Everything is always the same
Do you ever get the feeling that life is just the endless repetition of day after day with very little variation from one day to the next? Many times it feels that life is just a succession of irrelevant actions that we perform mechanically. As a result, we often feel bored and it seems that our actions do not really matter. For some of us, these feelings can be devastating and paralyzing. Other people react by searching for extraordinary experiences that awaken a feeling of aliveness. There is another, easy option.
Opening to Newness
One of the reasons many of us find new places exciting and exhilarating is that visiting a place we have never visited before, besides offering new and interesting things to do and see, helps us shift into a state of mind where we are open and receptive. In this state, we sharpen our senses to register as many aspects of the new environment as possible. This is the direct result of being interested in experiencing the new place. Then, it is not surprising, that the new place seems to exude something special that makes us feel vibrant and energized. Although it cannot be denied that the specific place and its characteristics influence our response to it, the quality of our participation, in other words, our openness and receptiveness, contribute greatly to our experience of the place. Indeed, it often happens that repeated visits to the same place start to diminish our excited response to the place, and its special glow vanishes. In many occasions what is missing is the spark in our eyes that brings aliveness to our perceptions.
A mind that is open and receptive, and therefore unclouded by preconceived notions, is often called a beginner’s mind. When we think we know what awaits us, the sense of possibility is greatly, if not completely, extinguished. Making up our mind beforehand reduces our opportunities for learning because our attention and energy are engaged in comparing the new situation with our expectations. On the contrary, when we approach new situations, people and places with our minds and hearts open, we step into a state of boundless potentiality because our previous knowledge and conditioning do not interfere in the experience. This is actually one of the wonderful advantages of being a beginner. Moreover, the capacity for being in awe that we observe in many children and young people is largely a result of not deciding on the outcome of an experience before immersing in it. When we think we already know, we close ourselves to the possibility of learning and stagnate instead.
Mindful action vs. Mechanical Action
Given the inclination that our mind and body have for developing habitual patterns of behavior, it is not surprising that our beginner’s mind seems to fade away rather easily. Indeed, our ego’s need to feel in control tends to override the beginner’s mind, effectively replacing the feeling of awe and newness with one of overconfidence or under confidence –depending on the traits of our individual ego. As habit and conditioning convince our minds that we already know what will happen, our attention is drawn away from the event in which we are participating, preventing us from participating fully. When our attention is not completely focused on what we are doing, our actions become mechanical instead of mindful, and thus, we are unable to respond appropriately to the particular circumstances of that specific experience. In those cases, even when the results of our actions are what we expected, our lack of presence in the moment prevents us from truly appreciating what the experience is about.
Shifting into Beginner’s Mind
Fortunately, there are simple ways of shifting into beginner’s mind. The idea is to recognize that every moment, every here and now event, is a unique moment that has never happened before and that will never happen again. Even if the circumstances appear familiar, this moment is not the identical repetition of the past. Becoming aware of this uniqueness gives us the opportunity to be fully present. Here are some ways to shift from habitual mind into beginner’s mind:
- While eating, pause and shift your spoon, fork or knife to the opposite hand.
- While writing or drawing, pause and write with your non-dominant hand.
- While brushing your teeth, use your non-dominant hand.
Of course, we can choose to see these changes as disruptions that slow down our efficiency. On the other hand, we can choose to view the resulting change in pace as a way to focus our attention on what we are doing. Many times, these shifts help us see the quality of our experience and its characteristics.
A less obvious way to shift into beginner’s mind is to pause, breath and observe the salient sensations in our body. By drawing our attention to the breath and the sensations we are experience we make a choice to be mindful, to be fully present. As a result, we are able to realize that every moment is unique in time and space. Consequently, we automatically shift into a state of mind where we are open and receptive to the uniqueness of the present experience.
Beginner’s Mind in Asana
In Yoga asana practice, every time that we assume that we ‘already know (or mastered) a specific posture’ we move away from mindful action and into the territory of mechanical repetition. Hence, we effectively close ourselves to the possibility of learning that results from mindful action. Not to mention, that we close ourselves to experiencing the pose because our attention is absent from the process. In contrast, approaching any posture (even one we have practiced on many occasions) with an open mind gives us the opportunity to learn something new, about the pose and about ourselves simply by acknowledging that the pose is unique. Focusing on the sensations and the breath has an important side effect: it makes it harder to injure ourselves, because our mindful curiosity and exploration with new eyes and fresh mind helps us pay attention to the feedback we constantly receive from body, breath and mind.
In Yoga asana practice, we can try something simple such as:
- In a pose like mountain or downward dog, close your eyes, feel the salient sensations of the pose, then shift your body weight to the left side of your body, close your eyes and again feel the sensations, noticing any differences. Open your eyes and shift your body weight to the right side, close your eyes, feel and compare. Then find the perfect balance between the sides, feel and compare.
- In a familiar pose, lengthen the inhalation or exhalation focusing on the most noticeable sensations resulting in the ribcage area.
- In a familiar pose firm up the muscles in your arms, legs and torso and feel the resulting sensations. Then make the muscles as soft as possible while remaining in the same pose, feel and notice.
Life is an ongoing ever changing flow of events and circumstances that unfolds in unique ways to respond to the variations of the myriad participating elements. Life in itself is vibrant because it is never the same. Therefore, mechanical actions result in lifeless results. Whatever method works for you, I hope that activating your beginner’s mind brings a refreshing perspective on your world.