“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
—Shunryu Suzuki, from the book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice”
Years ago, prior to working at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University, I taught beginning level drawing and other art classes to college students and adult learners. At around the same time, I decided I would take up tennis. As a teacher, it’s the best thing I could have done. I became a beginner again and it allowed me to have more empathy for those in my classes who were struggling and telling themselves that they couldn’t even draw a straight line. I started to wonder why someone would be so hard on themselves. They were in my class to learn, after all. I had flashbacks to my professors telling me and my peers that we needed to unlearn what had been taught to us previously if we were to advance as artists. As a new tennis player, I was also hard on myself. If I missed an easy shot or sent the ball flying, I may have yelled out “home run!” in jest but inside, I was beating myself up for not already being a master. Meanwhile, I loaded up on the tennis lessons.
With my own students I was compassionate. I pointed out that skill-based activities like drawing and painting can be learned. Innate talent isn’t required. “Practice, practice, practice,” I told them. The expectation that the skills would just be there without practice belied the fact that professionals in their field still practice. Professional athletes and musicians practice. Even without getting to the professional level, practice is inherent in learning. Repetition builds confidence and skill. And, yes, maybe “unlearning” something can be a good thing too in order to gain more in the end.
Learning new things is enjoyable and it is good for us. But, as adults it’s easy to instill an expectation in ourselves that we should already know the material and be better at executing new skills. My tennis instructor gave me insight into this phenomenon. He could sense my frustration with the mental part of the game and recommended two books that helped me think differently about learning the sport. The first book, Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”, talked a great deal about the inner voice that we have which creates a narrative of doubt in our own abilities. It’s human nature. My drawing students had developed their own inner voices. We all have this inner dialogue taking place for better or for worse—cheering us on or dampening our efforts.
The next book, “Thinking Body, Dancing Mind” by Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch, talked about the Zen Buddhist concept of the beginner’s mind in relation to athletics and other aspects of our lives. The beginner’s mind has us letting go of our preconceptions and ingrained beliefs. To have a beginner’s mind is to have an open mind. The mind is empty and receptive. Children naturally have a beginner’s mind—an openness to new ideas without expectations. As we grow older and gain areas of expertise, knowing too much can hinder us from the openness and possibility that the beginner’s mind brings us. Those inner voices talk to us and sometimes talk us out of being receptive to new ideas of different approaches.
As an adult learning to play tennis (or to draw, to sing, to speak another language, or even to learn about a new subject) think of the concept of the beginner’s mind. Listen without judgment. Abandon the perfectionism that may guide you to be good or great at something. Take a fresh look at your area of expertise by appreciating the topic as a beginner would.
Lifelong learners are already interested and ready to embrace their curiosity. At any age, we can be beginners again. And again. And again. Enjoy learning with a beginner’s mind. See what happens.