Beginner’s Mind

“Beginner’s Mind,” Bob Ryder

“You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Albert Einstein

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This morning let’s consider the concept of “Beginner’s Mind.” Occasionally I mention my appreciation for the practice of mindfulness, an approach to meditation based in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. It’s comprised of interrelated cognitive skills that help to manage and reduce stress as well as to cultivate a poised/creative approach to living. There are seven principles associated with the tradition including…

Acceptance: Acknowledging things as they are.
Letting Go: Freeing ourselves of expectations and entitlements.
Patience: Acknowledging that things must unfold in their own time without pressure or interference.
Trust: Appreciation for the validity of one’s own knowledge, experience, competence, wisdom.
Non-judging: Resisting inclinations to evaluate, criticize, approve or condemn. Things are as they are whether or not we approve.
Non-striving: Resisting inclinations to change, improve, achieve, and instead experiencing one-self and circumstances as they are.

And the concept I want to consider together this morning…

Beginner’s Mind: Approaching circumstances with curiosity and creatively, setting aside preconceptions, prejudice and bias.

What is the most interesting, surprising, creative thing you’ve experienced this past week? Take a moment and see if something comes to mind, just for yourself.

Practicing a beginner’s mind uses questions to spark imagination. What is this about? What else can I do with this? What is possible, funny, interesting, beautiful that I haven’t noticed before.

One way the idea for this reflection occurred to me was when I was driving past a house here in town that always catches my eye. For reasons I can’t quite understand, I always notice that I don’t like it. There’s nothing obviously “wrong” with it – there’s no hole in the roof and the grass is the usual shade of green. But I always find myself thinking I’m glad it’s not mine. Well driving by it a week or two ago, I found myself wondering, “What if it were offered to me? Suppose someone left it to me in a will. Would I reject it? What could I do to make it more to my liking?” I imagined changing the color. I imagined what the inside might be like if I took out all the walls and made it a big open floor plan. I imagined having all the floors made of glass so you could see down and up through the whole structure. I imagined a water sculpture along one whole big wall with sheets of water sliding into a collection of polished stones. I drive past that address now and I love that place – even though I’ve never been in it. I feel relaxed and hopeful when I’m near it.

Maybe the most overlooked resource for good in the world is creativity. The possibilities for reducing suffering in the world, for cultivating contentment and satisfaction and cooperation and well-being must surely be gargantuan compared to the reality we settle for by default.

Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s there was an advertising campaign for a company called Anderson Consulting. One of my favorite spots showed a quartet of musicians playing a piece of classical music, and playing beautifully. After a moment, from off camera a basketball bounced into the scene and came to rest in the opening of the tuba. The musicians looked at each other for a moment, set down their instruments, and began to pass the basketball back and forth, simply at first and then with more and more creativity so that they looked like the Harlem Globetrotters’ magic circle. It’s an example of approaching a new situation, and new challenge, a new opportunity with a beginner’s mind.

Here’s another example of how the practice invites us to expand our imaginations. Some of you may have seen this, so don’t give it away if you know the answer. This is a brain teaser. Connect all 9 dots with 4 straight lines without lifting your pen off the page…

Another example of beginner’s mind that has always stuck with me comes from the experience of a tennis professional named Jim Courier. Mr. Courier was the top player in the world for a time in the 90’s, and there came a moment in his career where he began having difficulty. He was losing matches that the was clearly capable of winning, indeed should have been winning. He fell out of tournaments in early rounds to players who were much less experienced and skillful than he was. He changed coaches, and there wasn’t much difference, even though he was able to serve better and had a bigger repertoire of strategies for taking on opponents with different playing styles. He consulted a sports psychologist who had him change his emotional approach to the games. One of the things that was happening was that he would get angry when he made an unforced error. He would berate himself, sometimes out loud, slam his racket, and get belligerent with the officials. This response had helped John McEnroe become a better player, but it was distracting and disruptive to Mr. Courier’s game. So the psychologist had him begin to practice laughing when he made an unforced error. Instead of shouting at himself or others, he just took a moment to laugh out loud, even though at first it didn’t really feel funny to him. With a little practice, he actually began to feel the emotional change – the situation seemed funny, and not at all problematic. This was the factor that helped him get his confidence back and he began winning at the rate he was capable of once again. Although I didn’t know the concept when I first learned the story, I now see this as a manifestation of beginner’s mind – approaching a situation differently than might have seemed useful or even possible at first.

Here’s another example of approaching a situation with a beginner’s mind. There’s a family with a dog who raids the kitchen trash can when they aren’t home to supervise him, making a mess all over the floor. The family has a small home and a modest income, and both parents work so the dog is home by himself sometimes for 8 – 9 hours a day. They have a dog door so he can let himself out to the fenced yard to eliminate. And they have a kennel they can keep him in so he can’t get to the trash. The problem is that if they kennel him, he can’t get outside to eliminate, and if they don’t kennel him, he raids the trash. Their cupboards and cabinets are too small to put the trash can inside. So they came up with a different approach to the problem.



Years ago when our congregation hosted Marcus Borg for a weekend of presentations on progressive Christianity, he talked about the nature of faith. He pointed out that sometimes we experience faith as a set of believes about the nature of reality. “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” Sometimes we experience faith as loyalty, such as when we say someone is “faithful in good times and bad.” But another way we can experience faith is as perspective, a way of approaching things. When I practice this skill of beginner’s mind I think about Dr. Borg’s explanation.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a spirit looking at life from the outside. Whoever is in charge of things shows me a snapshot of the life I actually have – what body I occupy, my job and my marriage, my health, my appearance, the nation and culture. And I’m offered a choice. I can just stay wherever it is that I’m looking from and see history unfold as an observer, or I can be let back in to see what I can make of things with the resources and limitations of my life as it is. There are no promises or guarantees, and no prizes or penalties. It’s just a straightforward offer. “You can go live our life and do your best with it, or you can be excused.

Dead Poets Society – You have to look at things in a new way…

Here’s a poem written from the perspective of a beginner’s mind…

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, wha t is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

We’ll take a few minutes so you can share a thought that occurs to you about this concept of “beginner’s mind.”