If someone were to ask you whether you’d rather be an expert or a beginner at something (pick any activity that interests you), I’m guessing that you’d probably say “expert.” I know I would. Who wouldn’t want complete mastery of a subject? As someone who just started playing the guitar five years ago, I think it would be a lot more fun to play like Eric Clapton than it is to sit and plunk out the few chords I know. When we gain mastery over a subject, whether it’s playing the guitar or nuclear physics, it frees us up to experiment, to be creative. We’re no longer limited or bound by our abilities. Expertise gives us room to have fun, because we don’t have to work quite so hard. And in our outcome-based society, experts are held in high esteem. They serve as role models for others. They make a difference in other peoples’ lives.
I learned to ski when I was a child, and by the time I was in my twenties I was pretty good at it. I’d call myself an “expert” skier. While there were some steep mountain trails out West that gave me pause, I could negotiate pretty much any terrain, and generally do it with some degree of grace and finesse. Then, a funny thing happened: I got bored. I lost the zest and zeal I had for skiing. Riding up the mountain and skiing down it didn’t give me the same rush, the same satisfaction that it had when I was younger. Now my skis sit idle all winter, and I don’t miss it much. So, perhaps expertise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Now, I’m trying something new: paragliding. And I find myself a beginner once again. Trying to figure out the right way to hook into the harness. Learning the right technique for inflating the wing so that it comes up off the ground and flies directly overhead. Studying the winds and the clouds, and looking at weather in a whole new way. Every aspect of this sport is new and exciting to me. To say nothing of the beautiful views you get, sailing above the countryside.
Am I anxious to join the more experienced pilots, catching thermals and soaring with the hawks and eagles thousands of feet over the mountains? Of course I am. But I’m experimenting with not being too anxious to get good. With staying in this place where the learning curve is steep, and not moving through it too quickly. Of not getting frustrated when I get tangled up in the lines when a gust of wind blows me sideways before I even get airborne, or when my flights last all of three minutes while my friends are surfing the clouds for hours.
Zen Buddhism encourages the use of Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind.” With Beginner’s Mind there are limitless possibilities. Creativity, enthusiasm and optimism abound when we have Beginner’s Mind. The very newness of the activity fires our creative juices and we approach it with a sense of wonder and awe. One writer has said, “With Beginner’s Mind, there is boundlessness, limitlessness, an infinite wealth.”
We don’t need to be an actual beginner to have Beginner’s Mind. We can approach even time-tested activities, those in which we’re experts, with Beginner’s Mind. We can enter into any activity with complete openness and curiosity, with a deep desire to learn, with a will to “fall down seven times and get up eight times” as the Buddhists say. It’s easier to have Beginner’s Mind when we’re actual beginners, but we can approach even the most familiar activities with Beginner’s Mind and make them new again.
Whatever way the winds carry you in the weeks ahead, I invite you to take along your Beginner’s Mind, and see where you end up.