Beginner’s Mind

Apropos of the new year, I’ve been thinking about the mental attitude we cultivate in meditation called “beginner’s mind”. Phillip Moffitt described it in Dancing with Life as “empty of preconceived notions about what is supposed to be and expectations as to what it can achieve.” It is the mind of surrender, the mind open and humble and listening. Without a receptive attitude toward experience, we cannot see what is actually there. Preconceived notions and preexisting views cloud our vision. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki (Suzuki Roshi) said:

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. … although you may improve some, you’re liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

…Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Moffitt suggests two concrete steps to establishing beginner’s mind. First, “the ego has to give up the idea of its omnipotence. It must accept its own defeat ….” Accepting one’s own defeat may seem a difficult task, until we remember that the ego never was omnipotent in the first place. What we “accept” is simply the truth: we do not control our experiences.

Second, Moffitt instructs, “forsake your desires and ideas about what you will accomplish.” Again, this is an instruction in recognizing our lack of control. The Buddha said that ” the future is always other than you imagined it,” and this is true whether or not something goes as planned. Our ideas about what experience is are never the same as the experience itself. We imagine a night out, or a vacation, or a day on the job, and although everything goes according to schedule, the experience itself is not the same as the narrative we constructed beforehand. To boot, the experience is always better, always more satisfying, than a mental construct of it. The mind’s conjectures, however fanciful, pale in comparison to actual lived experience.

Moffitt reminds us that we control neither the future nor the present. The only control we have is in how we meet the moment. If we bring the openness of beginner’s mind, we are more likely to meet our experiences without resistance, opinion, or greed. We can simply acknowledge, in Ajahn Sumedho‘s words, “This moment is like this”. That is the wisdom of original mind, rich and sufficient within itself.

In meditation, we are always beginners. There is never a time when we have practiced enough that we will know what our experience is without looking at it. What we gain from such close inspection is the truth of the moment, but not because beginner’s mind tries to understand experience, only because it tries to see it. From Emily Carson‘s Something Makes Me Open My Eyes:

“And you know that one day you will understand what you passed through but that you don’t need that day because it is the passing through that will help you and not the understanding.”

We can pass through each moment with an open, surrendered awareness that admits that we don’t know what is here. We can approach each breath with beginner’s mind. Happy New Year.