Having A Beginner's Mind

There is a lot of writing in the world of yoga and meditation about the importance of having a "beginner's mind". Zen Buddhism discusses the openness that comes with having such an approach. The Buddhist thinker Shunryū Suzuki famously said: "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." Yet, as important as it is to cultivate and admire this openness of the beginner's mind, it is also important to remember that there are many things that also cloud the beginner’s mind. Often,  Suzuki's phrase is taken to mean that there is a preference to being a beginner, but perhaps this state of mind is particularly worthy of aspiration when we no longer are beginners, not that being a beginner meets the criteria in and of itself? Why is that? Well, there are certain belief structures that also cloud the mind of a beginner.

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What is the most common phrase yoga teachers hear when revealing that they are yoga teachers? "I'd like to try yoga but I’m not flexible enough!" "I’m not good at yoga, I can’t do 'insert pose name'." "I like yoga but I don’t like all of that chanting/breathing/lycra/spirituality etc." In fact, a beginner isn’t this newborn child that has come into the world filled with awe, it is a person that steps into a class and is checking out where to lay the mat, what props do people have, do you say hello or just stay silent? Do you sit or lie down? Do you talk or meditate before the class starts? Are you allowed to put your bag next to the mat? Are you wearing the right clothes? Where is the safest place to put the mat so that the teacher doesn’t see you? What the hell are these words and where am I supposed to put what? Breathe into where?? If we’re honest, this is the beginners mind. Not a tranquil lake which reflects the eternal possibility of the sky above. Yes, I remember starting yoga and being terrified of the gurgling of my stomach during Savasana, if anything, it was my most dreaded pose. I see people now wear the t-shirt saying "I'm just here for the Savasana". Mine would've said "How much will you judge me if I leave before the Savasana?" As everyone was getting comfortable on the floor with their blankets in the beautifully peaceful Buddhist Centre, all I could think was: "please be quiet this time." I would lie there stiff as board hoping my stomach wouldn’t start its Savasana orchestra of what sounds like internal farts. My beginner's mind was mostly fascinated by how everyone else managed to remain quiet.

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The beginner's mind will be freaked out by a lot of things, and we need to remember and acknowledge that. The more often we put ourselves into the place of being a beginner, the better. I think it is normal to feel totally out of place in a yoga room, it’s a place that seems to have its own unwritten rules and each yoga class you go to is different. I still feel a little nervous stepping into a new yoga space. This is where the expert's mind comes in handy. It is here that yoga really begins, watching our own reactions to new experiences and watching our beliefs about what we can and can’t do, the judgements that arise of others and ourselves. And what does an expert really mean? What in fact happens when we learn something is that we learn how little we know! The more I study anatomy, the less I feel I know because I become aware of how vast this knowledge is. 

Being an expert is great because it allows us to sometimes silence the extraneous noise and penetrate deeper into our practice. Yet, the beginner's mind is always with us if we're truly learning and challenging ourselves. It is only when we let our ego, or our belief that we know something, get the better of us, that's when we need to remember the beginner's mind. The unknowing curiosity with which we approach new things. Pretend like you've never done triangle before and see what happens!