Sometimes it’s good to be a beginner

One of the most well known teachers and writers on Zen Buddhism was Shunryu Suzuki. He wrote and an excellent book called Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. In there he says, “In Japan, we have the phrase shoshin (初心), which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind… This [means] an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” This philosophy has been invaluable to me in business, in management and in life.

After 35 years in business, while I often feel I have ‘seen it all’ often more than once, I know how important it is not to just to act as though my interpretation is ‘fact.’ All is often not what it seems, and it’s easy to fit evidence to the theory rather than noticing factors that might suggest ‘things are different this time.’ A beginners mind is helpful in situations. It encourages you to ask questions that to the expert might seem too obvious to ask. Surprisingly, when I have challenged C.E.O. while mentoring them, often they will give a rationale for a process or policy based on circumstances of many years ago, circumstances that have long since changed. When immersed in a situation, it is often difficult to get a real sense of perspective because one is too busy ‘fighting fires’ or too emotionally invested in past decisions.

Regular practice of mindful meditation helps me to detach from thoughts and decisions. It helps me to take a helicopter view of a situation, free from ego and just observe what reality seems to be without attachment to a particular interpretation. One of the fundamental benefits of mindful meditation was allowing me to appreciate and experience that ‘thoughts are just thoughts, they are not facts.’  It then opens up many different possibilities and allows one to respond thoughtfully rather than just react. When we are stressed or depressed, we often allow ourselves to become wedded to our thoughts, immersed in them, as if they were reality itself as opposed to just one of many interpretations of it. By focussing on the present, with a beginner’s mind, we can choose our strategy, whether it’s business or personal, free from the prejudices of past.

There is a story of a University professor who visits a Japanese Zen master. The professor says he wants to learn about Zen but is filled with his own knowledge and opinions. The master pours tea into his cup and does not stop despite it beginning to overflow. What are you doing? It is overfull. No more will go in!” shouts the Professor. The master replies, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
When we want to look at a situation with ‘fresh eyes’, we should do so with a beginner’s mind and an empty cup!

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