A couple years ago, I set a New Year’s resolution to go to yoga once a week. As I fumbled my way through the first class, my mind swirled with self-conscious thoughts about my awkwardness along with non-stop comparisons to the other, more advanced students around me.
During one very challenging class, as I sat there bemoaning my inflexibility, the instructor said something that transformed my practice: “Showing up is the hardest part. Your job is to keep coming back to the mat and starting over again each time.”
Her words summed up a mindfulness concept known as Beginner’s Mind, which refers to approaching situations with attitude of openness, curiosity, and eagerness. It’s based on a Zen teaching that explains, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.“
The benefits of Beginner’s Mind
Most of us go through life wanting to excel at everything. We want to be the best. But this fixation can keep our thinking close-minded and our behavior from being open to change. Beginner’s mind, on the other hand, helps us embrace learning, growth, and compassion. When your mind is open:
- You’re receptive to ideas and possibilities
- You see creative solutions to challenges because of your expanded perspective
- You ask for help more readily, which accelerates your progress
- You view failure as feedback (and not a reason to stop)
Approaching habits with Beginner’s Mind
These 6 tips can help you adopt Beginner’s Mind as you work towards building new and better habits:
1. Release expectations. If you’re getting caught up in “should’s” or “have-to’s”, try asking yourself “what would this look like if it were easy?” or “how could I make this fun?”
2. Commit to experimentation. Novelty sparks learning, so seeking out interesting experiences is a great way to engage your Beginner’s Mind. Give yourself at least 20 hours to try out your new habit, too. Research suggests this enough time to learn a new skill without it being overwhelming.
3. Take one step at a time. Don’t worry about having the future perfectly planned out. With a beginner’s mindset, you always have a choice to start fresh. For example, focus on making good food choice today rather than worrying about creating a meal plan for the next year. Small, consistent wins are key to maintaining positive habits.
4. Be humble. Saying “I don’t know” is uncomfortable. But it can be a catalyst that invites in new experiences, people, and perspectives. Admitting your vulnerability allows you to be a beginner again without fear of looking foolish.
5. Turn inward. As you pursue new habits, you may face the voice of your inner critic. Stopping these thoughts isn’t effective. Deal with them by picturing your thoughts as clouds. Notice them, but let them come and go non-judgmentally like the weather.
6. Channel your inner two-year old. Asking questions is at the heart of beginner’s mind. Children are naturally good at this, but we tend to lose this curiosity as we age. Boost your odds at achieving success by honing your skills at self-inquiry. Beginners aren’t afraid to ask for help so seek out the advice of mentors or join a community where you feel safe speaking up.
When I embraced Beginner’s Mind with my yoga practice, I let go of my inhibitions. I put aside preconceived notions of myself as an inflexible, high-strung person unsuited for mindfulness. Now I look at each class as a fresh opportunity to play and experiment. Where can you give yourself permission to embrace a clean slate?
Whether you’re trying to advance your career, upgrade your health, or improve your relationships, Beginner’s Mind can help you reopen yourself to possibilities and approach your goals in a healthier, happier way.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.