Expand Your Perspective with Beginner’s Mind

Call to mind the last time you started something new – maybe a course, a job, a hobby, a relationship. Remember the quality of attention, curiosity, purpose, and creativity you brought to that experience.

You noticed new details and pieces of information. You were “on alert” and open to learn, carefully observing before taking action.

Now think about how your mindset changed over the course of the experience. You grew in knowledge, skill, and confidence. Perhaps with practice and confidence your experience became routine.

Boredom, conflict, and frustration accompanied increased experience and knowledge. Obstacles didn’t seem so fun to conquer anymore – one more mistake at the same spot in your guitar solo and you’re ready to pull a guitar smash of Pete Townsend proportions. “I should know better than this!”

What made the experience at the start of your new adventure different? You were embodying what mindfulness experts call “beginner’s mind.”

Beginner’s mind is exactly as it sounds: “not knowing.” You don’t have prior experience and knowledge, so you come ready to learn & observe. You may even feel nervous, excited or hopeful about what is ahead.

Most of us are happy to trade first day nerves and imposter syndrome for a sense of competence and stability. Yet, you always have the option to return to your “beginner’s mind.” Why bother?

It’s a worthy practice to counteract the brain’s natural tendency to get cozy with the safe, familiar, and predictable—like switching up your workout when your muscles have habituated to your normal routine.

Familiarity: The Brain’s Default Mode

Our brain likes to predict the future based on past experiences. I write often about how the brain is programmed to sort people and events into categories, and then uses this information to develop predictable stories about our circumstances.

It’s a survival instinct the brain uses to keep us safe (“If I can predict and avoid danger I will stay alive”).

Over time, we become confident in what we know and habituate to our experiences and environments, just like our muscles do to our workouts. We collect default stories and scripts about our relationships and environments, but over time we start to miss out on information that doesn’t fit our stories.

When there are gaps of information in everyday situations, our brain is quick to fill in the gaps based on our implicit assumptions without our awareness.

Unfortunately, another survival instinct is the brain’s affinity for negative over positive information. The result is a brain full of predictions and scripts, more often than not negative ones, about our circumstances. Maybe some of these sound familiar:

He/She isn’t going to listen…

I know EXACTLY how this is going to go…

He/She HATES me… I know it…

They’re going to think this is boring… Why bother…

He/She is purposefully trying to hurt me…

Once we have a story, the brain will bend over backwards to find information to reinforce the story, gravitating towards information that is familiar instead of information that is new or challenges the story.

The brain’s default mode is comfort, not discomfort.

We often get stuck in a default script with our family members, especially in long-term partnerships. We think “I know exactly what they are thinking and going to do next.”

The heart of the matter: What we know can blind us to what we don’t know. And what we don’t know can have the power to change a story for the better.

More importantly, it can propel us to grow our ability to think critically and examine our habitual patterns of thinking and responding. We work differently, not more, to untangle frustration and stuck patterns.

Practicing Beginner’s Mind

Is there are situation where you feel absolutely stuck, drained and frustrated? Try practicing beginners mind for 10 minutes in that situation, letting preconceptions slip away as best you can.

Beginner’s mind asks us to approach old situations as if we were seeing them for the first time; with curiosity and non-judgment. We’re not reliving or going back to the beginning, but bringing a scientific curiosity to the current state of affairs.

You don’t have to be as reverent as a commentator on a Nat-Geo documentary, but that’s kind of the level of observance we’re going for here.

Rather than making a judgment about the situation, observe and describe the hard facts. What are you missing? Be open to new observations.

Beginner’s mind is one of the many ways we can practice mindfulness, a practice which is shown to improve well-being and relationships. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindfulness lights up lateral areas of the brain which are less focused on the self.

When we’re stuck in a narrative we’ve created, mindfulness can help remove us from our original narrative and focus on something outside of “me, my, and I.”

Beginner’s mind will help you do just that – see outside your own story and seek out alternative perspectives. This is one of my favorite exercises to assign as homework for clients.

Managers who clients believed were micromanaging their work were personally feeling stifled and struggling to balance high demanding projects. A spouse’s unseen efforts to reach their partner are noticed, leading to increased warmth and a sense of appreciation in the marriage.

In my work as a therapist, I try to use beginner’s mind regularly to cultivate the sense of curiosity that is characteristic of a new therapist. With confidence brings the tendency to draw clinical conclusions too quickly or get stuck in a rut of using a tried and true treatment plan until it grows stale.

I appreciate that my field emphasizes continuing education and ongoing research to continually refresh our clinical toolboxes with new, evidenced based practices.

We have the right to our own interpretation of a situation and the emotions that come with them. There is truth in our default stories, though they are not the only story.

It’s important to maintain awareness of the filters coloring our interpretations, and step back enough to notice alternatives to our default mental filter. When we are curious instead of judgmental, we can take action from a clear mind.

Remember, don’t let what you know blind you from what you don’t know.

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.

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