Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Begin Again

Uncannily familiar and utterly new. Sitting down to write this week’s Five on Friday after a month of vacation, I am a beginner again. How fortunate indeed.

For “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

1. Shoshin. 初心. Derived from Zen Buddhism, the Japanese word, shoshin (初心) means beginner’s mind and refers to the practice of keeping an open mind, having an attitude of eagerness, and approaching a subject with a lack of preconceptions – even when it is an area where we have extensive knowledge or experience. The world of Academia is filled with experts. I have been called one myself. The paradox is that when we think we know a lot, we run the risk of becoming resistant  to new ideas and hindering further learning.

2. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Published in 1970, this classic text by the late monk, Shunryu Suzuki, is a great place to start one’s learning about Zen Buddhism. In it, Suzuki outlines the foundational components of Zen Buddhism, including details of posture and breathing in zazen, mindset and the perception of nonduality. Praised for celebrating openness and discovering the joy of experiencing the world anew again and again, it is a book worth revisiting. Each time as a beginner.

3. Beginner’s Mind and our Mental Health. When we cultivate a beginner’s mind, we foster intellectual humility, which enables us to take in new information and be more receptive to other people’s ideas. A beginner’s mind is flexible; not dogmatic. It enables us to really listen to others, even when they hold opposing views to our own. The effect is that people feel seen and heard and respected. We create supportive environments where we feel safe. And a whole cascade of benefits accrue, including enhanced self-esteem, self-respect, and prosocial behaviors that strengthen communities – all good for our mental health.

4. Beginner’s Mind and Advancing Research. Generations of scholars have tirelessly applied their expertise to solving the mysteries of our minds and the complex puzzles of mental health and illness. The paradox is that our greatest discoveries depend on subjugating that deep knowledge to a beginner’s mindset where curiosity, possibility, and new ideas are embraced despite what we know. Examples of the “freezing of science” due to the close-mindedness of those considered experts abound. Galileo’s clash with the Catholic church is legendary, but his heretical beliefs about the universe were also sufficiently unpopular in the scientific community that the University of Pisa banished him from their faculty. A more recent example is the decades-long persistence of the idea within the world of neuroscience that we cannot grow new neurons as adults despite mounting evidence that this is, in fact, possible.

5. Beginner’s Mind and Seeing Something for the First Time, Again. Suzuki provides many anecdotes about the risk of expertise leading to closed-mindedness. Research studies corroborate that social norms entitle experts to be more dogmatic, and self-perception of high expertise increases closed-mindedness. So how do we not fall prey to this phenomenon of “earned dogmatism?” Taking time away, maintaining a beginner’s mind, and meaningfully engaging with those who see the world from a different point of view make it possible to see something for the first time, again.

And so, as I begin my thirty-first year as a university faculty member and write my 279th Five on Friday, I am grateful for my time away (more about my son’s wedding next week) and the chance to reset in the hopes of returning to the mission of advancing mental health as a true beginner, again.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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