As we grow up, we often forget what it’s like to experience the joys of simply being alive. Rather than marveling at some of life’s little miracles as we did when we were children, we get lost in our minds’ stories. We worry about the next thing on our to-do list or ruminate about what happened yesterday. But in the meantime, life is happening.
We want to enjoy every hug, every smile, every pleasant aroma, every beautiful landscape we come upon. Sometimes it may be hard to redirect our attention away from the mental chatter. But you can learn to regain that sense of presence and joy in your daily life.
In mindfulness, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to the ability to experience things as if for the very first time. To feel the sun kissing your skin on a warm summer’s day, to gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder, or to smell the crisp freshness of the morning air. It’s a way of experiencing life directly through your senses - free of mental narratives, opinions, and judgements.
Perhaps you can recall a time when you were petting your favorite dog. Instead of directly feeling the softness of their fur or noticing the gentle look in their eyes, your mind was off in its own world. You were having a secondary mental experience, created by your thoughts regarding the interaction: “Hmm I wonder if I should give him a bath” or “I wish my life were as simple as a dog’s life...” See how quickly our minds can go from having a direct, often stress-free, experience to commentary about the experience?
Beginner’s mind is a quality that you can cultivate to help you shift from the narrative voice in your head into the direct experience of what’s happening right now.
When we live our lives through the voice that narrates our experience, we lose touch with the present moment. That voice adds opinions and judgements that often lead us right into the stress and anxiety that we’re looking to avoid.
Cultivating beginner’s mind means shifting our attention away from the negative mental chatter and into experiencing the reality that’s in front of us. The moment we allow our minds to relax, our bodies get the hint that things are actually ok. Our brain no longer feels that there’s a threat around the corner - even while the threat may have only been in the mind to begin with. The stress chemicals that build up when we are in the narrative mode start flushing out of our system and the body is able to regenerate and heal.
The reason that we so often miss the direct experience of life is that we get stuck in autopilot mode. We cope based on habitual reactions strung together by the voice that interprets everything. There’s a sense of “self” that we feel like we have to protect.
Neuropsychology is helping us understand where this sense of self - and the narrative voice - come from. Our left brain helps us recognize patterns, analyze, and reason. It narrows down the full range of our experience and creates stories based on how we’ve interpreted reality in the past. Because our brain also has a negativity bias in order to protect us from potential threats, our negative memories and fears seem to arise first.
Cultivating a beginner's mind brings that sense of wholeness without the need to cling to a story about how life should or shouldn’t be. It is a space where we fully experience the texture, the detail, the color, the smell, the crunch, the sound, the softness of the life around us. These are the experiences that enrich our lives.
Did you ever notice how many of your thoughts are the same as the ones you had the day before? Why is that? The Reticular Activating System in your brain stem acts like a filter. It receives sensory input from the world around you. It then uses data from your past to determine what information gets sent up to your prefrontal cortex for conscious processing.
If we don’t consciously bring our attention to the experience of the moment, the brain reaches for our past memories and worries by default. This makes it harder for us to notice the fresh possibilities that reside in each moment. But we always have the choice to pause and see life through fresh eyes. We can see the chatter in our minds for what it is - simply a narrative based on our past.
Mindfulness meditation can help you let go of associating with that narrative. Your mind becomes clearer and your brain is then able to more fully take in the vast richness of the experience happening in front of you.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”
― Shunryu Suzuki
Here are three simple ways to practice beginner’s mind in daily life:
1) Experience ordinary activities as if for the first time
Imagine that you’ve lost the ability to use words to describe the world around you. You can only BE with the experience of life as it is - sort of like a baby discovering his feet for the first time. The baby doesn’t know the word “feet.” He’s not thinking about his feet. He’s experiencing their softness, feeling their movement as he wiggles his toes.
Try experiencing some of life’s ordinary activities in this way next time you do them.
You may find it easy to start with these:
2) Introduce more novelty into your life
Novelty pulls you out of your habitual thought patterns. Your brain becomes more alert so you can fully attend to everything that’s around you. Try doing new things and going to places you’ve never been. Shake up your routines and try out new ways of doing things you already do on a daily basis.
Meditation is the perfect tool to help you practice this new way of being. As you meditate, you practice attending to the experience of your body as if you were experiencing it for the first time. You notice how it feels to breathe as though you were taking your very first breath, savoring every aspect of it. You become curious and interested in the sensations you are experiencing - even in the process of thinking itself.
The more you practice letting go of the mental commentary, the easier it becomes to get “unstuck.” The key is to be patient and kind to yourself. Imagine you’re helping a child learn a new skill.
Let your thoughts be as they are. Don’t add anything to them or try to change them. Judging yourself for getting caught up in your mental chatter is just another form of mental chatter. Notice that you are not your thoughts - you are observing them.
Every time you bring your full attention to your present experience, you are making progress. You are rewiring your brain’s neural networks away from those negative habitual patterns. When you notice that your mind wants to return to that worried “What If” thought, you are no longer caught in the thought! In this way you are already reducing the effects of stress and anxiety.
Learn to embrace seeing things as a beginner - whether in meditation or in daily life. It’s a skill that helps you become more present to the rich, textured moments of your life’s unfolding.
If you would like additional guidance on integrating mindfulness and meditation into your daily life so you can more frequently experience the joy of the present moment, learn more about my online mindfulness course “Mindfulness for Stress Relief” here.
Or if you would like a quick overview of what mindfulness is along with three simple practices to help you reduce stress, you can access my free webinar here.
Chris Niebauer, Ph.D, “No Self, No Problem,” Hierophant Publishing 2019
Judy Willis, “What You Should Know About Your Brain,” ASCD, 2009 http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200912_willis.pdf
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