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Beginner's Mind

How can we enjoy each time like the first time?

Psychology Today initially entitled my blog "Beginner's Mind." What does that title mean? Did Psych Today mean that at that time, I was a beginning blogger for them, so don't expect too much? You know - set a low bar and then I'll look better. That could be one meaning, but there's a better one. I didn't come up with the phrase "Beginner's Mind;" nor did Psych Today. It's an old Zen term made popular by Shunryu Suzuki.

When we experience something for the first time, we enjoy the novelty. See a great movie for the first time and it almost seems worth the nine-dollar movie ticket and the dollar-a-kernel popcorn. See the movie ten times and you'd pay 90 bucks not to have to see it for the eleventh time. Why is that so?

What keeps us from enjoying something as much the tenth time as we did the first? The answer lies in the running commentary in our minds. For instance, most of the time we don't simply taste a hamburger. As you eat your food, you might have thoughts comparing the food to other food ("It's not as good as the hamburger I had last week."), or you might think about something besides the food ("Work's been so busy lately."). There's certainly nothing wrong with thoughts. Without your thoughts, you wouldn't be able to use your computer, do your job, or understand what you are reading. However, the non-stop commentary keeps you from fully enjoying your life. Continuing our example, when people eat, they seldom just experience the taste, texture, and aroma of the food. In summary, you likely spend much more time thinking about food than tasting it. Even if you ate the best cookie in the world, you might only taste the first bite. After that it's: "That was great... I should get more of these cookies... but then again, it will ruin my diet... I wonder how many calories per cookie." Before you know it, the bag is empty and you only really enjoyed the first bite of the first cookie.

When we have a beginner's mind we enjoy the tenth bite of the cookie just as much as the first. We appreciate walking barefoot on a grassy lawn with the exuberance of a young child, enjoying each step.

Another word for "beginner's mind" is "mindfulness." If you've read much psychology lately, you've probably run across the term mindfulness. In a way, it's the ultimate in psychology retro fashion. You know, for a while Freud was so in, then it was Jung, then Gestalt was in style... and now, psychology is going back to a concept thousands of years old! Somehow I think this trend is a keeper.

Mindfulness is non-judgmentally paying attention to your current experience. In addition to the quality of enjoying an experience with the curiosity and interest of a beginner, there is also an affectionate quality of mindfulness. There is the sense of welcoming all emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. We aren't welcoming them to stay for all eternity, but just for this moment. By doing so, we don't get depressed about being depressed or stressed about being stressed.

In addition to beginner's mind, other descriptive terms and metaphors can help us understand mindfulness a little better. Since the experience of mindfulness is hard to put into words, it can be helpful to have other ways of talking about it. See if any of these descriptions speak to you:

· Non-clinging and non-grasping. That is, enjoying life as it comes without always trying to have events be a little (or a lot) different.

· Resting in awareness. As one learns to be mindful he may learn to non-judgmentally focus on various aspects of experience including sound, breath, and physical sensation. Eventually, one can develop the skill of focusing on and resting awareness itself. When doing so, even in the midst of chaos, there can be a sense of ease.

· Metaphors. Some have used the metaphor of a body of water such as a lake. Typically people experience life as if they were on the surface of a lake, being buffeted by the winds, waves, and storms of their emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts. When one learns to rest in awareness, there is an identification not just with the commotion on the surface, but also with the depth of the lake which is undisturbed by winds and weather.

· Some people view mindfulness in terms of their experience with God. They might increase their ability to be mindful by thanking God for whatever is in the present moment, and thereby deepen their appreciation of what is in front of them. Others increase mindfulness by seeing God in all things (and people). In this way they increase their sense of awe.

· Love. I'm not talking about obsessive clingy infatuation sometimes described as love. I am talking about the deep feeling of looking into another's eyes with unconditional acceptance.

· Sense of being one with all. Mindfulness has been described as a feeling of no longer being separate from the rest of life.

Just like describing the feeling of balancing on a bicycle, mindfulness can be hard to describe. One or more than one of these descriptions may currently ring true for you. If none of them speak to you, be patient. Each time you let go of the thoughts of how life should be and enjoy it just as it is, you strengthen important connections in your brain. Each time you look at this moment with curiosity and interest you also build those vital brain connections. Ultimately, you can increase mindfulness the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, practice, practice..." Practice both in the midst of meditation and also in the midst of life!

More hints about meeting the challenges of living in the present.

By the way, my blog title was later changed to Stress Remedy giving me the opportunity to blog about all aspects of stress reduction. It also reminds people about my website which includes links to find mindfulness retreats, classes, and my book and CD set Take the Stress Out of Your Life.

More from Jay Winner M.D., FAAFP, DipABLM
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