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Beginner’s Mind

Rock Climbing at the Gunks
Rock Climbing at the Gunks

When you get really good at something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of automated behavior. This is where you respond to a situation without thinking about what you’re doing or why. A lot of people think automated behavior like this is a good thing  and that it’s the mark of an expert. I don’t.

I try to cultivate a different mind-set called beginner’s mind, where I maintain my awareness of what’s happening. Time feels like it slows down when I do this even though the experience might happen very quickly. I’ve found that I make even better decisions and can remember why I acted the way I did. I can also explain it to other people, which is important to me because I like to teach, to coach and to mentor. I feel that learning to be present with an experience is the key to being able to explain it.

I find myself drawn to teachers who maintain this state of mind. They don’t take their skill or experience for granted, not even their ability to teach. My friend and teacher Josh told me he still gets nervous before every yoga and meditation class he teaches. I am honored. It tells me that he is paying attention in our classes.

Like him, I still get a little nervous every time I start climbing a big hill, although I’ve climbed hundreds before. I wonder, will I be able to make it to the top? I almost always do, but I try to maintain my sense of awareness and awe each time. It happens each time I write a post on this blog, every time I go to a yoga class or do a combat roll in my kayak.

No matter how advanced my skills get, I try to experience everything as a beginner. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few (Shunryu Suzuki, 1970.)

5 comments

  1. I love this. I try to do the same in my lawyering. Yes, this may be the 870th time I've talked to people about planning for when they die (or have a stroke or their Alzheimer's gets to the point where they can't function) but for most people it's the first time they've ever talked about it. And so I need to honor that and go slow and not brush past their concerns and not assume they know what things mean.

  2. Exactly – Have you ever been taught by a teacher who is so expert that they've forgotten to break down a new skill or decision into its basic elements. It makes for tough going by a student who doesn't know what to see. I'm glad to hear that you have worked this into your "practice."

  3. How true — "Automated Behavior" leads to mistakes that may have fatal consequences…

  4. Spot on review… similarly most driving accidents are caused by people on autopilot on a familiar route

  5. Yes, a new approach to solving a problem always involves unlearning an approach, or at least not letting it get in the way. At least twice the effort…unlearning, then learning, again.

    I love working with new people and watching how they solve problems, feeling their way into a new (or an old, but new to them) solution. The overall task is not important. Training for a single solution to a task is easy. Training how to think about solving a problem….now, that's just hard work.

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