Beginner's Mind Vs. Expert Mind

Christina Feldman
663 words, 9K views, 20 comments

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We collect, store, and accumulate so much weight in this life.  The thousands of thoughts, ideas, and plans we have are imprinted on our minds.  We have engaged in countless conversations and have replayed many of them over and over again.  We have moved from one experience to another, one encounter to another, and we think about them all.  Information and knowledge has been gathered, digested, and stored, and we carry all of this with us.  This input forms our story, the story we have about people, ourselves, and the world.  Experiencing the chaos and turbulence of the saturated mind and heart, forgetfulness may look like a blessing.  Yet our innate capacity to receive the world, a source of both complexity and of compassion, will always be with us.

The beginner's mind has a simple vocabulary founded upon questioning and the willingness to learn.  There are Zen meditative traditions that rest upon bringing one simple question into each moment:  "What is this?"  Whatever arises in our hearts, minds, and bodies is greeted with a probing investigation.  What is this thought, this body, this experience, this feeling, this interaction, this moment?  It is a question intended to dissolve all assumptions, images, opinions, and familiarity.  It is a question that brings a welcoming presence into each moment; a question that perceives neither obstacles nor enemies; a question that appreciates the rich seam of learning offered in every encounter and moment.  It is an "every moment" practice, in which our capacity to listen and attend unconditionally is treasured as the means of transformation.

The expert's mind has a different vocabulary, expressing a devotion to "knowing" deeper than the devotion to freedom.  The expert's mind is the mind entangled with its history, accumulated opinions and judgments, and past experience.  The most frequently occurring word in the mind of the expert is "again."  What a long story the word "again" can carry.  We can sense the shutters of our heart closing as we whisper to ourselves, "This thought, this feeling, this pain, this person again."  The intrusion of the past with all its comparisons, weariness, aversion, or boredom has the power to create a powerful disconnection in that moment.  The word "again" carries with it the voice of knowing, fixing, and dismissing, and with its appearance we say farewell to mystery, to wonder, to openness, and to learning.  Whenever we are not touched deeply by the moment we say farewell to the beginner's mind.  An ancient teacher reminds us, "There is great enlightenment where there is great wonder. . . ."

How much of the knowledge, information, and strategies of our story serve us well?  In our life story we experience hurt, pain, fear and rejection, at times caused by others, at others self-inflicted.  Understanding what causes sorrow, pain, and devastation translates into discriminating wisdom, and we do not knowingly expose ourselves to these conditions.  We are all asked to make wise choices in our lives -- choices rooted in understanding rather than fear.

The Buddha used the analogy of a raft.  Walking beside a great river, the bank we are standing on is dangerous and frightening and the other bank is safe.  We collect branches and foliage to build a raft to transport us to the other shore.  Having made the journey safely, supposing we picked up the raft and carried it on our head wherever we went.  Would we be using the raft wisely?  The obvious answer is "No."  A reasonable person would know how useful the raft has been, but wisdom would be to leave the raft behind and walk on unencumbered. 


Christina Feldman is a dharma teacher and author of Boundless Heart: The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity.

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