As our society has become more complex and fast-paced, we’ve become more dependent on routine. We live by the clock: 7 a.m. at the gym; kids to school at 8 a.m.; work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Meal times and bedtimes are determined by our schedule rather than physical needs and desires. We know the shortest, fastest way to do everything.
Routines and habits like these make us efficient in moving through time and space. The problem is, they force our minds into routines and habits, too. Relying on assumptions and habitual modes of thinking creates mental ruts that limit how we act in – and react to – the world around us. In some ways, it discourages us from thinking at all. We simply see and do and experience things in the way we always have – the way we’ve come to expect.
It’s different for young children. Unencumbered by assumptions and to-do lists, they think and act freely, discovering and inventing their world from moment to moment. Experiencing many things for the first time, they approach even the most mundane events with interest and curiosity. They take in both vast views and tiny details, and every day brings learning and surprises.
Such enthusiasm and freethinking seem lost to most adults. But there is a way to recapture the open qualities of a child’s mind. It is called “beginner’s mind.” This concept from Zen Buddhism, called shoshin, invites us to experience life in a way that is unburdened by the past and by previous knowledge. One Zen master called beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”
A beginner’s mind feels open and aware. When we cultivate it, we free ourselves from expectation, but we experience greater anticipation. Because we are alert and constantly taking in new information and experiences, we are renewed moment by moment. An open mind can relieve you from stress, preconception, and prejudice and enrich every aspect of your life.
“The wise person,” said Mencius, in the fourth century b.c., “is one who doesn’t lose the child’s heart and mind.”
It is never too late to recover the qualities of a beginner’s mind, to enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of childhood, to reopen oneself to fresh possibilities.
The key to a beginner’s mind is to simply be aware of how you are experiencing the world. Imagine what it would be like to look at a sunset, to hear a stream or enjoy a work of art without the internal chatter of our brains trying to label our experience and compare it to previous ones.
To open your mind to this kind of nonthinking, try this simple experiment, alone or with any number of friends:
- Indoors or outdoors, look at a relatively fixed object or scene, perhaps a houseplant, a tree or a building. Describe it using words. If you are with a group, take turns, adding to the description, like painting a picture with words. “It is green,” one person says. “The grass is swaying,” another may say. Be poetic if you’d like: “The breeze makes a sound like the ocean.” Keep painting the picture with words until you and the group are satisfied.
- Then, gently close your eyes, and practice inner silence. If you spent five minutes describing the scene in words, spend an equal amount of time in silence. Attempt to keep your mind blank: no words, no pictures, no thought. This is the experience of a human being rather than a human doing.
- Now, open your eyes, and look at the same scene again. What is the difference between your experience now and the earlier word-painting? Are you surprised? Do you still believe that skill with words always improves understanding?
I have performed this experiment with thousands of students, and always with similar results. People are astonished at the clarity that proceeds from inner silence. They perceive greater depth and texture, sharper lines, brighter colors, and they feel more connected to what they are seeing. Contrary to what our “headucational” systems would have us believe, appreciation and perception are honed when we leave words behind. Beginners sometimes know more than experts.
Standing as a Beginner
While our modern world trains us to have a habitual mind, in ancient China, doctors and Taoists developed a wonderful system of exercise and meditation designed to improve health and awaken the beginner’s mind. It is called qigong (pronounced chee gung), literally “life energy work.” Qigong is practiced as a daily exercise routine – before, but not instead of, your workout at the gym.
Although there are many styles of qigong, they are all based on a practice called “standing meditation,” a way of standing like a tree with deep roots and tall, supple branches. This physical exercise (a quiet posture, really) calms the body and cultivates a quiet, alert mind. Standing meditation is also said to improve posture, balance, strength and vitality. The practice is based on gently adjusting the body, breath and mind – the “three tunings” – so that they work together to create a clear and harmonious state of mind.
Practice the standing meditation described below once a day before breakfast, or at least two hours after. Hold the posture for a comfortable length of time, never straining or forcing.
Most beginners can stand for about five minutes. Increase the length of the practice week by week. Within a few months of beginning to practice this meditation, you should be able to stand for 20 minutes at a stretch.
1. Tuning the Body
Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, the knees slightly bent. Imagine your feet rooted to the ground, like a tree. Hold your arms in a round shape in front of your chest, as though embracing a beach ball. Your spine should be straight, but not stiff. Imagine that it is stretched long, the crown of your head reaching gently for the sky while your tailbone reaches for the earth. Your breastbone is relaxed, neither depressed nor distended. Your shoulders are dropped downward. If you have a problem with tight or raised shoulders, imagine that your elbows are heavy, pulling the shoulders down. Most important, relax: Use a minimum effort to stand. Stand with stability, yet delicately enough to imagine that if a feather landed on your head, your knees would buckle because of the added weight.
2. Tuning the Breath
To purify the air and conserve moisture, breathe though your nose. As you inhale, let your abdomen gently expand. As you exhale, it will gently and naturally retract. There is no need to force the breath, just allow it to enter and leave effortlessly. Enjoy the sensation: Abdominal breathing is the healthiest way to breathe. It sends the most oxygen to your cells, relaxes the muscles, improves brain function and, because of the movement of the diaphragm, massages the internal organs. Think of the breath becoming slow, long and continuous, deep like the ocean, and smooth as silk.
3. Tuning the Mind
Once your posture is balanced and your breath is slow and quiet, then naturally your mind can become calm. Qigong masters have discovered that the quickest way to change your mind is to change your body. You can’t try to calm the mind; that’s like trying to calm water by pounding on it. Rather, the waves of thought settle by themselves as a consequence of posture, breathing and an attitude of self-acceptance and attentiveness.
When you finish standing, rock your weight gently front to back, side to side, and in circles to relieve any stagnant feeling in the feet. Imagine that, as you rock, the ground is giving you a foot massage. Now, you can approach your day with an open, alert mind, as if you are experiencing your life, with its joys and problems, for the first time, as a beginner.
This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Experience Life magazine.