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Harnessing the Potential of Beginner’s Mind

The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” has become important across fields and practices for its ability to maximize possibility, success, and awareness.

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“We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence.”
–Shunryu Suzuki

After hundreds of hours of yoga teacher training and thousands more of practice, I stepped into my first traditional Ashtanga yoga center in July of this past year. For years I self-identified as “advanced.” Even my understanding of what it meant to be advanced was advanced, I thought. I knew it was more than fancy binds and rigorous inversions (though I secretly self-congratulated my ability to do those too); the true yoga was off the mat, the true yoga was in the meditation practice and in the practice of giving love into the world. And then I did my very first Mysore practice and I realized: Not only is my asana practice not advanced, but my spiritual practice is novice too. I marveled as the beautiful practitioners around me seamlessly floated from pose to pose, transitioning from one arm balance to another and gracefully finding deeper binds than I ever thought possible. I also stood in awe of the inflexible men who powered through their postures with focus and intention. It was the dedication to the practice that had me so inspired. They showed up, every single day, before most of New York was even awake.

All of a sudden, I felt like a beginner again.

Photo by Hailey Wist

I oscillated between embarrassment and excitement when I realized just how much I had to learn, how much potential lay ahead. I couldn’t help but hear the famous spiritual truism ringing in my head: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s there are few.” So says Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most influential spiritual leaders in the past hundred years, and author of the groundbreaking text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The full embodied and understood integration of the notion that life and its possibilities are limitless is a posture of submission and a celebration of existence. The key for me was focusing on this notion without getting caught up in how those vast possibilities would manifest, without worrying about whether or not I would ever get my leg behind my head, or jump through each Vinyasa without making a sound. The distillation of beginner’s mind, Suzuki tells us, is to “always be a beginner,” meaning that the moment we feel we are making progress, we’ve lost the key to that very progress. In other words, without a constant stream of humility and awareness, we risk losing our beginner’s mind.

This paradox of awareness continues, “All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something,” Suzuki tells us. “The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.” We find progress, then, in a softening of our awareness of beginner’s mind.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes, “sthira sukham asanam,” which is often translated as, “steady comfortable posture” and interpreted to mean that the physical practice, our connection to this earth, should be steady and joyful. To use Suzuki’s terms, our practice must be a balance of steadfast dedication and boundless compassion.

Today too, we hear stories of companies hiring for inexperience over experience: Managers feel that an unshaped mind, hungry for learning and growth may be more valuable than an employee already set in their ways, already experts in their field.  According to Caroline Silby, who was a member of the National Figure Skating Team, and renowned sports psychologist, these tendencies are true for coaches and athletes as well. “In athletics, being able to open your mind and see situations in a different way becomes one of the skills that we try to teach people.” Silby believes that not being open to beginner’s mind is a missed opportunity for athletes. “It’s not about facts, but about what experience they bring to the facts, so if a coach says, ‘I want you to try it this way’ an athlete can’t shut down. They need to be able to see their game from multiple perspectives.”

Silby acknowledges that it’s not an easy process, particularly since athletes are creatures of habit who “constantly feel the need to take control.” But, says Silby, “It’s good to shift the mindset. Players need to be relentless and focus on solutions. To do that well, you have to be in beginner’s mind.” And for this type of problem solving to be as effective as possible, a focus on the vastness of possibility is paramount.

This method might have held true for Suzuki himself who maintained that true understanding is not intellectual understanding. “True understanding is actual practice itself.” This is not to say that experience is a bad thing, rather that an open and flexible mind are both empowering for ourselves, and attractive to others.

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