The “Beginner’s Mind” in Meditation

Winter 2017, Living Well Magazine

by Paul Bedson

Zen master Shunryo Suzuki encouraged his meditation students, even the advanced ones, to practice with Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin). Beginner’s Mind is having an attitude of freshness, curiosity, openness, receptivity, eagerness and humility. In Beginner’s Mind there is a lack of expectations, preconceptions and judgments.

But beginners at meditation don’t come with Beginner’s Mind. They come with a busy mind or a sleepy mind that is swirling with worries, hopes, fantasies, expectations, judgment and criticism, etc., etc. These beginners may be driven by fears and desires… perhaps running towards their desires, perhaps running away from their fears, but always running. This hyperactive mind with its excessive thinking is constantly busy, and that is why they are looking to meditation.

A meditation teacher can help their students to become aware of their busy thinking mind without fighting it and without feeding it. Fighting thoughts and feeding thoughts only creates more thoughts, and keeps the thinking mind busy – this is how meditation can become a struggle.

So, how do they fight their busy, thinking mind whilst meditating? They fight it by trying to stop it, by trying to get rid of thoughts and by trying to get a blank mind. So, how do they feed the busy thinking mind whilst meditating? They feed it by holding on to hopes and expectations of an imagined outcome, and by ‘waiting for something to happen’.

And what are they hoping/expecting will happen? They are waiting for an experience of inner peace, emptiness, nothingness, stillness, insight, energy moving, bliss, etc.

Fighting thoughts or feeding them and ‘waiting for something to happen’ can keep the meditation experience superficial and frustrating.

So, how can meditation teachers assist students with giving up fighting thoughts, and letting go of their expectations that something is supposed to happen? The first step is awareness: to be aware of thoughts (even subtle thoughts – like expectations), the next step is acceptance: to completely accept the coming and going of thoughts, the third step is choice: choosing to shift attention back to present moment experience (breath, sensations and feelings). Thoughts aren’t a problem and they aren’t important. Thoughts may continue to come and go but, gradually, they become less compelling and less disturbing… after all, they’re just thoughts… they’re just words and images in the head, just memory and imagination.

I often hear meditation students saying, “That was a good meditation!” or “That was a terrible meditation!” and I gently challenge them as to what they mean. Naturally, they call a “good” meditation one that is comfortable and easy, with ‘good’ feelings like relaxation, calmness and peacefulness. They call a “bad” meditation one in which the thinking mind is busy and they don’t feel so relaxed, calm, peaceful. Of course, the thinking mind loves to compare one meditation to another, to evaluate, to judge and to hold onto those evaluations. Those evaluations generate expectations, which come into the next meditation. Ideas of what should happen abound and get in the way!

Remember Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Meditation teachers can help students to cultivate non-judgmental attention. Non-judgmental attention is free of expectations, comparison and evaluation.

A friend of mine, a meditator and teacher for many years, describes his meditation as “love loving itself”. Whilst this expression resonates with my meditation practice, it may be unhelpful for beginners. The same can be true of expressions like: “awareness of awareness”, “emptiness”, “nothingness”, “bliss”, “seeing lights”, “opening chakras” and all outcomes that are too far away. These expressions can generate expectations and craving; they can leave the beginner waiting for something to happen, trying to make something happen, and being disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

For beginners I have found it more useful to emphasise the benefits of: presence, patience, acceptance, gentle perseverance, curiosity, compassion, lightness and humour… these words are more process-oriented (less outcome-oriented). The benefits of mindfulness meditation can be stated in terms that relate more to everyday life experience, such as:

  • To be fully present, here and now
  • To be more connected to yourself, to others and to the natural world
  • To become less judgemental of self and others
  • To experience uncomfortable/vulnerable thoughts and feelings safely
  • To develop kindness, compassion and courage
  • To become less disturbed by and less reactive to unpleasant experiences
  • To learn the distinction between you and your thoughts
  • To have more direct contact with the world, rather than living through your thoughts
  • To learn that everything changes; that thoughts and feelings come and go
  • To develop self-acceptance and self-compassion
  • To experience more calm and peacefulness
  • To develop resources for facing fear, sadness, anger and grief
  • To have more balance, less emotional reactivity
  • To develop the ability to listen deeply and speak your truth
  • To lighten up and be less burdened by seriousness and over-responsibility
  • To develop the ability to stay grounded, centred and composed even in the midst of craziness
  • To improve mental clarity, concentration, relaxation and sleep
  • To improve energy levels and reduce fatigue

The essence of mindfulness meditation is acceptance: acceptance of whatever sensations are in the body (comfortable or uncomfortable), whatever feelings are present (vulnerable or steady), accepting whatever thoughts appear, and then just watching them as they move through.

One of my meditation teachers used to say, “On the spiritual path, Acceptance is the first step… and the last!” Acceptance of ‘what is’, even the busy mind and the vulnerable feelings enable the meditator to stop struggling, stop searching, stop hoping and be present to simple, direct, moment-to-moment experience. With this attitude, beginners can discover: “Beginner’s Mind”.

Interested in becoming a Meditation Teacher? Based on the combined wisdom of Dr Ian Gawler, Paul Bedson and the Yarra Valley Living Centre’s 30+ years of mindfulness meditation teachings, our Meditation Teacher Training course (currently offered over three separate modules) is a renowned, ‘hands on’ learning experience. Email info@gawler.org or call 1300 651 211 to find out more.

Paul Bedson
Senior Therapist, Facilitator 
The Gawler Cancer Foundation  
BA, BCouns, BAcup
President, Meditation Association of Australia

Paul has been working in the field of mind/body medicine for over 25 years as a counsellor, psychotherapist, meditation instructor and natural therapist. His particular interest is in helping people deal with the range of emotional issues associated with their healing journey. Paul also works with grief and anxiety issues, and relationship problems. He teaches mindfulness-based styles of meditation which develop wisdom and compassion through awareness of body, emotion, mind and spirit as one integrated Self. Paul co-authored the book Meditation an In-Depth Guide with Ian Gawler.