Beginner’s mind is a notion that originated in the Buddhist Zen tradition, referring to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when examining one’s mind. Maintaining beginner’s mind is what’s most difficult in mindfulness because we are customarily imprisoned by our mind’s incessant chatter. We are deeply wired by evolution for this chatter, which has a very particular function. It is mediated by the brain’s default mode circuitry, a network of neurons devised by nature to use cognition and story-making to construct a sense of self from our body’s sensations, and project that sense of self into the past and future, so that we can remember and plan. In addition, this circuitry constantly scans for problems it then goes about trying to solve in conditioned ways, that are often rigid, chaotic, or otherwise distorted by having had to survive difficult past experiences. In short, this chatter is our brain’s built-in mechanism to construct a sense of self it then tries to guide through life by means of stories that are supposed to make sense. We live enveloped in a storied world of concepts and narratives that are supposed to reflect reality, when in fact they are just the maps of the territory, the menus of the meals of directly lived experience. What’s even more problematic is that these stories contain various and many distortions we don’t recognize as such.
This default mode circuitry is active when the brain is at rest, inactive when we are engaged in concentrating on a task. This is the reason why so many people cannot fall asleep at night. The moment they ‘relax’ to try and go to sleep, this chatter becomes active and keeps some of us awake by its ruminative ways of trying to solve imaginary problems it can never solve that way. In other words, we are locked in a world of constant chatter, whether task-oriented or for its own purpose of constructing and guiding a self as it lives and acts in the world. This chatter consists of information about lived experience, with all the distortions that story-making gives rise to. The direct experience of being alive through pre-conceptual awareness called beginner’s mind eludes us, causing substantial suffering.
Beginner’s mind is an attitude of openness to the present moment without preconceived knowledge and expectations. It is difficult to embody and requires training to develop. Imagining the curious mind attitude of young children, for whom everything is utterly novel, is the habitual metaphor used to describe it. We can however examine more closely what elements constitute beginner’s mind by exploring mindfulness and compassion.
In Mindful Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer differentiate mindfulness with its target on experience from compassion with its target on the experiencer. Mindfulness can be described as impartial present-moment awareness with kind acceptance of what we are aware of. It focuses on experience with the question ‘what am I experiencing right now?’, inviting us to directly experience our suffering with spacious, pre-conceptual awareness. Compassion, both towards others and oneself acknowledges the fundamental relational aspect of human experience and focuses on both experiencers, the self and the other. By asking the question ‘what do I/you need right now?’, compassion invites us to be kind to ourselves and others when we suffer. Mindfulness brings clarity of view on experience and reality; compassion brings the necessary sense of safety for the experiencers (both self and other) to be able to open up to and bear difficult experiences and develop clarity of view. The clarity of view of mindful awareness develops through attentional training, while the sense of safety in compassion comes from an empathically attuned relationship to others and oneself.
Mindfulness and compassion are mutually reinforcing in a dance of bidirectional correlation. They need each other. Without compassion, the observing experiencer feels unsafe, tenses up, and makes the mindful work on attentional stabilization to gain clarity over experience impossible. The experiencer becomes like a photographer on the back of a pick-up truck crossing a river bed, who tries to stabilize the camera. Instead of being in the service of gaining clarity, the attentional energy then gets detoured into problem-solving and goal achievement. Conversely, without mindfulness, experience and experiencer get confused and there is no clarity of experience to relate to, giving compassion no clear target to attune itself to. Instead of being directed towards the experiencer, it then gets used to change experience as resistance to pain.
Beginner’s mind is the amalgamation of clear differentiation from a mindfulness point of view, and radical acceptance from a compassion point of view. Through clear differentiation in mindfulness, we don’t satisfy ourselves with an approximate fuzzy view of experience, such as ‘my knee hurts and I fear that I am going to have an operation’. Instead, we cultivate intense curiosity about the details of experience on a direct, pre-conceptual level of awareness in the here and now, and never take anything we observe for granted as something we may delude ourselves to already know. As for radical acceptance, we drop the idea of progress and refine our intention to be compassionate for its own sake, not to feel better, but because we feel bad. We don’t practice compassion to be free from pain, but just because at times it is hard to be embodied and human. Curiosity for details of direct pre-conceptual experience in the here and now through mindfulness, combined with radical acceptance through compassion, together form the two fundamental aspects of beginner’s mind.
Beginner’s mind finds its expressions also in mythology and sacred texts as I wrote about elsewhere. You would unlikely use Bible style and say ‘In the beginning of my holidays it rained, but the weather turned nice later on’. Instead, you would most likely say ‘At the beginning of my holidays it rained, but the weather turned nice later on’. ‘At’ implies a point or period in time, before and after which other things happened. ‘In the beginning’ echoes ‘once upon a time’. There is a sense that what is about to be said is situated right inside at the core of something called the beginning, or ‘on top of’ and therefore outside time. The Book of J assumed to be the original poem from which later the Bible evolved, is rather explicit: ‘… from the day Yahweh made the earth and sky, a mist from within would rise to moisten the surface.’ Again, our attention is drawn to a ‘soothing mist within time’, the nature of which we need to understand. By stepping ‘inside’ the beginning, we step out of time, the same way we do so by stepping ‘on top of’ time. Both the inside and the outside of the beginning, expressed by the idioms ‘In the beginning …’ and ‘Once upon a time …’, are about timelessness, the soothing mist and mystery of human life as experienced through the direct means of pre-conceptual awareness in the here and now.
When the Bible begins in Genesis with ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’, and in John’s Gospel with ‘In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’, or when our favorite fairy tale begins with ‘Once upon a time there was a very kind princess …’, we are invited to hear something about timelessness, not a historical description within time. What follows these idioms is what happens now, in every moment of our lives, which has always happened and will continue to happen now for all eternity. It is therefore non-sensical to ask what was before the beginning or to think that the Bible is a historical account of what happened next. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ means that God always creates the heavens and the earth right now and that the invitation is for us to go beyond the chatter of the default mode circuitry and drop into the direct, pre-conceptual awareness of Being as life’s deepest mystery, where we will discover ‘God’ creating everything that exists right now, and now, and now, moment by moment, out of the great nothingness of pure potential. The same applies to ‘Once upon a time there was a kind princess, who received a visit from the wicked witch’. The witch’s visit to the princess always occurs in the eternal Now, to be relived moment by moment again and again as a ritualistic mystery that reveals the secrets of our soul. To recognize that and be able to feel it as a lived experience in the eternal Now, is beginner’s mind.
To respond to the invitation to enter the world of beginner’s mind in a directly embodied fashion is not so easy. It may thus be appropriate to leave the last word to an age-old master of beginner’s mind:
In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally, you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
Tao Te Ching #48, by Lao-Tzu
Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.