Beginner’s mind – or the capacity to bring an open and curious approach to a situation – is one of the principles of mindfulness. Cultivating beginner’s mind can help us get the new year started on the right foot. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says: “An open, ‘beginner’s’ mind allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does.”
The particular attitude we bring to each situation we encounter strongly influences the outcome. As is said in Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program: It is not the stressors per se but how we handle them that makes the difference. The openness and curiosity of beginner’s mind facilitates a balanced and calm presence in the face of a stressor.
The opposite to beginner’s mind is a mind that is closed and already knowing. It is convinced by its own expertise that there is nothing to learn and so no need to reflect on the ways it might be misperceiving or the gaps in knowledge. This belief is usually below our consciousness. How we perceive the world, other people, events etc is heavily influenced by the experiences of our life (conditioning). For example, if we have grown up with messages (explicit or implicit) that certain groups of people are dangerous, then over time we automatically react in a negative way when faced with someone from that group.
Over our lifetime we develop habits and patterns of responding to a situation based on our perceptions influenced by our conditioning. Because they have been repeated so many times, these habits and patterns become our automatic (and unconscious) way of reacting to daily events. In a complex situation, it is not an unprocessed, automatic reaction, that is needed. Such situations require a thoughtful, reflective response that can accommodate nuance, multiple perspectives, and competing wants. Not easy!
Beginner’s mind requires us to let go of the certainty of being an expert and the certainty of our unexamined beliefs and prejudices. Attachment to being right and defensiveness gets in the way of beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind requires us to step into a space that is more ambiguous and vulnerable. For many of us (I plead guilty), this is not a comfortable place to inhabit. Recently I had the privilege of working with an individual who taught me a lot about embodying the quality of beginner’s mind. As a long-term volunteer at Lifeline, I was asked to mentor a new student (Janika – pseudonym) who had completed the training and was now answering calls for the first time. It is a stressful situation answering those calls for the first time. Your head is full of all the information, theory and skills practised during the months of training. You have no idea what the particular crisis will be of the person at the other end of the call and you want to be of service.
As a mentor, I sat with Janika for four shifts of four hours and listened to every call. We would debrief after each call. My initial thoughts were that what would be most helpful for the trainee, would be to be affirmed. However, it soon become apparent that Janika was so open and comfortable with being a learner that in our debriefs we could have frank discussions about different ways to respond to the caller, her own communication habits and the times she notice a bit of reactivity to a particular caller (all handled appropriately). Because Janika approached our time together with a beginner’s mind (informed by the training) she was comfortable acknowledging her strengths and also the areas that needed more work.
Janika’s openness was supported by a high level of self-awareness – a capacity to know her thoughts, feelings and reactions during a call. It was a delight for me as mentor to see Janika exhibiting new skills at each successive shift and ceasing some of the habits that were less effective in her new role as a Lifeline Crisis Supporter. When I commented on her growth, she advised that she practised the skills (we had identified in our debriefs of the calls she took), with her family and friends in the intervening period. It was wonderful as a mentor to observe the fruit of her endeavour. It was such a clear example that we can change even strongly entrenched habits and patterns with the right motivation and practice.
What a strength it is to bring a beginner’s mind to each new situation we encounter. The trick is to remember that every situation we encounter is new, including a conversation with our partner of decades!
May everyone benefit from your cultivation of beginner’s mind.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.
The next public Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (modified) program commences on Sunday, 27 January.