but they’re better at resolving conflicts and seeing patterns.
Tune out negative self-talk.
Find people who inspire and encourage you. Age isn’t relevant if you share interests and passions. Keep moving. You can’t think yourself into a fit 30-year-old’s skin, but staying physically active keeps your energy up and your brain sharp.
Focus on goals and celebrate success.
We hope you enjoyed the conversation and wish you a happy week!
Be Kind, Do Fearless