One of the greatest privileges of my life as been the mentorship I’ve received from some of the best humans in the world. One of those mentors, Seth Godin, has changed my life and perspective in so many ways. He invested in Rise, he encouraged me to publish my book, and through his thoughtful, compassionate teaching in his altMBA program, he’s created a legacy of friendship and connections that I lean on daily.
Seth is one of those people who doesn’t waste a single word. Nothing is frivolous, but simultaneously, nothing is directive. He speaks with a simplicity and emotional insight unlike anyone I’ve ever known. When he shares, you listen, because it’s always going to be a good use of your time.
Recently, he shared something with our cohort that, while initially looked very interesting, ended up provoking such an emotional response in me. It was called “The Beginner’s Mind”, and it was an article that bordered on meditation, and as I read, the application to dance and what it meant for dancers was breathtaking.
Below is the incredible article, shared with permission from the author.
If you prefer audio, today’s episode of Dancer’s Called to Action is an audible version of the article.
How to Adopt a Beginner’s Mind to Accelerate Learning and Increase Creativity
by Scott Jeffrey
OVERVIEW: This guide provides exercises to help you access a powerful psychological mindset called the beginner’s mind to elevate your creative work and enhance your ability to learn.
How often do you get stuck in a pattern of doing the same things day after day?
Consumed by various cognitive biases and limiting belief systems, your range of possibilities can quickly shrink to a restrictive few.
In this state, your creative energy is stagnant.
Even though you may not realize it, your world gets relatively small.
We’re all familiar with this experience.
Why does this occur and what can we do to break this pattern right now?
Robinson explains that divergent thinking—the ability to see many possible answers to a question—is a fundamental attribute of creativity.
One way researchers evaluate divergent thinking in individuals is by the number of answers they give to questions like:
Most people might offer 10 to 15 answers; others can divine closer to 200.
Psychologists classify these latter folks as geniuses at divergent thinking.
In one study, 1,500 participants received these types of questions.
All of the participants were around five-year-olds.
How many of them scored at the genius level?
A whopping 98 percent!
The researchers tracked these same students fives years later. Now, only 32 percent scored as high.
Then, another five years later, now at age 15, only 10 percent reached the genius level.
Approximately 200,000 adults took the same test.
How many scored at the genius level? A paltry 2 percent.
This research is a wake-up call for those of us who have children, but what about you?
What can you as an adult do to bring back the innate genius?
Robinson attributes this alarming drop in genius over a 10-year period to the “educating” process.
There is one answer to a problem, the system instructed us.
And, we recite that one answer in class and on examinations.
To make matters worse, we were often humiliated when we didn’t know their one answer.
This “educating” process conditioned us with what psychologists call functional fixedness—looking at a problem from a familiar viewpoint.
With functional fixedness, it’s as if a mental block hinders our ability to consider new ways of looking at things.
This dynamic is reminiscent of a Zen parable:
A student comes to a famous Zen master and asks for instruction in the way of Zen Buddhism.
The master begins to discuss several topics of Buddhism like emptiness and meditation. But the student interrupts the master in an attempt to impress him and says, “Oh, I already know that.”
The master then invites the student to have some tea.
When the tea is ready, the master pours the tea into a teacup, filling it to the brim, spilling tea over the sides of the cup and onto the table.
The student exclaims, “Stop! You can’t pour tea into a full cup.”
The master replies, “Return to me when your cup is empty.”
Henry David Thoreau observed, “I begin to see an object when I cease to understand it.”
While as young children we naturally “live the questions,” as poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, as adults we’ve come to assume the answers.
Filled with endless bits of information, we find it difficult to sit with the ambiguity of not knowing.
The “I know” syndrome plagues us, hindering the impulse for curiosity. And curiosity is a precursor to creativity.
The solution to the “I know” pattern—the mind of the so-called expert—is to adopt what’s called in Zen Buddhism a beginner’s mind.
A beginner’s mind is empty. That is, it holds no preconceived ideas or rules about what is.
It is open, eager, and receptive.
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes:
If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
In The Dancing Wu Li Masters, author Gary Zukav put it this way:
This is another characteristic of a Master. Whatever he does, he does with the enthusiasm of doing it for the first time. This is the source of his unlimited energy. Every lesson that he teaches (or learns) is a first lesson. Every dance that he dances, he dances for the first time. It is always new, personal and alive.
In his study of creative people, Abraham Maslow found that in moments of absorption, they describe a kind of innocence akin to the beginner’s mind.
Maslow writes in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:
They are variously described as being naked in the situation, guileless … without “shoulds” or “oughts,” without fashions, fads, dogmas, habits, or other pictures-in-the-head of what is proper, normal, “right,” as being ready to receive whatever happens to be the case without surprise, shock, indignation, or denial.
In moments of creativity and absorption in what we’re doing, individuals adopt a beginner’s mind.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state flow.
Maslow notes that although children and wise old people are more able to be receptive to this beginner’s mind, we are all able to access it when we become “here-now.”
Quantum physicist David Bohm also observed the link between creativity and the beginner’s mind:
One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees them. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.
Maslow found that self-actualizing individuals have a “continued freshness of appreciation.”
When you first learn something new, like a way of stretching your shoulders, your mind is engaged in the task.
But how about after performing the stretch five or six times?
After each experience doing the stretch, the freshness wanes a little more. Novelty erodes quickly.
But with renewed freshness, the mind stays open.
It enables the individual to maintain their original attitude toward something that has already become familiar.
From George Leonard’s Mastery:
“The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.”
Remember that a beginner’s mind is your mind’s natural state.
A beginner’s mind isn’t something difficult to attain or something that takes years of practice to experience.
Such beliefs only make something simple to feel elusive.
You can’t “achieve” a beginner’s mind, nor can you “try” to be open and ready.
Trying only create internal tension.
You can only strip away everything in the way of experiencing this natural state, emptying the teacup so that new perspectives and ideas can emerge.
To return to a beginner’s mind, find a way of calming and quieting your mental chatter.
Below are four useful methods to help empty your mind.
Experiment with them and see what works best for you.
Bring your awareness to your breath.
Focus your attention on the process of inhaling and exhale, place your awareness on a particular location like your navel as you inhale.
Or notice the feeling of the air entering your nostrils.
The main idea is to bring your attention to a single action in a particular location.
Doing so draws your energy to this area thereby quieting your mind.
Sitting or standing, place both your feet firmly on the ground.
Put your full awareness on the bottom of your feet. Feel your rootedness.
Notice any sensations you feel in your feet.
I find this to be one of the fastest methods for quieting my mind.
Keeping our attention exclusively on our thoughts is normal for most of us.
It’s as if we have an excess amount of energy swimming around in our heads, keeping us fixated on thinking.
When I place my attention on my feet, within seconds, I notice a shift in this energy.
My mind becomes quieter and I feel more centered.
Gaze at an object for a period. Strip away the name of what you call that object.
For example, “pen.” If you didn’t know that a pen was called a pen or that it was for writing, how would you experience this object?
Notice the form, shape, texture, color, etc. without judgment of the object.
If you do this for long enough, the object may become foreign to you.
Then, you will experience a ping of curiosity, followed by the thought, “What is that?”
This curiosity is a trademark of beginner’s mind.
See also: An Underground Guide to Meditation
Drop all of your false identifications about yourself.
For example, I am a Democrat, a vegetarian, an athlete, an achiever, a mother, father, sister, husband, etc.
Every label you have for yourself comes with a host of beliefs associated with that label.
Each label activates an archetype in your mind, meaning they trigger set patterns of behavior that prohibit openness.
In a beginner’s mind, you’re empty. That is, no labels qualify.
Let go of who you think you are … if only for a few precious moments.
Although the beginner’s mind is natural, over the course of living, we tend to lose this natural quality of consciousness.
Now, to return to this natural state, you need to install a new pattern.
The above exercises can help. Try using them whenever you want to open up to new possibilities.
Or find something else that works for you.
Experiment with these methods before you start working on a project or brainstorming with others.
It’s also helpful when you’re wrestling with a difficult decision.
Remind yourself that whatever you currently see―whatever is known to you at present―is only a perspective.
There are many other equally valid perspectives too.
In returning to the mindset of the beginner, you open up to new worlds of ideas and possibilities.
I will be going live once a week for four weeks only on Infuse’s Facebook and Instagram page. As the new year is coming, the messages that I am getting from dancers and listeners are taking very interesting terms as people get more reflective about where they are and where they are going.
Each week is themed differently based on the patterns I'm seeing.
The first live will be on Monday, January 6th at noon. I am going be chatting about the very simple but not each concept of working with and for your body instead of against it. It'll be a smashing time. I also created this great flexibility support document, because, well maybe it's the cold weather or extra cookies, but dancers keep complaining about how tight or sore they are, so the team made this great stretching manual with stretches for every body part and visuals. I’ll link that up through the live as well.