Attitudes of Mindfulness (Part 1) - Beginner’s Mind
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Attitudes Of Mindfulness (Part 1) - Beginner's Mind
In the mid-noughties, I moved to a suburb of Greater London and took a job in the city. My route to work each morning involved arriving at Waterloo station and walking along the very trendy South Bank of the River Thames.
For the first month or so, the walk to and from work was by far my favourite part of the day.
It took in spectacular views of many famous buildings and landmarks, such as the Houses of Parliament, The London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, The Shard. I remember walking deliberately slowly, looking around to take it all in, eyes wide, feeling in awe of the place, soaking up its unique atmosphere and energy.
My experience of London prior to this time had been via movies and news reports, so being there, for me, was like being dropped into the middle of an instantly recognisable film set.
After several weeks of it, however, my walk to work wasn’t so wondrous. It had become simply… my walk to work.
The wide eyes had narrowed, the gaze had shifted downwards, and the focus on the sights had been replaced by an inner-focus on the problems likely to greet me on arrival at the office.
I hadn’t intended to become so blasé. I don’t even know at what point it happened. It’s not that I had grown bored with London. It’s just that, as with all things, it didn’t stay new for very long.
When we experience the ‘newness’ of something - be that an object, a place, an activity, even a person - we naturally adopt a quality of mind that’s conducive to paying attention to details and sensations. We’re interested. We instinctively seek to take it all in.
If it’s a particularly positive or interesting experience we can get enamoured with it and may enthusiastically revel in the novelty of it.
But after a while, when an experience becomes more familiar, the mind relaxes around it and, as with all things that feel normal to us, we stop affording it so much of our focussed attention. We might continue to be aware of some obvious features, but we start to become blind to the subtleties and nuances.
This isn’t a failing. It’s just what minds do.
An unfortunate consequence of it, though, is that we can end up missing out on so much of our in-the-moment experiences.
There is a particular mind-state that we can choose to cultivate to help us bring more mindfulness to our daily experiences. It is called Beginner’s Mind.
It means, quite literally, approaching an old familiar experience with the same quality of mind that you had in the beginning. Intentionally experiencing things as if for the first time.
Beginner’s Mind is one of the core attitudes of mindfulness practice.
Which makes sense.
If the purpose of mindfulness is to expand our awareness of our moment to moment experiences, without judgement, then seeing things as if for the first time is a nifty way of removing our habitual filters so that we can spot more and more layers of detail and nuance.
Having a beginner’s mind, by its very nature, means that we bring interest and curiosity - a sharper focus - to what’s happening, which decreases the likelihood that we’ll zone out or get bored by what we’re experiencing.
Interest and apathy cannot co-exist in the same moment.
It also encourages us to enter into a situation or experience without colouring it with our pre-existing expectations and judgements.
Even a subtle belief that we’ve already got the measure something stops us from experiencing it as it actually is. We might think we’re being mindful but, in fact, we’re just experiencing the mind trying to prove itself right.
Beginner’s mind stops us from unintentionally going through the motions.
It is very common for even seasoned mediators to become a bit dulled in their mindfulness practice. Feeling the breath coming in and out, or whatever anchor is being used, can, after some time, feel so familiar that, while the concentration may be high, the actual mindfulness of the moment can be low.
It’s as if we’re being ‘kinda mindful’, but not really mindful.
The point is that, while Beginner’s Mind is a core quality of mindfulness, it is not a given that it’ll just show up when we close our eyes to meditate. It can only be there through intention. To cultivate it, we have to repeatedly remind ourselves to bring it.
So, through the curiosity of Beginner’s Mind, we don’t simply follow the rhythm of the breath. We pay attention to it as if it's the very first time we’ve ever noticed that the breath has such an array of different qualities to it.
We exquisitely explore the breath; noticing any and every way the breath can be felt in the body, how each breath begins, how it flows, how it evolves, how it changes, how it disappears.
That’s not to say that some sensory information won’t get missed, of course, it will. But the point is what does get noticed gets noticed because our awareness is more actively open to receive it, and there will inevitably be a lot more to notice than when the mind has ventured into ‘been here before’ territory.
Of course, the application of Beginner’s Mind can extend way beyond the domain of formal meditation practice. It’s available to us at any moment, and it’s a wonderful mindfulness exercise to drop into our everyday activities and interactions.
Consider for a moment how many familiar tasks and routines you engage in an average week. Things that you can easily get through without having to give them too much attention.
And then think about how much time you spend being fully present for them. The chances are, like pretty much all of us, you’ll notice that you spend a disproportionate amount of your waking life engaging in activities on some level of autopilot.
This isn’t always a bad thing, but a good analogy is when we’re on autopilot, not fully present, it's like we experience our moments in 2D. There is a flatness in which much of the detail passing us by, and we’re oblivious to swathes of the available sensory information.
But when we tune into Beginner’s Mind, our moments become rich 3-dimensional experiences, packed with sensory awareness and we feel more alive and connected to our bodies.
Rather than merely getting through what we’re doing, we get from what we’re doing.
You can apply Beginner’s Mind to just about anything, but here are some suggestions you might want to try as little mindful experiments.
1, Next time you grab a snack on the go, a sandwich for example, experience it as if you’ve never encountered food quite like it. Hold it in your hand and feel its weight and its texture. Take a really good look at it, inspect it, smell it.
Maybe even wonder about the processes and steps it went through prior to being your possession.
And of course, taste it. Notice how it feels as you chew and whether there are any variations in flavour notes in different parts of the mouth.
Pay attention to any feelings it provokes, such as liking or disliking. Simply savour the whole experience as much as you can.
If you want to take it a step further, you could even adopt a Beginner’s Mind to the process of eating, itself.
We tend to filter out so much of the detail of our surroundings, particularly in places that are most familiar to us.
So how about taking a walk around your local town or neighbourhood and pretend that you’re visiting it for the first time.
What kind of vibe has it got?
What features would stand out to you?
What details would you notice that might elude someone who’s been there countless times before?
You can even bring Beginner’s Mind to the experience of being in your own home.
Imagine that your home was actually someone else’s home you were visiting for the first time. Without any judgement, look around it with fresh eyes, notice the smells, the ambience.
See if you can notice any tiny details about your own home that you’ve never even noticed before. I bet you’ll find plenty.
It can often be very valuable to bring a sense of Beginner’s Mind to the people in your life.
Choose someone you know well.
The next time you meet with them, see if you can let go of your pre-existing story of that person. If this were your first meeting with them, how would you be seeing them differently?
Experience the interaction as if this were a brand new relationship in the making.
How might you hear their words, without your history of that person colouring your interpretation of what’s being said? Be interested in them.
Perhaps, wonder anew about how their life experiences may have shaped their character and their views.
Afford them the same kind of respectful attention you’d give to any interesting person you’ve just met.
Of course, the purpose isn’t to see friends as strangers. It is to be mindful of really seeing the person in front of you, rather than the potentially dumbed-down version of them your mind may have created over time.
In a way, Beginner’s Mind is like returning to that childlike wonder we all started out with. Where we’re fascinated by the intricacies of what’s going on around us. Where we see beautiful complexities in the mundane.
Beginners always feel present and they always feel alive.
It’s been many years since I left London, but I do still get to visit quite often. And each time I do I love making a point of pretending I’m a tourist with just one opportunity to take it all in.
It’s been so much fun getting to experience that city for the first time again… and again.
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