The Power of a Beginner's Mind

I highly recommend the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  Suzuki beautifully, concisely and eloquently reflects on Buddhist precepts and meditation.  It is a book to read, put down and think, process over many days/weeks/months, pick up the book, put down and think, process over many days/weeks/months down and think, etc.  It is an exercise in existentialism, reflection, Buddhism and reading all at once.  As a teacher, I keep coming back to the power of a few passages which I will quote below: 

"The practice of Zen Mind is Beginner's Mind.  The innocence of the first inquiry -- what am I?  -- is needed throughout Zen practice.  The mind of a beginner is empty, free of the habits of an expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and to open all the possibilities.  It is the kind of mind that can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything." (pp. 13-14)

"In Japan we have the phrase Shoshin, which means 'beginner's mind.'  The goal of our practice is to keep our beginner's mind.    Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once.  It might be a very good recitation.  But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more?  You might easily lose your original attitude towards it.  The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices...If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few...If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself.  If you are too demanding or too greedy your mind is not rich or self-sufficient.  If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose our precepts."  (pp. 21-22).

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is maintaining a "beginner's mind."  It's easy to default into expert mind when you teach the same thing multiple times a day over many years.  Often times we're assigned the same course year after year.  Even though we're constantly revising our courses and starting new classes, in general, we teach the same subject matter throughout the course of our career - making us ever more prone to becoming an expert throughout our careers.  And, to be honest, it's scary to be a beginner and somewhat vulnerable in front of a group of teenagers - that's why so many of us want to seem like experts all the time - it's our defense against our own insecurities in challenging environment

I consciously avoid the expert mind because it's then that I lose my sense of wonder and excitement over the material and it's then that I speak with "expert" words in a language that my students find hard to understand.  I teach with a beginner's mind so that I can break down all steps and explain all components of a problem that "experts" take for granted.  I teach with a beginner's mind to inspire my students to want to learn more.  In addition, the most effective teachers are the most empathetic teachers.  To maintain empathy for student learning requires us to be learners with a beginner's mind as well.  That's why I am taking classes in arduino, metal, wood-working and 3D printing this summer.  It's powerful to experience the simultaneous fear and possibility inherent in a beginner's mind.  I predict my summer of learning with a beginner's mind will help my teaching going forward.  

Let's embrace the potential and power of a beginner's mind.