The beginner’s mind

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
The important thing is not to stop questioning. 

Curiosity has its own reason for existence, one cannot help by being all when we contemplate the mysteries of eternity of life and the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day, never lose a holy curiosity. 

Albert Einstein

I find that you can learn a lot about people the way they try to understand things, try to learn. Are they somebody with an open heart and mind?  Yeah, we all have open hearts and minds, we all say that anyway. But because we have so much bias, so much information in our heads, we take short cuts and simplify our world into right and wrong and good and bad. No time for nuance and the greyness of life.

In Buddhism and in martial arts there is this aspirational concept of the beginner’s mind. A mind free of assumptions, expectations, and a child-like enthusiasm for the new and the different. I often try to use my beginner’s mind, but most times the forces of habit, comfort and ego crush my inner child. Think of the wonder and awe of a child—their incessant questions. “Why is the sky blue?” “How high is up?” These are literally questions Einstein and DaVinci grappled with!

A friend of mind equates having questions to being curious. We all have questions, but most of ask them like a lawyer at a deposition—“Never ask a question if you do not know the answer.” We spend so much time avoiding the “stupid question”, nodding our heads when we have no clue. As we age and our ego dominates, we prefer to look smart than learn anything. Questions do not make you curious.

I am in so many conversations where we are in a verbal tug-o-war to pull or push someone to the “right” side. While I like the opportunity of a dialectic where the thesis, antithesis can merge into a synergy. It usually becomes intellectual othering. I box you and you box me into one of “those people”. One person’s fact is another person’s fiction and the conversational canyon widens.

We all try to avoid the 3P’s. Politics, prayer, and parenting—three topics that are the most incendiary. Especially parenting!

My favorite subject to demonstrate our ignorance is homelessness. People have formed very strong opinions about the sources and solutions of this growing and visible symptom of our inequitable democracy. Very few people know any facts here. If we can discuss the incredible diversity of homeless populations—Families with children (almost a third of the populations and the fastest growing segment), veterans, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, substance abusers, working poor (people with jobs without shelter), chronic homeless. Like any population, it cannot be stereotyped or simplified if you want to be effective and humane. The further you go upstream the more variables and nuances appear. We do not have the patience to understand. To dig into the facts. These challenges can be tackled and addressed if we adopted a beginner’s mind. And to be open to our own complicity in contributing to the issue! We all want to put complex things into nutshells—and as a wise man once told me, “Anything than can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” Like most big issues, if you think you understand it, that is the problem. 

The attributes of the beginner’s mind or the opposite of the “expert’s mind”. The expert has the answers. Their knowledge can pre-empt the possibilities they are wrong. I have a colleague who unwittingly mentors me. By always being so free, of expectations, of expectations of me. He helps me focus on the words we use and the assumptions we make. He forces me to ask better questions. I feel my creaky mind open a little and the light of awareness flows from disconnecting from what I look like and sound like. It is the weird and beautiful feeling of learning!  When we confront what we don’t know, it is a liberating and unending experience! A real curiosity, the joy of the beginner’s mind and more fascinating questions are your best companions to “contemplate the mysteries of eternity of life and the marvelous structure of reality.”

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