Beginner's Mind


"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few."

-- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


Can the expert in Suzuki’s quote above cultivate a “beginner’s mind” in order to open up possibilities? I think so. Here are a few thoughts about how my experience of beginner’s mind has opened up possibilities in my teaching and learning at Macomber.

We tend to think of good teachers as experts who are skillful at conveying their knowledge and skills to someone wishing to acquire them. If I want to learn how to play chess, or the cello, I can go to an expert player (who is hopefully a skillful teacher) to acquire the requisite knowledge and skills. If I practice what I have been taught, I can reasonably expect that my ability as a player will improve accordingly, and that I, too, might become an expert.

As a staff member at the Macomber Center, I have the great fortune to be able to share my expertise in a few areas, academic and otherwise, with kids who are motivated and engaged on their own terms. Even if it’s not something they love—-maybe someone else is ”encouraging” them to pursue a particular subject—they have their own reasons to be doing it, which I respect.

However, I find that even when I’m focused on teaching “content” in a customary sense, there is often something complementary going on that seems at least as important: I am exploring, reaching, finding new possibilities, and pushing the limits of what I know and what I can do. So I am often just as much an engaged fellow learner as a teacher. I enjoy learning with, and from, the kids at Macomber and am happy to tell them so. For example, I might share with a student that I find a bass part challenging, or express my admiration for a student’s elegant math solution. Kids often enjoy sharing something with me, not because they need expert input, but because they like engaging me as an interested adult who cares about them, shares their interests, and sincerely values learning from them. As someone who is interested in a lot of things, this comes very naturally!

You may have heard the Zen story about a scholar who traveled many miles to visit a wise master in search of ultimate truth. This scholar, eager to impress the master, expounded at length on his vast knowledge of scripture. The master listened patiently and began to pour a cup of tea for his visitor. He did not stop when the cup was full, but continued pouring, tea cascading onto the floor. The scholar, alarmed, called out, “Why do you continue pouring even though the cup is full?” The master replied calmly, “Like this cup, you come full of ideas. Only when your cup is empty, can you be open to finding what you seek.”

Like the scholar, we like to think that we’re knowledgeable, even certain, about many things, our cups full to the brim. We tend to believe that this knowledge protects us and keeps us safe and secure, a talisman against the vagaries of daily life. To not know is frightening; to reveal our lack of knowledge is to let down this protective shield, to be vulnerable. This is certainly reinforced by our experience in school, where we learn to “fake it till we make it.”

“Not knowing,” this openness to present experience, is known as “beginner’s mind” in the Zen tradition. As Zen teacher Suzuki observes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.” Not to be confused with ignorance or confusion, cultivating a beginner’s mind is an active intention not to be limited by what we think we know, or even what we “know” we know—to be ready to be surprised by something right under our nose turning out to be surprisingly different than what we thought (or not).

I have noticed that my cultivating this beginner’s mind can open up a fertile ground in which a deeper knowing becomes possible, both for me and for kids I work with. In a teaching/learning relationship it can give us permission to not know together, to share our empty cups and make tea, which we can savor together. So instead of revealing vulnerability, not knowing can be a gift that we give both to ourselves and to one another. We can revel in the enjoyment of making sense together of things that may be ambiguous, difficult, and ultimately very satisfying to contemplate. The challenge is to take this risk of being beginners, with our finite human brains, together.

So, for me, this challenge presents a tremendous opportunity: to maintain the practice of having a beginner’s mind and to be willing to “not know” even (especially!) things about which I think I am certain. Perhaps, with this concerted intention, I can continue to become a little more open, a bit more aware of my preconceptions, expectations and judgments, and even more present for the kids at the center, empty cup in hand.