The Benefits of Having a Beginner’s Mind

Senior woman learning something new on a laptopTell me if this sounds familiar: you’re fed up because this fat loss thing isn’t as easy as it was when you were in your 20s. Or maybe you’re frustrated because you used to love the freedom of working out at lunch and now it feels like a hassle to leave your desk and *gasp* shower twice a day.

Sometimes it’s the novelty of a new routine, a new way of eating, and new-found endorphins that makes embarking on a health journey exciting. And somehow, in the middle of unrealistic expectations, lack-of-newness, and a few discouraging setbacks, it becomes unsatisfying at best.

As a health coach, I’m trained in the nuances of how to reprogram my clients’ genes, but I’m also a seasoned pro at understanding the psychology behind what makes them successful versus what makes them continue to beat their head against the wall wondering why everything seems like such a freakin’ chore.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. To get where you really want to go, you’ve got to maintain what experts call, a beginner’s mind.

What’s a Beginner’s Mind?

A beginner’s mind, or shoshin, is a mindfulness concept from Zen Buddhism.1 And it refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, like someone just starting out might have.

Let me add that if you don’t have expectations or preconceived notions walking into something, you’re one of the lucky few. In my health coaching practice, I regularly run into folks who give up right away when they’re struggling with changing the way the eat. They’ve somehow decided that they should be an expert at eating real whole foods, honoring their hunger with a meal, and monitoring their boredom-snacking within the first few days of working together.

Most people go through life with assumptions and expectations, fixated on how things are “supposed to be.” Unfortunately, this keeps you stuck in a fixed mindset and prevents any possibility of your behaviour changing for the better.

The beginner’s mind, on the other hand, helps you see things with fresh eyes and (hopefully) some curiosity and wonder. When you can keep it there – that’s when all the good stuff start to happen. Good stuff being:

  • You’re more open to ideas and possibilities
  • You feel more creative
  • You view failure as feedback (instead of a reason to bail)
  • You’re calmer because you don’t have expectations of how it “should be”
  • You actually reach your goals because you stick with it

Drop the “Expert” Mentality

When it comes to changing the way you eat, you might be thinking, “How hard can it be? It’s food.” After all, you’ve eaten some sort of food nearly every day of your life. Kinda puts you in the ‘expert’ space. Or, more accurately, it makes you feel like you “should” be an expert.

The thing is, in this situation, it’s not about food. It’s about learning a new way of choosing foods, learning how to prepare foods, and learning how those foods make you feel.

Think of it this way: if you were learning a new language or how to play an instrument, you wouldn’t be good at it right away because you’d never done it before. In fact, you’d probably sign up for lessons, practice regularly, mess up, make progress, mess up again, and keep going.

That’s the beginner’s mind in action.

It’s not just Buddhists and yogis that believe in this approach either. Western science is starting to get onboard with it too. Research published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that “self-perceptions of expertise increased closed-minded cognition”.2 Basically, people who believe that they’re experts are more likely to be closed-minded.

In a series of six experiments, Professor Victor Ottati from Loyola University tested the Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis, which says that social norms dictate that experts are entitled to adopt a relatively dogmatic, closed-minded orientation.3 In one experiment, 59 participants were placed into either a “high expertise” or control group and given a few different scenarios. They were then asked to rate their personal Open-Minded Cognition. Turns out participants’ open-mindedness was lower in the high-expertise group than in the control group, just as the Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis suggests.

So, with an expert mindset, you expect that you’ll get it right. But with a beginner’s mindset, you welcome the little screw ups. Everything that you get wrong, you learn from. You pivot, adjust, and move on. And you can do that in all areas of your life, not just your health.

Simple Steps to Achieving a Beginner’s Mind

You’re not a bad person for wanting to get it right. But if you’re interested in figuring out how to stop forcing, fixing, and full-on controlling your outcome (and feeling like every task is a chore in the process), you have to switch up the way you think about it. Here’s how:

Get Curious
Try starting your next few sentences with “I wonder how to…” versus “I know how to…” and see how it feels. When you open your mind and let curiosity drive your actions, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities. Plus, there are no wrong answers because you’re simply observing what could be.

Ditch the Word “Should”
“I should have lost weight by now.” “I should be able to run a half mile.” “I should know how to cook bacon.” By using that word, you’re attaching yourself to an outcome. Take a second and remove all the “shoulds” from your vocabulary. And while you’re at it, let go of any expectations you might have.

Pretend It’s Your First Time
What if you’d never been grocery shopping before or picked up a fork or laced up your shoes? Imagine the wonder and amazement you’d be feeling if you really were doing something for the first time. Instead of playing back all the times you got it wrong or worrying that you’ll fall flat on your face, harness your inner 5-year-old and pretend this is something brand new for you.

Say “I Get To” Vs “I Have To”
I typically hate this advice, but it actually works here. When you believe you “get to” do something, you invite a little gratefulness into your life. Practice saying, “I get to make time for a solid breakfast” or “I get to start my day with meditation” and see what comes up for you. When your mind goes to “I have to” mode, it’ll feel like a chore and your brain will create every excuse to avoid it.

Ask Questions
Instead of trying to figure it out or concluding that you should be able to figure it out, ask a question (without attempting to answer it), then get out of your own way. You can even ask broad stroke questions like, “What would a beginner do here?” or “What else is possible?”

Give Your Ego the Day Off
Your ego has a desire to be seen as an expert — that’s how it protects itself. After all, who wants to look like they don’t know what they’re doing? But fearing what you may or may not look like, comparing yourself to others, or worrying about your self-worth is just your ego talking. And it’s usually, if not always, influenced by your limiting beliefs and stories.

Do You Have a Zen Mindset?

When you start a new habit, new hobby, or new exercise routine, it’s hard not to have the mindset of a beginner. But as days turn into weeks, and your “expertise” grows, you might feel that your enthusiasm (and success) start to wane. Having a beginner’s mind is the best way to reverse this limiting mindset. And it’s always available to you – even when you’re no longer a beginner. Use these six strategies to view your situation through fresh eyes:

  1. Get curious
  2. Ditch the word “should”
  3. Pretend it’s your first time
  4. Say “I get to” vs “I have to”
  5. Ask questions
  6. Give your ego the day off

What about you? Have you experimented with having a beginner’s mind?


TAGS:  goals

About the Author

Erin Power

Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by Primal Health Coach Institute co-founder Mark Sisson.

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