In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.
Suzuki Roshi, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
We live in truly amazing times where nearly everything we want to know is just a few clicks away. What’s the weather like outside? Quick check of the weather app on your phone. What’s the name of the song playing in the store? Let’s Shazam the song. Who was that child actor from the 90s? Let’s Google it, and Wikipedia, or IMDB.com. et al will tell you anything you want to know, right now.
It’s incredible. Just 20 years ago, that was unthinkable. If you wanted to know something, you would try looking it up in your Encyclopaedia Britannica (if you were one of the lucky ones that had them), or head to the library and hope to get lucky there. If it was your lucky day, you might find out from watching it on the tv. But most of the time, you just had to live with not knowing. I know…what a crazy idea.These days when I think of a question I want answered — my first instinct is to go to my phone or my computer and Google it. And I’d have the answer in a matter of seconds. And that’s awesome, but then I noticed how often I was doing this, and I paused and reflected on that urge to know right away.
Is it a genuine need? Do I need to know the answer right now? Can I really not wait a few hours, or a day until I am on my computer again to find out? Of course I can. It is very rarely a matter of life or death (or national security) but a habit cultivated over time.
And so now I stop myself, and make a mental note to look it up later. And yes, often times, I forget to look it up and guess what, life goes on. And it goes to show that the question and answer wasn’t that important after all. And this is a good test in itself, the questions that stick around are usually the ones worth looking up and pursuing because there is something there for you to discover.
Returning to the other interesting observation is that the feeling and idea of not knowing is now quite unfamiliar to me. Admittedly, at any one time, there are easily a gazillion things I do not know. But if I want to know something, I can find out really really quickly.
Now, having pressed pause on my urge to have an answer right away, I have to live with the feeling of not knowing something I think I want to know for a period of time, sometimes as long as half a day! And at first, it felt rather torturous and then I realised there is a strange freedom in not knowing. Because if you don’t know, you can’t be doing it wrong or saying it wrong and you may actually end up devising a new way of looking at things or doing things.
So, it is not like I am walking blind but rather without any preconceived ideas or a clear pathway, I end up being more creative, possibly even innovative, because I have no other choice. It’s interesting. It’s a different way of living. It’s how our predecessors lived. Imagine that? Or you know us 20 years ago.
So how can we cultivate this mind that is free to just be awake? When we meditate, at the beginning, in just sitting, we start to become aware of the busyness of our mind and all of the fixed views and judgments that we carry. Once we become aware of these views that we are carrying around with us, the preconceptions that we are carrying around with us all the time, there is the opportunity for us to ask ourselves – is it possible for us to let them go and say, “Well, maybe so, maybe not.” Suzuki Roshi, Zen monk and teacher, once said, “The essence of Zen is ‘Not always so.’”
Not always so. It’s a neat little phrase to carry around when you’re sure and you think you know everything you need to know. It’s a phrase that invites you to look again more carefully and see what other possibilities there might be.
When I first started to meditate, I began to notice just how many fixed ideas and views I had about everything. How much judgment was sitting right on the tip of my tongue. How much expectation, how much preconception I was carrying around with me all the time, and how much it got in the way of me actually noticing what was happening. Am I free of all that now that I’ve been meditating for a while? Gosh no, I am human after all, but at least I notice it sooner, and mostly, I don’t get caught in believing it.
In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes,
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
This is beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi is encouraging us to cultivate. Where when we identify ourselves as having fixed views, preconceptions or judgements, to see if we can, as Kosho Uchiyama says, “open the hand of thought” and let the fixed view, preconception or judgement go.
To be here and ready to meet whoever and whatever is around the corner, without expectations or preconceptions or judgments. To be open, ready and willing to learn and be surprised, simply asking “What is it? What is this, I wonder?” To be able to see and hear others beyond our own ideas.
So let go of the need to know, and start to cultivate your beginner’s mind. Be willing not to be an expert. Be willing not to know everything. Not knowing is freedom. When I let go of my own ideas, I can be present and humble. I can enter this moment, engaged, open and intimate.