Beginner’s mind is open, curious, and unbound by concepts and opinions — just like the mind of the buddhas. Ezra Bayda has some techniques you can use to cultivate the fresh mind of the beginner.
Beginner’s mind (shoshin) is a term in Zen Buddhism that describes a mind that is eager, without preconceptions, and open to possibility. As the late Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
One way to invoke beginner’s mind is to go back to the fundamentals of meditation practice, which are rooted in two essential questions: “What’s going on right now?” and “What is my practice in this situation?” You could spend a long time working on nothing but these two questions, and it would no doubt be very fruitful.
Let’s start with the first question: “What’s going on right now?” At the most basic level, what’s going on at the moment is that you’re reading this article. But what else is going on? I find it helpful to break that down into three components: the physical, mental, and emotional.
Starting with what’s going on physically, there are three specific areas you can always bring your attention to. The first is your posture. Feel it now and adjust as necessary. The second is your facial expression. We’re rarely aware of the subtleties of our facial expressions. Feel it now, particularly the tension around the mouth and eyes, and soften any tension. The third is overall bodily tension. Feel the whole of yourself, almost as if you were outside of yourself, and then soften and relax into the body.
Awareness isn’t about memories of the past. It’s not about reflections or free association or future experiences.
Next, what’s going on right now mentally? For example, is the mind clear or foggy? Perhaps it’s sleepy or dull. Perhaps it’s agitated. The point is just to be aware of what’s happening in our mind, not judging that any mental state is particularly good or bad.
Here it’s often helpful to ask another question: “What am I adding?” For example, we may notice our worries, or our judgments, or one of our endless stories about how we think things are. We may notice our own particular patterns of thinking that we add to the present moment and tend to get caught in, such as planning, conversing, or fantasizing.
After checking in with the physical and mental components of what’s going on, check in with your emotional state. Are you contented, emotionally neutral, or discontented? Again, it’s helpful to notice what we’re adding to the present moment. For example, what tone or mood are you adding? Are you bored? Anxious? Angry? Notice any dark filters.
The point of asking what’s going on right now and doing precise physical, mental, and emotional check-ins is to take the first step to wake up from our sleep. It’s important to understand that awareness isn’t like introspection, where we can wander endlessly in the mazes of the mind. We aren’t concerned with the why of self-analysis but with the what of who we are.
Awareness isn’t about memories of the past. It’s not about reflections or free association or future experiences. Awareness is confined to what’s actually going on within the space of the present moment. The attitude is nonjudgmental and curious. Any “should” is antithetical to genuine awareness.
Interestingly, there’s always more than one thing going on. But if we’re honest, most of the time we’re hardly aware at all. And if we are aware, we’re usually only aware of one aspect of our being, like physical discomfort or emotional distress.
“What’s going on right now?” is the fundamental first question in all of our practice; it’s the first step out of sleep. The suggestion is to ask this question repeatedly throughout the day, especially when we feel we’re somehow stuck.
Once we’re aware of what’s actually happening in the moment—what we’re feeling and believing—the next crucial question is: “What is my practice in this situation?”
In answering this question, the most important thing to remember is that practice is possible in only one place: here, right now. So what we’re specifically experiencing will determine what our practice will be. For example, if you’re experiencing monkey mind—the mind that jumps from one thing to another, the mind that spins in thoughts—ask what would be a good practice to work with that. How about if you’re sleepy or caught in emotional upset or self-judgment? What if nothing special is going on—what’s the best practice in that situation?
We have to remember that at times practice can seem very confusing. Sitting in meditation, we may sometimes wonder, “What exactly am I doing here?” We wonder if we’re supposed to be staying with our breathing, labeling thoughts, or just trying to reside in the stillness. When strong emotions or deep beliefs arise, we might be even more likely to forget what we’re supposed to do. So many of us, for example, forget to do loving-kindness practice when we get caught in self-judgment.
If at any given moment you were to pause and ask yourself, “What is my practice right now?” a lot of the time the honest answer might be, “I don’t know.” This confusion doesn’t arise because there are too many different practices to choose from—it’s simply because we temporarily forget what we know. Half of what I do when talking to students is to remind them of what they already know.
If we can remember to ask the final question, “What am I leaving out?” that will often point to what we need to do. For example, we might be leaving out awareness of the breath, or the body, or the environment. We might be leaving out the labeling of our believed thoughts, or the crucial perspective of seeing our difficulties as our path. It will likely be helpful if, in our practice, we address whatever it is we’re leaving out.
If, day by day, moment by moment, we continue to ask ourselves the essential practice questions, we will keep beginner’s mind—and a world of possibility—alive.