Listen with Beginner’s Mind

beginners mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki. Also known as Suzuki Roshi, he founded the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and the San Francisco Zen Center.

You achieve a beginner’s mind by dropping all expectations and preconceived ideas—shutting off autopilot—and seeing things with an open mind and fresh eyes—like a beginner, like a child.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., offered this parable to describe beginner’s mind:  “Once upon a time, a scholar came to visit a saint. After the scholar had been orating and propounding for a while, the saint proposed some tea. She slowly filled the scholar’s cup: gradually the tea rose to the very brim and began spilling over onto the table, yet she kept pouring and pouring. The scholar burst out: ‘Stop! You can’t add anything to something that’s already full!’ The saint set down the teapot and replied, ‘Exactly.’”

Full-cup thinking is the process of prejudging what we see in the world so that we “know”—can act without analysis—without even listening or noticing the nuance that exists in everything and everyone. We “fill up” our comfort zone with beliefs that are the product of judgments we have made about the world and how it works.

In his discussion about “Beginner’s Mind,” Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher, and author, tells a story of Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master who urged us to value what he called “don’t know mind.” He would ask his students questions such as: “What is love? What is consciousness? From where did life come? What is going to happen tomorrow?” Each time, the students would answer, “I don’t know.” “Good,” Seung Sahn replied. “Keep this ‘don’t know mind.’ It is an open mind, a clear mind.”

Here are some significant benefits of listening with “Don’t Know” or “Beginner’s Mind.”

Learning: You can’t learn anything while speaking. One of the most common mistakes humans make when communicating with one another is assuming that they know what the other is saying—but those assumptions are based on their unique experiences. If, on the other hand, we realize that we DO NOT know what the other is saying, we create a vacuum which they will happily fill. Create the vacuum by asking questions, then listen intently to the answers. Don’t interrupt. Don’t talk about your own experiences. Don’t interpret their words through your perceptual filters.

Build a Bond: When you ask questions and listen intently to the answers, you build a lasting bond. With the dismal state of communication today, feeling heard and understood is a rare experience. When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who made you feel that your opinions and feelings were the most important things in the world to them at that moment? How did it make you feel? Did you want to spend more time with that person? Sure. We all like to think that our opinions count, or that they should at least be listened to and taken seriously. When they are not, we feel discounted, put down, perhaps angry and darn right crappy. When someone is apparently not interested in what you have to say, how much time do you want to spend on them? That’s a rhetorical question.

Better relationships: If you are always comparing what others say to what you believe, based on your stored belief system, you will experience frustration and disappointment because they aren’t meeting your ideal, your expectations. The person you are speaking with will feel criticized and diminished. If instead, you look at others with fresh eyes, open to the fact that they are not you—that they have had an entirely different stream of experiences—it transforms your relationship. You see that they are just navigating down the river of life and encountering as many challenges and hardships as you. Instead of a contest, life becomes a collaboration.

Less anxiety: If you are anxious about an upcoming interaction with someone—instead of worrying about how and whether you will convince them to accept your point of view—open yourself up to being curious about what will happen, let go of your preconceived ideas about the outcome and instead embrace not knowing. Embrace being present and be thankful in the moment for what you’re doing and who you’re meeting.

When we abandon our need to know, we are free to listen and learn.

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