S2E2 Beginner's Mind

Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss the Zen Buddhist of concept of Shoshin, aka Beginner's Mind, in which individuals learn to approach each moment with curiosity and openness as if experiencing something for the first time. They identify ways to begin to behaviorally practice this and Dr. Pete discusses specific examples from his new book, Mindfulness Workbook for Beginners.




Pete: We're going to break down mindfulness, because as we have said multiple times here on When East Meets West, all roads lead to mindfulness. Hey, Nikki.

Nikki: Hey, Pete. Yeah, we, I was just thinking maybe at some point, we're going to have to draw like a map, like a dorky, little one.

Pete: Maybe we'll change our icon.

Nikki: Somehow I love our icon so much, but it's just, I mean, all roads really do lead to mindfulness.

Pete: All do, so today, we're going to address this concept of beginner's mind, which I guess is probably a Western behavioral practice. I don't really know the origins of that, I don't know, did Linehan start that?

Nikki: Beginners mind? Oh, I actually thought that that came straight out of Zen Buddhism. Yeah,

Pete: Maybe it did. Honestly, I think…

Nikki: That's been my understanding of how I learned it.

Pete: Well, here we are, When East Meets West. And I honestly, I'm not 100% Sure. We'll have our fact checkers check that for us. But beginner's mind, we'll talk about today, which is, just as it suggests, is beginner's mind. So one of the ways I like to describe it… well, how do you describe it? Let me start with that first.

Nikki: Sure. And I loved that we're having this conversation today, because it's one of my favorite things to talk about because I find it just consistently very grounding. So beginner's mind is what is cultivated in a mindful practice, and not just when you're sitting down to meditate formally, but at any moment, it's this idea of coming to each moment, as if it's the first time. So with beginner's mind, so I've been taught before, often to kind of think about it like about how children come to things. Like there's an openness, a freshness, one of my favorite behavioral practices, a curiosity. So that's how I explain it to people that you're trying to bring this open awareness, just like when you're new with something, even if it’s something you've done a million times before.

Pete: Yeah. And so I shoshin is the Japanese word from Zen Buddhism. So my teacher is so proud of me right now. So yeah, there are the origins of it. And shoshin translates as beginner's mind. And it is the idea that there's this openness, eagerness, or like I love, and I borrowed that a lot from you, after curiosity. How curious can it be about a new moment? A kid's mind is a good example. One of the metaphors I use is like just touring a city that you've lived in with somebody from the outside.

Nikki: Oh, I love that. Yeah.

Pete: Because everybody's had that experience. I grew up in New York. And then when I have people coming to visit, it's still so cool walking around with them.

Nikki: Totally. Yeah, totally.

Pete: Did you experience that while you lived in New York?

Nikki: I did a little bit. Yeah, and I would experience that when I would come back to visit LA, it was a freshness of like, things I hadn't… Actually, to be honest, there's more that way. It was like a comeback, especially if I was visiting in wintertime, and it'd be like, 65 here. And I was like, “Wow, it's like, so bright and sunny. And I can't believe I thought this was cold”, so yeah. But I think it's interesting, that example, Pete, is I'm sure a lot of people connect with it. It's like, that's very tangible. And it's sort of like; we don't have to work as hard in those situations. Like, if someone's visiting you and you're sitting and you're showing them around. Yeah, like it's kind of easy to connect through their eyes of like, seeing it with a beginner's mind. But I think what's hard for most people is to come to things like just day to day, like with that kind of curiosity. Like, if you're, I don't know, like you're sitting down to do your job, and…

Pete: Well especially if you're like a nine to five and it’s the same office, and that seems to me to be because, then I'm stuck in my suffering.

Nikki: Say more about that, because I think that maybe it would be potentially unclear to listeners.

Pete: Yeah. So like beginner's mind also allows for that, almost like a cleansing, like you no longer have preconceptions of what you're about to do. However, if I'm stuck in a nine to five, or something that I'm not super passionate about, I'm just stuck in that suffering. So I'm not giving myself the opportunity to let go of it. One of the things we say that I believe is that suffering is because we're holding on to something from the past or anxious about the future. And so if I say, again, in this example, stuck at this nine to five that I'm not thrilled about, I'm just stuck on that, like, ‘why am I here? Why didn't I do this and then get somewhere else, where am I going?’

Nikki: Yeah, it shuts down the curiosity, and narrows the perspective, that if you're stuck in your suffering, what I'm hearing you say is that it just narrows things. So the beginner's mind would be to say, like, “Okay, let me open up to like, the infinite possibility of like, I don't know what the next moment is”, like letting go of the assumption of like, “it's going to be like this, it's going to suck, it's going to be terrible,” or,

Pete: Yeah. And I also feel like it holds on to that judgment, the judgment of myself, the judging of my experience, of my identity, of my accomplishments, or lack thereof. So in my new book, Mindfulness Workbook for Beginners, I actually just have a little like, caveat on that. And I call it always a beginner. And I say, in mindfulness, we all have a beginner's mind, we see things as they are, for the first time, each time we see them. It's like, and here's the example I just already gave you. It's like walking around your hometown with a tourist and seeing things as if you've never seen them there before. We do not have to be experts in anything. We just have to be open to this experience in this moment. And we don't have to know the answer to questions related to why, you have permission to not know.

Nikki: That is such a central part of this, that last piece.

Pete: The why,

Nikki: Yeah, that’s like giving yourself permission to not know. And of course, I attempt to like side note, Jewish mother, like, so extremely proud of Pete with this book. And when I told him, like, when I read the book, I of course, got like [inaudible 6:39] in tears, because I was like, couldn't believe somebody I knew wrote it

Pete: [inaudible 6:41] he does that, but go ahead.

Nikki: I do it. But I also was like, it was so good. And actually, some of the feedback I gave him was that, even though it is a book for beginners, and I've practiced mindfulness for, how many years, I don't know. 13 years, I think?

Pete: Long time.

Nikki: Yeah long time. I took so much from the book, because I actively connect with them, practice beginner's mind. And I'm willing to let go of being the expert about it. Like, I don't have to know that there was stuff I was learning in this, even though…

Pete: This is making me uncomfortable, Nikki.

Nikki: Step into it, Pete, step into it.

Pete: I’m stepping into it. Listeners, I’m stepping into it.

Nikki: But I want to use this to illustrate, it's like put that piece of like, ‘you don't have to know’, it's okay not to know. And we just spoke about this in our last episode about freedom. There's freedom in not knowing, like, I do know, recently Dr. Fauci was quoted as saying, “there was freedom in being able to get up there on the podium and a press briefing”, he literally said, was so liberating. Say, like, “If you don't know the answer, you just say you don't know the answer”.

Pete: I remember when I first started teaching, I felt like I had to know every answer. I get anxious to teach, and the now it's like, it's nice to model this idea of like, ‘I don't know everything’, especially with these devices we can look it up, that's for sure.

Nikki: And we can't know any…

Pete: We can't know everything. We're not meant to know everything.

Nikki: No, we're not. I mean our poor little brains. I mean, they wouldn't be able to tolerate but like…

Pete: My brain’s exhausted half the time.

Nikki: Totally, same. But yeah, I think like that that's also such a beautiful, and like I said, central component to beginner's mind. Because if you're a beginner, you're saying, I don't know. So it's like, can you come back to this moment and let go of knowing, let go of saying it's going to be this way, or this is how it's going to turn out. And that's so hard for human brains to do because, we think we know.

Pete: Yeah, well, that's why I like that you brought the child into it. I also write about that a little bit as some examples, because we all have an inner child, and we forget to connect with that. But children are curious, that curiosity leads them to the oven and dangerous places, so that's why we have to watch for them. And it's important to have that curiosity that you're going through life, because otherwise, that's why life becomes monotonous. Life becomes monotonous because I get stuck in the monotony.

Nikki: Well, it's funny, as you're saying that I'm thinking this is where it's like people unintentionally trapped themselves, is that get stuck in the monotony and as a result of not being curious, because curiosity to your point about children, that opens them up to like touching the stove, is risk taking. We talked about that on this podcast before, that if you're going to be open and willing, you're opening yourself up to like, all the things.

Pete: You can’t choose.

Nikki: You can’t choose. Brains are like, ‘I'd like to open myself up to the things that feel really good’. It’s like, ‘well,’

Pete: “That'd be nice”.

Nikki: That's nice. But then that's not being open. So then people go, “Okay, I'll just shut it down”. And then that shutting it down they suffer, you get stuck.

Pete: You suffer and you miss out on positive things. I mean, I think that's the key with this stuff. And that's why to have that inner child, to have that curiosity, just that openness to let go of what you got… when I lived in the city, and I would just watch people commuting. I like watching people. Do you like watching people?

Nikki: Of course, yeah. Most people do.

Pete: Do they, is that a thing?

Nikki: Yeah. Well, we’re like, human. We're social species.

Pete: We’re social species, we like to observe. But I yeah, I mean… but I would go a little bit deeper, and just think like… you can see people suffering sometimes, or like the hustle and bustle of like schlepping to the train or the bus, and for what? And I think that's a rewind, this recalibration that many of us are doing for longer than we would like, during a pandemic, to say, like, ‘what is this all about?’ I don't know that there's going to be the same schlepping that there was. I mean, maybe 5, 10 15 years, we get back to it, because we forget, like this little amnesia. And none of us like…

Nikki: When you're saying with the schlepping, are you meaning like, you mean like the suffering part, like the heaviness?

Pete: Yeah, the heaviness and the literal schlepping of like, ‘Where am I rushing to?’ That's another thing I write about is like, when you're rushing, it's like, you get there, then what? Because you're probably then just waiting for that next thing that you have to get to.

Nikki: Well, that's what it is. There's also like this silly human belief we all hold dear to our hearts, which is like, we can just like, put the pedal to the metal and fast forward through time. And it's just like, ‘No, times moving at the same pace, whether we like it or not.’

Pete: Even though it feels like it’s standing still, during the pandemic.

Nikki: It sure does. Though, the reality is like, a second is still a second, we don't control that.

Pete: We don't control that. Our perception of our time, our experience, and our suffering does that. So that brings it into some of the Western behaviorism of like, that's what our belief system, our experiences that we bring into this, that's what shapes really how we see things. And I think that that's where beginner's mind comes in of like, ‘can I let that go? If I've been to this place 20 times, can I just be there this 21st time as if it's the first?’

Nikki: Yes. And I want to add too, because like, just kind of going back to what you’re saying about the schlepping. It's like, I always imagine people hearing that going, like, “okay, so I won't schlep and then like, every moment will be really great on the way”. And it's like, I think… so remembering that beginner's mind means coming to the moment with openness and curiosity, but coming to the moment as it is. And that moment might be unpleasant, like you might be bored, but like, bored is different than bored and resigned, like sad is different than despair, they're different. You know what I mean? And I think that's something, again, the brains tricky. I want people to keep remembering that what we're asking them to do is not to practice these things, so that life becomes free of struggle. It's like; we're trying to distinguish between pain and suffering.

Pete: I had some work done, like in the basement, and these things usually go, they had to cancel and had to reschedule, and then they were late again. And at the end of the job, he said, “I really have to thank you. Because, you were so great to work with, because you were communicative, and you really worked with me, and you embrace this cancellation”. And I was like, in my mind, I'm like, “what's the alternative?” And hearing that feedback, I know people get so frustrated with workers; because these things never go as we plan we've talked about that. So every time I do a new project, whether how big or small, it's like, this is the first time. I've learned, so beginner's mind doesn't mean like literally…

Nikki: You don't forget, you don't get amnesia.

Pete: You don't get amnesia, I'm not like sucking my thumb as I'm talking to these people. I remember like bidding out things and organizing lists and do my own research and things like that. However, I embrace and accept that these things will happen. And inevitably, the beginner's mind allows me to take a little bit of what I learned and then go into that new experience in a way that I can probably be really effective.

Nikki: Yeah, because you're not, and I would love to hear the Buddhist sort of perspective with this. It’s like, because you're not attached to an outcome. It's like the beginner's mind is also, like you’re saying, it's like not having amnesia for the past. We want to learn from the information we have available with us up until this moment in time, and then opening up and saying, and like, “I don't know what's going to come of this moment, I'm not attached”. What's happened in the past, I could make educated guesses of what might happen, though, that doesn't mean that's going to happen. It's like the letting go of assumptions.

Pete: And that's process and outcome. Because again, I can think of a listener being like, “Well, what do you mean Dr. Rubin? He wanted the project done in the basement.” Of course, what I'm doing is I'm going into the process with the beginner's mind. And again, that's just one example. We could apply this to the election,

Nikki: Everything,

Pete: Everything, that was like…

Nikki: To being alive. Yeah.

Pete: Well, episode 32, season one, where behaviorism is everything.

Nikki: Yeah, we're getting better at that part. And so what Pete is saying here is, like, the process, not the outcome. So that's the same thing Pete and I use quite a bit that comes from Buddhist thought, which is that we own the process, meaning we own what we do in this moment, because this is the only moment, very literally, that we have agency over. It's the only moment we’re ever experiencing, and yeah, we are doing certain things in this moment to try to influence the outcomes, though we're constantly reminding ourselves, we can't know what that outcome is going to be. We never know.

Pete: We can never know. We got to just [inaudible 16:26] it. Well Nikki, this was great. And we will apply beginner's mind to season two. So welcome. This was thinking about beginner's mind. And I leave you with just thinking about shoshin, the Zen Buddhist teaching and to be present, be brave, and remember to always stay curious.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present, be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.