How to Live with Childlike Wonder (aka Beginner's Mind)

Woman On Bicycle

As she let go of the back of the seat, I was launched into a sense of freedom I’d never known before.

Balancing on my sister’s two-wheeler, I propelled myself forward into the unknown, fully present and distinctly aware of my surroundings.

I was heading toward Mrs. Ceonzo’s driveway when Mom called us in for supper.

Despite all the trepidation that had led up to that moment of wild abandon, I suddenly found myself eager to get right back to riding that bike as soon as we finished inside.

It’s as if a force was pulling me somewhere I was destined to be – to a place of sheer freedom and independence – and I knew I’d never be the same again.

You likely recall where you were, who was with you, and maybe even what happened right before or after the moment you traded in your training wheels for newfound freedom.

Or perhaps you remember the exact feeling you had when tying your own shoes for the very first time.

But tell me this: Can you remember what you had for dinner a week ago today?

When we’re very young, our mind is a blank canvas. We experience the world around us with fresh new senses, enthusiastically open to learning new things – even if at first we’re a little afraid.

As adults with years of life experience behind us, we could stand to take a lesson from our younger versions – to open ourselves up to a state of childlike wonder, which in Zen Buddhism they call “beginner’s mind.”

When we approach life with a beginner’s mind, we can experience it without preconceived notions or judgments based on what’s happened in our past.

We can see things in more detail and approach experiences with a greater sense of curiosity.

Just as a regular meditation practice, a beginner’s mind perspective results in us being more open and accepting of what is, without judgment.

We see things as if for the first time, and we enjoy life in the present moment longer – because we have no expectations or preconceived notions about what comes next.

We pay closer attention to things. And we’re better able to embrace the unknown, which helps keep anxiety at bay.

So, how can we approach life with a beginner’s mind?  Where do we start?

One way we can start is by meditating daily. This can mean simply taking a few moments to quietly focus on the breath. As thoughts arise, we notice them and then gently let them go.

Outside of meditation, we can choose to maintain an open mind, remaining curious and receptive to the experiences we encounter.

Practice: When you’re outdoors, listen. Listen to the birds. Listen to the trees blowing in the breeze. From how far away can you hear the sounds of your environment? What do you hear?

We can take a moment to notice what’s actually happening versus what the story in our mind is telling us about what’s happening.

Instead of arguing about a disagreement with a friend, spouse, or child, we can choose to take the stance of curiosity about the other person’s point of view. When we do this, we feel a sense of relief as we release the tight grip we have on our point of view.

While doing an everyday chore, we can decide that we’re not going to remain on autopilot. Instead, we choose to pay attention to every moment. We observe. We feel. We take it all in.

Practice: When you’re at the kitchen sink and about to wash the dishes, notice every action. Watch the water as it flows into the sink. Is it warm or cool? What do the soapsuds feel like on your hands? What are you washing? What color is it? Be present as you place the dish in the drainer. Notice yourself turning off the faucet and drying your hands. What does the towel feel like? Is it smooth or rough in texture? This is essentially a form of meditation.

As the phrase implies, having a beginner's mind includes approaching things from a state of not knowing. Even saying I don’t know can be very freeing.

We have this misconception that as we gain life experience, we have to have all the right answers – we need to have developed some sort of expert status.

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki states that the contrary is true: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” 

While approaching life with a beginner’s mind may not be easy to do at first (after all, we’re creatures of habit), as we practice, we build flexibility. We become more resilient and accepting, and in turn, we're able to enjoy a life that’s more peaceful and free.

Our natural creativity surfaces and we have more physical energy to enjoy the pleasurable experiences that came easy to us as a child - because much of the mental energy we'd been requiring is now available to use in healthier, more efficient ways.

As we regularly practice experiencing our life through a beginner's mind, we see more possibilities and fewer limitations. We’re freer of expectation and more curious to understand.

As a child, I’d often ask, “Why?"  It was one of my favorite questions.

Have you noticed that about children? When you pay close attention, you see that they have no shortage of questions. And think about a child’s imagination! Do you remember that thing lurking in the closet that kept you awake when you were trying to get to sleep?

As we get older and gain more life experience, though, that imagination and natural tendency to question everything get lost, and we often end up feeling disconnected, discontent, and confused.

But when we lead with a beginner’s mind, we become more connected to the whole. We're better able to blend our work life, relationships, spirituality, and social activities into a life that’s in a state of ease, flow, and joy.

And what's great is that we can access a state of beginner’s mind any time we want.

If you happen to notice that you're dipping into old patterns, just dust yourself off and start again. Likely, you will have already gained quite a bit of momentum, so you’ll be back on track in no time.

One last note, or reminder if you will:

There’s no behind in life. Do what you can to live in and enjoy the present moment. Hey, maybe hop on that bike again! Feel the freedom you felt as a child. There’s a whole lot of goodness out there to experience.

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