Beginner Mind

Beginner’s Mind unfolds to become a new kind of Expert Mind which relaxes to be a beginner once more – and on and on – beginner / expert / beginner…

                                                                                                     Dr. Stuart Heller

“Curiosity makes you want to learn about it. Clara 8yrs. old”

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

                   Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

 Aspects of Somatic Consensus work comes out of my life long love for wandering and practices that engage the people I meet with what I call divine curiosity. This is a hunger to want to know in each of us where we all meet. This attitude is what in the Aikido tradition is called “shoshin” or beginners mind.

When I was just 12 or 13, to my mother’s consternation, for fun I’d walk out to the road, pick a direction and hitchhike somewhere unknown. I’d leave to chance who I met and what would unfold next. The randomness of these encounters brought me together with a wide variety of characters, some brilliant and generous and others unsavory and suspicious. I met people that I most likely would never meet again and learned to enter these encounters with as few prejudices and assumptions as I could muster. This attitude, in almost no time at all, led to honest, frank, candid and revealing conversations. For the most part, I felt at home with strangers and the scary encounters were very rare.

My father who worked in the clothes business moved us to different suburbs seeking better job opportunities several times throughout my childhood. I found it difficult to make new friends each time we moved and I think I was pretty lonely as a child. Traveling fed so many of my needs, in particular my deep curiosity of wanting to know what made myself and others tick. After high school, I left home to go to college and apprenticed for 3 years as a goldsmith in Detroit. Through out my college years and apprentiship, I was never quite out of the field of my family and its cultural imperatives with its messages of who I should be. My urge to step away was undeniable and at 24, as a journeyman goldsmith, I left a promising job, a lovely girlfriend, some family and friends to go on an extended sojourn.

I metaphorically and literally left the village on my walkabout, my vision quest, and my hanbelycha. When I reflect on what moved me to leave it all behind what it was that I was seeking was a deeper understanding of what my life was really all about?

I loved the adventures and meeting people and there was one unshakable set of questions that were always with me:


How are we different?


What is it that we all have in common?

At that time I did not fully trust my intuition, I needed to experience things and to find my own points of reference.  As my 8-year-old neighbor once told me, curiosity makes you want to learn about it. The beginner mind is an actively curious state of being. Curiosity is a question that invites, not demands an answer. It is a question without attachment to what comes in response.   Whether the question is to yourself, to someone else or the mystery of life itself, how the question is asked invites the answers that you receive.

Next time you are struggling with some one, imagine that you are in the presence of a wise elder and that you have the privilege of asking a question or two. In this situation you’d be sure to choose your questions with reverence and great care. Imagine what it would be like to speak to our children with that kind of reverence. What it would be like if our teachers asked the children in their classes regularly, “What do you care about?” and “What would you love to learn today?” with great respect and anticipation, awaiting their answer.

School would be a whole other awakening experience for our children and they would grow with a self-knowing and cultivation of their inner compass.

A questioning curiosity, coming from a place of truly not knowing and listening with your whole being is a creative act that invites profound responses in surprising ways not just with words, but also through feelings, image, sense, and vision.

To my surprise, on the night I packed my bags to go off on what turned out to be a 3 ½ year sojourn, my housemate in Detroit pulled out a deck of tarot cards and in regards to my 2 questions, his reading was this:

“You’ll find what you are looking for, and yet it will not be what you thought it would be”

The answers to my two questions are still unfolding. I did come away with some basic understanding and more importantly found confirmation for trusting my intuition.

To say it in a sentence or two it might sound something like this:

  • Deep down in each of us there is a part of us that we all share.
  • It’s our personal, familial and cultural strategies that are so different.
  • Move from love and learn to trust intuitive messages.
  • And if we always choose from that place, that is enough.

With out knowing at the time, as I traveled I learned the basics of Shoshin, beginners mind. In any art, even the art of the traveler, these basics apply.

A child walks in wonder as everything is new, and the elder walks with deep gratitude for the preciousness of life, together you have beginner mind.

Through out this book there are readings and practices. My hope is that you cultivate an attitude of emptying your cup and allowing it to be filled.

Shoshin, is an attitude of “beginner mind” and cultivated within the practice of Aikido. It is practicing with the openness and humility that there is much to see and learn everywhere, within ourselves and with each person we meet. There is a cliché that “we are all a universe onto ourselves”. Seeing each other as a universe unto ourselves is Shoshin. When I look at my wife, if she is a universe onto herself” that would mean that surely there are parts of her that I know. I know the foods she enjoys, I know she likes the tub scrubbed and enjoys singing and such. Alongside that there is an infinite side of her that I do not know. That perspective, I believe is one of the secrets to longevity in relationships. Being able to see one another as new is a practice of beginner mind.

Here is a story I heard about 30 years ago when Sensei Robert Fraeger visited my teacher’s dojo. He was one of those rare people who had trained years earlier in the Hombu Dojo, the main Aikido dojo in Japan with the founder of Aikido, Morhei Ueshiba. Morhei Ueshiba, affectionately known as O’Sensei or great teacher died in his seventies in 1967. So when our guest, told us stories we listened with great interest.

He shared that, as a younger man, he had gone to train every day and loved the exhilarating pace and fluidity of training with the many skilled practitioners in his class. Each night he would come home tired, drenched in sweat, and satisfied.

In each class, O’sensei or in his absence, a sempei(head student) would teach some aspect of Aikido and then the students would break up into partners to practice the dynamic throws, strikes, pins, and exercises demonstrated.

This particular day a sempei was teaching and our storyteller had been assigned to work with a first day beginning student. He let go of his hope of a fast paced exciting training, he began teaching his partner the basics of Aikido, slowly and patiently. He assessed the beginner’s abilities and paid attention to what was too much or to little for him to assimilate, breaking down the moves, correcting, and and taking note of his partner’s capacity and unique-ness.

O’Sensei came into the dojo and watched the student teacher, and all the students moving and practicing their techniques. Now at this time he was an old man and very much desired to pass on Aikido to his students. His health was failing too and he was known to have a potent temper sometimes.

Although he looked like a frail old man, when O’Sensei gave out a ki-ai (a powerful sound) the walls shook. After taking in what was going on in the room, suddenly he raised his arms and shouted, “Nobody gets it”, “Nobody understands!!!” The room was silent. And then he turned and pointed to Bob Fraeger and said………..Except you.

What I imagine O’Sensei saw was lot of people enjoying themselves and working hard to practice the techniques but doing it in a way that was missing the essential ingredient-loving connection, the consciousness that all the techniques are in service of.

As Robert Fraeger worked with the beginner he had to pay close attention to his partner. He noticed who it was that was in front of him in order to contribute reflections and corrections in ways that were safe and effective. What happened here was very much like how a group of musicians slowing at the end of a song, while playing together, must really listen to one another to end beautifully and with each other. This attitude of care, openness and presence is beginner mind, and it is what deepens any practice in order to eventually become embodied.

In any training discipline, it takes vigilance to not fall into just going through the motions when things are repetitive. Remember you are always practicing something. Intention gives practice meaning and builds that meaning into how your comport yourself. Practicing without intention is disempowering. Combining physical practice and intention, brings that intention into your muscles, cells and bones.

When a master swords man practices a sword cut a thousand times a day, each cut must be embodied. To imbue meaning into his training, he may practice for the sake of cutting away illusion in his life and making room for what would be enriching. His work and focus is on making each cut new. He must muster his curiosity and the intention to correct and improve each cut. Never wrong, always better. Slowing it down, to make it understandable, practicing, correcting, and practicing again, each time with the curiosity of a child and the wisdom of an elder who knows with confidence the value of intentional deliberate, committed joyful practice over time.


Beginner’s Mind Practice

Here is a practice that builds on the SURF practice to give a felt sense of Shoshin, beginner mind.



Part 1

Ask yourself: How would that feel to feel a little bit more like a child? To have a child-like perspective on the world? What would it feel like in my body to feel that child-like sense of wonder and awe?

Let your body answer and notice the way it shifts.

Then walk, and let your body shape itself and shift, as your breath changes and your posture changes and youchannel the child. Be the child. Walk across the room with that sense of childlike-ness, then walk back.

Part 2

Now, Ask yourself: How would it feel if you felt a little bit wiser, like an elder? What would that be like? Let your imagination run. Think about what need or quality you would like to have a little more of.  Think of this as a quality you can access from within yourself, something that would make your life a little more wonderful. Perhaps dignity, clarity, happiness, l understanding, etc..

Become that wise elder and walk. Notice how it shapes you, notice how it changes your body. Walk across the room and thenwalk back.

Part 3

Notice the difference between those two ways of being.

Ask yourself: How would it feel if I felt like a child AND a wise elder? Practice both at the same time.

Take a walk and notice how this feels and what it is that like? What did you notice in your body? In your thoughts? Emotionally? What you tell yourself?

What do you appreciate about these two qualities separate and together?

Go through this practice throughout the day as much as possible.

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