Ever since Shunryu Suzuki, people have been talking about “Beginner’s Mind”. Unfortunately, the more something is talked about, the more complicated it seems to be. So, in simple terms, what does it take to be in “Beginner’s Mind”?
You don’t assume you know the answer. Even when you feel you know the answer, because it is so simple and obvious, you take a moment to let yourself not know. In practice, what does this entail? Well, you pause. You intentionally take a pause before reacting, even though it may seem like a no-brainer what the reaction should be.
As you’re pausing, you allow yourself to take in what it feels like. For instance, are you noticing a sense of urgency? If so, is the urgency warranted? Or: are you just complying with a “should”? Let yourself envision, for a moment, what it would fell like if you were doing something different from the obvious course of action.
Chances are, more often than not, you will end up doing exactly what you would have done if you hadn’t taken that pause. It makes sense: We navigate on automatic pilot because it works well much of the time. But not always. And, even when you end up doing what you would have done on automatic pilot, you will probably enjoy seeing it with new eyes.
The following story illustrates how a pause allows you to shift from automatic pilot to thinking out of the box.
Early morning session. The client (let’s call him Ted) came late. Ted said: “I got off at the wrong stop”.
Ted could then have gone on about how that was a fitting metaphor for his day, how everything would probably go wrong. Or, for that matter, an omen for how the rest of his life would unfold.
But this is not what happened. Of course, there was, at first, some agitation, which is normal after a disruption, after rushing. But soon, Ted was able to come to the present moment. What had happened was then. He was here now.
What happened? Ted was able to take a pause, to step out from the framework in which he was viewing his experience.
Our mind has an innate tendency to find patterns, to create narrative, to frame experience within some perspective that is already known to us. It is then very easy to confuse that narrative with reality.
To see what is actually happening, you have to literally think out of the box within which these default narratives frame what we experience. You can call this mindfulness (if you do not limit the use of the word mindfulness to bein a synonym for meditation). Or you can call it the Proactive Mindset.
It entails noticing where we are, including the turmoil that may accompany certain circumstances. Not trying to deny it. But also, having noticed it, being able to move on instead of staying mired in it.
This mindfulness I’m talking about is not an other-worldly quality. It is an integral part of human nature, and it is something that we can work at improving, just like our other abilities. And, just as is the case for other abilities, some people are better at it than others. For instance, tennis champions are better able to stop getting affected by the negative vibes of a bad streak, and focus on the present volley.
But, even with champions, mindfulness is not a state that one reaches once and for all. It is a moment-by-moment experience. It is often said that games like tennis, golf, baseball… are games of nerves. Even champions go through bad streaks, within a game, or over long periods involving many games.
So the idea is not that some people are supernaturally good at staying calm. It is that all of us can find ways to improve our ability to deal with the unnerving effects of stress, the vicious cycle of experiencing our misfortunes as a fate we cannot escape.
We get even more mired in this vicious cycle if we try to fight it purely from willpower. Because what we’re fighting there is something that has to do with the powerful mechanisms of our nervous system, the fear mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive untold dangers. Fear is powerful because it has enormous survival value.
The work we do in sessions is not just an intellectual understanding of how our fears affect us. It is a form of practice, of training. It helps us better understand the experience of fear at a gut level: Seeing it, so to speak, in slow motion. It is about finding that place, the calm in the eye of the storm, where change becomes possible.