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Cultivating the Beginner’s Mind

Cultivating the Beginner’s Mind

I have never liked the title ‘Senior Teacher’ as the way to refer to those of us who are older in the practice. One organisation, I recently saw, has started to refer to us as ‘Elders’ – wonderful. The term ‘senior’ smacks a little of knowing it all already and of being better than. I am a student first and foremost with so much to learn. Not only am I a student, but I still think that over more than twenty years of practice, I have managed to sustain some of the magic of the beginner’s mind.

The complete beginner at anything arrives (hopefully) without too many preconceptions or fixed ideas around what they are learning. This state is one of radical openness to that subject and therefore it is a completely treasured time. We can never completely bring it back. Being a beginner also – for most – means we are learning with some humility as we must acknowledge that everything still remains to be learnt rather than feeling we know it all. There is also a keenness that is there in the beginning when we are often getting a lot of ‘firsts’ and milestone experiences, whereas further on we might be doing more fine tuning, repetitions and at times taking some steps back to move forward. In the beginning we also often have no assumptions about what we should be able to do, no demands on ourselves.  

In Zen Buddhist philosophy they refer a lot to the importance of shoshin or beginner’s mind in meditation suggesting it is important not to preempt or expect deep meditative states to arise because they might have before. 

Without a notion of what they ‘should’ be feeling, doing or experiencing the student is liberated to experience what is happening for what it is, without judgement. This means they are more present in the here and now.

Qualities of the Beginner’s Mind

  • Humility
  • Radical openness
  • Keenness 
  • Practising without assumptions and preconceptions
  • Present – Here and Now – ness

The Opposite State

The mind of the experienced practitioner can, if not tended to carefully, be very different. There can be a lot of habitual mental, physical and spiritual ruts that are hard to get out of. In yoga these are sometimes referred to as saṃskāra – subtle impressions from past experiences that we carry around – our practice baggage. We might have a recurrent fear around a posture or set of postures we struggled with in the past. We might have a tendency toward negative self talk or jealousy when we practice. When we grind these same unhelpful grooves we lose our versatility and aptitude to evolve and often our baggage gets heavier. Even joyful practice experiences, if never reappraised, can form problematic saṃskāra. ‘I like to do it this way’ can become a refusal to try other ways or listen to other people’s ideas and experiences. This can prohibit us from reaching our greater potential and from empathising with other peoples’ very different experiences.

Some teachers and experienced practitioners do not have a teacher of their own and this (I personally feel) is a mistake. It is useful to test our own beliefs by letting those we respect challenge us on them even if we decide to stay with our own approach in the end – a lot is learnt in the process. It is helpful to let someone tell us what they see that we don’t. It helps to have someone to guide us when we are struggling. A teacher also nudges and encourages us to move into uncharted territory, thus rekindling the beginner’s mind,

The opposite of preconception or imposing beliefs  on our practice  might arise as one of śravaṇa – deep listening. Through cultivating a practice of listening to our internal teacher much is  revealed to the attentive practitioner. Likewise, going to workshops, enrolling on trainings and seeking out new teachings that refresh our perspective can help.

The worst type of stagnation for the experienced practitioner is ego or arrogance, which is a form of  asmitā kleśa (ego obstacle). We can become very prideful over time and defensive about our practice. We don’t want to accept that sometimes someone less experienced might be able to teach us something. Remember that learning can arise from the least likely places and that it would be sad to let our pride get in the way of a learning experience.

We should also remember that samādhi states are not achieved through mindlessly going through the motions once we have found relative comfort in the postures. Rather we train the focus of the mind to attain such meditative absorption. Therefore, one must become fascinated with the subtler parts of practice when the gross has been achieved, the finer points of alignment and subtle sensation in the soft tissues, the breath, bandha, drṛṣṭi and the flow of energy in the body.

The Pitfalls of being Experienced

  • Getting stuck in a rut of fear, lethargy or negative thought due to expectations we place on ourselves
  • Believing your way is the best and never trying anything new
  • Being teacherless and unchallenged on your beliefs
  • Arrogance or ego 
  • Mindless, unfocused practice

So for those of you who feel you are burdened by your expectations of deep meditations, blissful states or achieving challenging prāṇāyāma or āsana find your way back to your beginner’s mind. Can practice in the present be accepted as it is without odious comparisons to past practices and can we let go of our pride enough to let other kind hearted seekers blow our minds with gems of wisdom? Can we meet our practices with openness rather than expectation, with fascination rather than mindless following? Only through such radical openness can we stay young and vibrant in the practice, falling in love with it time and again.