Beginner’s Mind, Open Heart: Living in Freshness and Simplicity
By Tasha Friedman
What do you believe that you know right now? And how much are you willing to forget?
Zen Buddhism contains a concept known as shoshin in Japanese, or “beginner’s mind.” It refers to an attitude of openness, curiosity, and lack of preconceived notions, such as a beginner would have when starting in a new field.
This attitude of spontaneity, having an almost a childlike approach to life, is not unique to Zen. It is the same openness that Nisargadatta Maharaj expressed when he said: “I am now 74 years old. And yet, I feel that I am an infant. I feel clearly that in spite of all the changes, I am a child.”
This simplicity and naturalness, already a sign of authenticity in spiritual life, is what allows us to live joyfully and effortlessly as what we are. So how can it be cultivated?
Approaching the World as a Beginner
Let’s observe how beginners act.
Beginners make a lot of mistakes—and this is wonderful! We learn through our mistakes, in the same way that a baby will find their footing only after falling over again and again. This remains true no matter how enlightened we think we are.
A violin teacher once shared some wise advice with me: “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud.” If you don’t, how will you learn from it?
Seeing yourself as a beginner allows you to acknowledge your mistakes because you aren’t as identified with getting everything right. You wouldn’t expect yourself to shoot a bull’s-eye or bake a perfect soufflé the first time around. It’s only once you consider yourself a skilled archer or a master chef that you get upset with missing the mark.
Keeping a willingness to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm requires deep humbleness and courage. Yet, it blossoms naturally when you realize that what you truly are is beyond any ideas of success or failure. When you are Perfection itself, you don’t need to get upset over the imperfection of form.
Being a beginner allows for a high degree of creativity. What a beginner may lack in skill and refinement, they make up for in sheer freedom of view. They haven’t yet internalized rigid conventions. With this openness, they can sometimes arrive at possibilities that experts in their field would overlook.
Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen teacher who popularized the phrase “beginner’s mind” in the West, observed precisely this: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.”
In Hridaya Yoga we call this living with “open attention.” When you are free from expectation, you can greet everything that arises with curiosity and wonder.
The “Honeymoon Phase” of Spirituality
Keeping a beginner’s mind comes naturally at the start of a spiritual journey. The early days (or years) can be a kind of “honeymoon phase,” where everything is new and exciting, life is full of magic, and anything is possible! It can seem like you’ve finally found the answers to all of your questions and Self-realization is just around the corner.
With this energy and enthusiasm, it’s indeed possible to make radical transformations in your life and within yourself in a very short time. I’ve observed this both in my own experience and in that of many new students at Hridaya. The flip side is that without the grounding of consistent practice, and without having gone through the crucible of challenges and crises that arise along the path, this excitement can also create confusion.
You might find yourself searching for that spark in external factors, jumping between new teachers and different practices, even between traditions. This is just the mind, which gets bored with repetition.
But as you mature, growing in discernment and integrity, detaching from this novelty-seeking characteristic of the mind, is it still possible to keep that initial honeymoon spirit? Can you find the excitement within yourself, no matter the circumstances?
You weren’t wrong at the beginning: life really is full of magic, and anything is possible!
What changes is that you realize that it’s all in your hands. The magic doesn’t come from anything outside of your Self and doesn’t need to be created. It is only revealed through surrender, an availability to the present moment, and becomes more obvious simply by being open to it.
Rediscovering Our Natural State of Joy
Why do we lose this initial joy and enthusiasm? And how do we get back to it?
That enthusiasm is nothing other than the radiance of the Heart itself, in all its natural freshness and spontaneity.
When we live from the Heart, life becomes very simple. We flow through life and life flows through us. Grounded in our essential nature, unrestricted by the mind’s judgements, we can marvel at the world for the mystery that it is.
The only reason we don’t approach the world like this all the time is that this radiance is usually veiled by the structures of the mind. The mind likes things to be stable and solid, so it can grasp them and classify them according to its own understanding. When you go through a radical paradigm shift, such as a spiritual awakening, these structures scatter for a while like leaves in the wind, and the qualities of your True Nature shine through.
It doesn’t last simply because your mind then restructures itself and creates a new paradigm for you to live inside—for a while.
Continue with consistent practice, day after day, dipping yourself again and again into that great freedom in which all limitations dissolve. You will find that this freedom, which is none other than your true nature, gradually becomes your constant state. This sense of “I am” isn’t bound by any concept or paradigm; though it is always the same, it is always new.
That naturalness and spontaneity come through practice might seem paradoxical, but reality itself is beyond the mind’s understanding. When we approach it, our mental grasping and categorizing starts to melt away.
Never Step in the Same River Once
With an inner attitude of beginner’s mind, even the most familiar situations and practices reveal new hidden depths.
Any spiritual practice has its own ebb and flow and some periods of dryness are inevitable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the teachings or techniques aren’t working or that you should go looking for something else. The same technique, when approached with openness and curiosity, without expectations, can always yield fresh results.
Even more magic can arise when you become familiar with a practice over time; the magic of a deep intimacy, rather than that of infatuation. You might know the technical elements in and out, yet every repetition can bring the discovery of some previously unknown dimension of yourself.
I’ve probably listened to the Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat lectures hundreds of times. At first, every word was a gem of wisdom, resonating in my very core—revealing the world anew.
Then they got boring: “Love, death, Oneness, eh. I’ve heard this one before.”
More time, more practice. I became a little more humble and started really listening again. Now, a different facet stands out at every hearing, a deeper understanding, a reflection on my life or preoccupations of the day. The lectures feel new again every time, because I am new every time. And the Present Moment is always new.
The Eternal Newness of the Present Moment
The Present Moment is infinite. It never repeats itself, from beginningless time through all the world without end.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated that you can’t step in the same river twice. The same situation never reoccurs. Cratylus, a yogi at heart, added: You can’t even step in the same river once! Manifestation is in constant flux, and there is nothing static to grasp, even for an instant.
Each time you come back to the same asana, the same meditation practice, the same teaching, or the same task, you are not the same. The world around you is not the same. Your experience is not the same. It’s only a trick of the mind that makes it seem like things are repeating.
So no matter how many times you do something, you are always a beginner in that moment.
A good love affair is one that starts fresh every day. Spirituality is nothing other than a love affair with the most fascinating, enchanting, radiant lover imaginable—who happens to be none other than yourself.