Beginner’s Mind

kid chillin

I had a brilliant Chinese professor during the PhD days. He used to mix Eastern wisdom with his teaching of finite element modeling, quantum mechanics, material sciences, and other equally titillating engineering subjects. Those old adages were the only thing that kept me from jumping out the classroom window.

One of his favorites was the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “You must approach this lesson with beginner’s mind,” he would often say, staring squarely at the PhD student in the front row with gray hair, “no matter how much you think you already know.”

That philosophy got me through his classes swimmingly. Because we used to be discussing things like microscopic models of various materials, and hypothesizing about how cracks would pass through them based on mathematical equations and Greek symbols alone. If I stopped to wonder what the fuck I was doing for even a second the dance was over. The only way forward was with beginner’s mind, or Shoshin.

It’s a simple concept, and one which has held me in good stead post-incomplete-PhD as well. It may well be the greatest lesson I learned from that stint: by shaving away everything I think I know, and escaping the mental labyrinths I’ve built up over the years, by moving forward as though I am doing so for the very first time, I remain open to receiving true learning.

Because it’s basically true. No matter what I think I know about the world and how much knowledge I may have saved up,  every moment that I experience is completely new to me. To use a staircase analogy, no matter how far up a staircase I get, each next step I take is unique. It makes sense to treat it as such.

I used to do the opposite: connect events from present to past, make comparisons, create this-or-that boxes in which events or people or concepts were placed, categorize everything that happened around me to build up a repository of meaningless nonsense in my head, live in a hazy soup of past-present-future, all the while denying myself the only chance I’ll get of fully experiencing the present moment. No so much anymore. Unless you’re skilled at juggling the two, which I’m not, you’ll end up trapped in a mental maze of your own creation. Only that will be perceived which can be connected to your preexisting mental models. All else will be sidelined as ‘unimportant’, simply because you haven’t constructed a box within which to place it. To paraphrase Alan Watts, the world will simply be a Rorschach inkblot: you’ll see what you want to see.

The cerebral ones amongst us will remedy this by constructing more and more boxes, expanding their reserves within to more effectively cater to the world without. But even though those exercises are helpful, no model can completely define reality. They’ll always remain incomplete, fun mental constructs to help navigate reality. Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. Science and Religion. God and multiverse probabilities. Evolution and creationism. Strings and quanta. And on and on. Even worse, every person we meet will be labeled, compared to an archetype, placed in a box, based on Jung, Myers-Brigg, astrology, age, background, riches. We cut them down to a prescription personality, and then look for characteristics that match our box while ignoring everything that doesn’t.  Some of us will see the tenuous world of symbols for what it is. Many of us will live out our lives within that world without ever realizing it, greatly inhibiting personal growth. I was there.

These days I’m trying to destroy all boxes. I’m trying to stay a beginner no matter what. That was the ethos driving everything I did in 2013, and the journey will continue in 2014. Meditation, mindfulness, exercise, writing, reading, following of passions, honesty, righteousness – all to remain in the moment – will continue.

This does not mean being a total idiot and YOLO-ing it all away. One of the main aspects of my journey is continuous self-education – because the more boxes you have, the more boxes you have to break. It does mean cultivating and practicing beginner’s mind, remaining open to new ideas and opinions and viewpoints, unsubscribing from absolutes and dogmas and the false comfort of ‘having it all figured out’.

Because time is short and moments are few. The the last thing I want to do is cockblock myself from full experience. The best way to do that is to approach every situation as a total noob, like a child, looking upon it for the first time. Doing anything else would simply be a limiting lie.

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