The Beginner’s Mind

We often associate learning new skills with youth.  In fact, it is commonly assumed that if you don’t learn certain skills such as playing a musical instrument, a sport, or to speak a foreign language as a child, it’s “too late.”  As a culture we admire those who achieve excellence at a young age for instance a musical child prodigy or a business prodigy such as Mark Zuckerberg.  While their accomplishments are admirable why don’t we equally celebrate accomplishments, particularly learning later in life? Unfortunately many cultural and psychological constructs confound to keep us from learning new things as adults

I believe that’s why I found the concept of “Beginner’s Mind” so important when I began my journey of learning about Mindfulness.  Beginner’s Mind or “Shoshin” is a concept in Buddhism.  It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject or performing a task.  The key point is to suspend judgment or assessment when taking on a new activity.  Most children suspend this judgement naturally. Our society doesn’t expect them to be experts but more importantly, they don’t expect it of themselves.  The inner critic’s loud voice, that so often holds adults back, has not kicked in for most children.

If you think back to all the things that you learned as a child that you do well now, you typically journeyed along a path where you went from absolute clumsiness to unthinking expertise.  This applies to both mental and physical skills.  We were able to do this in part because of our mindset of Shoshin.  Nobody expects a new young violinist to play in tune and we tolerate that long, squeaky, out of tune period knowing, of course, that it is an unavoidable stage on the path to musicianship.  Mis-conjugation of a verb is almost cute by a child but can be horribly embarrassing for an adult.  Of course intellectually we know that adult learners go through that same awkward phases as do children and if we can only accept that phase in ourselves we could achieve and enjoy so much.  But somehow we can’t.  We often fear embarrassment but the reality is that most people are their own worst critics.

Holding ourselves to inappropriately high standards is an even greater risk when we are trying to relearn a skill.  I experienced this recently with my violin playing.  I studied the violin starting at three and a half and continued throughout high school and college.  When I applied to and attended a liberal arts college I decided that I would not be pursuing music as my profession though I still studied and played in college.  Once I became a parent and was juggling motherhood with graduate school and a career I could not find the time for my violin playing and the violin sat pretty much untouched for 28 years.  It wasn’t that I never thought about playing.  In fact I missed it – but knowing how rusty I was, the idea of playing at that level was intolerable to me.  Interestingly I continued to play the piano occasionally but since I had never been a very good pianist, it didn’t bother me as much to hack around.  I finally got over the hump through a combination of lucky circumstances and my mindfulness training.  The two lucky circumstances were my friendship with George Whitehill – a colleague in my Vistage group and meeting Claudia Bloom.  I witnessed George’s journey from pure beginner to accomplished pianist/composer and was seated at a wedding next to a wonderful and encouraging teacher Claudia Bloom.  Timing was fortuitous, my youngest son Adam was about to go to college and after talking to Claudia I realized that this was the time.  It was a painful first few months of lessons and practicing, especially when I realized that the piece I was working on was one I studied in 6th grade!  On the other hand, I also realized that once I mastered the technique required for that piece, I could play it with greater expression and, frankly, enjoyment than I had 40 years earlier, a humbling yet rewarding experience.

Like many others in the corporate world I did many Myers-Briggs tests and the results were consistently INTJ (though I moved closer towards ENTJ over time).  I always hated the “J” (judgement) label – I aspire to be an empathetic, accepting and tolerant person – I didn’t want to be judgmental and didn’t accept that I was until I realized during my first mindfulness class (and reading a wonderful book “How Good do We Have to Be”) that I was in fact judging.  I just most frequently pointed the judgement lens at myself and not always kindly.  It is hard indeed to find the right balance of setting high goals and standards, working and trying hard yet accepting our own imperfections, missed goals or awkwardness.  It is very hard to suspend judgement while we learn as adults.  The payoff, however, is limitless.