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Discovering Mindfulness with Heather Noto: Cultivating a Fresh Perspective

Discovering Mindfulness with Heather Noto
Heather Noto photo by Claire Hageman

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki 

Pretend for a moment that you are awakened by your morning alarm, and you find that you recognize your surroundings, but you have little recollection of how to do anything. Your loss of memory in this imaginary situation doesn’t frighten you. Instead you find yourself smiling, curious and open to exploring. You dress slowly, taking your time to figure out which is the front of your shirt, how the zipper works on your jeans, if your socks can go on either foot, and what to do with your shoelaces. You first try kn otting them and then finally, after many attempts, tie them into bows. You meet your entire day with a beginner’s mind. Your mind is clear, and you approach each new task, like making your bed, preparing your tea and oatmeal, and doing a load of laundry, with an attitude of openness and an eagerness to learn. Later in the evening, your m emory is restored and you return to your “normal” self, only with full recollection of your day’s experience.

Beginner’s mind, a Zen teaching, is often likened to the mind of a child, one full of curiosity, wonder, and amazement. To have a beginner’s mind is to have an open mind, where preconceptions and ingrained beliefs have been shed in order to look or experience something as if for the first time. The beginner’s mind is not burdened by the ego, there’s no need to be in control or or to be defensive. Often when we believe that we’re an expert, it becomes difficult to allow ourselves to not know, to get our ego out of our way. Although our expertise helps drive our decisions, it can hinder us from seeing the opportunities to learn new, and potentially better, ways of accomplishing tasks or contemplating solutions. The need to always be “right” can limit us.

An exceptionally intelligent old friend of mine was never afraid to ask questions or admit to not knowing something. It impressed me so much that for a time I made it a point to respond to questions “I don’t know” even if I did. Some people found it odd that I would admit to that and others took the opportunity to share what they knew. My experience with the “don’t know” mind was freeing. I was able to hear new perspectives, unimpeded by my need to formulate clever responses. I learned new information that I wouldn’t have had I not been opened to learning it.

Routines and habits make us efficient at completing our tasks, but the problem is that we often shift into autopilot, relying on assumptions and habitual modes of thinking that create ruts, limiting how we act in the world. This can often discourage us from thinking differently. We simply see, do and act the same way we always have.

In yoga classes, I ask my students, “What can you learn from a ‘pose’ you have practiced hundreds of times? If you drop your assumptions and expectations, is there something new that is presenting itself that you might have missed before?”

With the approach of spring, I invite you to use this natural time of renewal to look at your life with fresh eyes. Maybe there are different, better, more interesting, ways to experience your daily activities. Maybe you explore a new route for your daily walk, or you change the direction in which you move through the grocery store. Practice a beginner’s mind while listening to friends, colleagues and family. Refrain from concentrating on what you will say next, and instead be open to learning what’s being shared in the conversation. Encourage yourself to see, hear and think like that of a child. What can you learn and experience if you pretend or admit not to know?

Until next time …

Mindfulness Exercise: There are lots of wonderful ideas for practicing Beginner’s Mind. Here are some more you might enjoy.

1) When considering something, try taking the viewpoint of Yes, No, and Maybe to see what different perspectives come to mind. This allows you to refrain from your automatic response and perhaps find alternative solutions.

2) Become aware of how your expectations in any situation affect your day. If we release expectations, we also release judgement. This creates a fresh, new attitude towards our experiences as they are unfolding.

3) Find ways to practice a beginner’s mind through simple tasks, ones that have become mundane or are often completed on auto-pilot like driving to work, staff meetings, your daily workout, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, mowing the lawn, or washing the car. Can you explore different ways to approach activities, situations or conversations with an attitude of openness and curiosity?

By Contributing Author, Heather Noto