BEGINNER’S MIND

“Can you draw the triangles?” So asked a five-year-old boy I met during his intake at the mental health center some weeks back. Within minutes of our acquaintance, while the case worker talked to his mom, he enlisted me in his project of drawing spiders and daddy-longlegs. The black widow was his avowed favorite, but he seemed to feel unequal to the task of rendering its fatal red hourglass. Or perhaps he was being generous, sharing that pleasure with me.

I experience many joys in working with children. One of them is the encounter with beginner’s mind that they offer me, which unfailingly feels vivid and exciting. (Another, related joy is a fuller experience of the present moment.) “Beginner’s mind” is a translation of the word-concept “shoshin,” from the Zen Buddhist tradition, and refers to a mental state of openness to possibility. Shunryu Suzuki’s seminal book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind develops this concept as an introduction to Zen practice.

One needn’t be a Buddhist to engage with beginner’s mind, however. The more secular (and thus school-appropriate) practice of mindfulness also develops a more open relationship between oneself and the world. Expertise is all well and good, but as Dr. Ellen Langer has demonstrated in her research, a sense of possibility fosters learning better than a stance of certitude. (Such expansiveness strikes me also as an important part of empathy; more on empathy to come.)

K–12 education can seem an inhospitable environment for beginner’s mind, with increasing pressure on teachers and administrators to perform. That word, “perform,” seems telling. “Performing” is not the same as “being,” nor is it the same as learning, which, leaving aside socialization, is the intended purpose of school. But “How to build mindfulness into K–12 teaching?” can seem a bit like the famous challenge, “How to catch a cloud and pin it down?”

Dr. Langer and two other researchers conducted an experiment, described in The Power of Mindful Learning, in which a test-prep book in the field of investment banking was altered just slightly to employ conditional language; examples are given noting the difference between the original text and the modified one. Without quoting at length, one example involved a shift from “would include” to “may include.” The test-prep book still communicated the same material, but with a different tone or perspective. The experimental group, with the modified text, outperformed the control group on the creative portion of the test and expressed liking the material more.

To shift from saying “This is how it is” to “This is one way it might be” is only one strategy Dr. Langer suggests to improve the educational system. Relevant to the five-year-old boy at the center that day, taking a more open stance on assessment seems valuable, too. A child can have problems of various kinds, but how do we decide what to call them? How limiting are our diagnoses? It was painful for me to hear him described as inattentive, when he was clearly capable of tremendous attention, reciting facts about spiders that rang familiar but that I myself could not have summoned.

Admiring his drawings, I complimented this young fellow on his good details—a new word for him, it seemed. I explained it by drawing a circle and calling it the sun, then drawing another circle and giving it rays. “Details help make something recognizable as itself. Just like I wouldn’t draw a picture of you that left out the freckles! Your freckles are a detail.” I failed to ask him to give me his own examples, but perhaps half an hour later, I was bidden by my new friend to produce a tarantula. As I stroked in the hairs on the legs, he leaned on the desk, watching me work. “Nice details,” he observed. In that moment, I felt no end to what he could learn.

 

AFTER SHOCKS

The building that houses the outpatient clinic where I’m interning this year, seems to be under some sort of malevolent static-electricity spell. I was disconcerted, on my first day, to be sparking against every door handle, stapler, filing cabinet, and desk drawer I touched. Even the doorways are framed out in metal. Everywhere I went, that hazard followed.

I find such shocks intensely uncomfortable. A job of mine used to involve a component that exposed me to shocks regularly, and until someone kindly brought me a grounding wire, I became unhappier and more irritable each time it happened. Thereafter, standing in place, working the machine responsible for the static, I wore a bracelet with a strap that clipped to a bolt and spared me further pain and anticipatory stress.

There’s no such recourse, however, in an environment that involves walking about, and I quickly developed the habit of smacking things with the flat of my hand, to spread the charge, before handling them more precisely. Now I walk around the office thus, hitting door frames, tapping the photocopy machine—you get the idea.

It helps. It also fostered in me a habit so constant, in the 20+ hours I spend there per week, that it quickly generalized to other environments, such that I found myself smacking door frames and tapping handles every carpeted place I went. I realized this a few days in and was embarrassed by the quasi-OCD quality to my behavior. Was anybody watching? (Fortunately realization broke the habit.)

At the same time, an awe was woken in me for the power of aversion: the insidious way it has of becoming second nature and its ramifications for our assessment by others. I was aided in noticing this by the highly physical nature of the stimulus; but what about all those situations in which aversion is interpersonal and/or developmental? What about, for example, the child who resists certain people, locations, or activities? The child who balks, to the frustration of adults?

Perhaps this illustration can serve as a reminder that everything has an origin, even when we can’t retrace our steps to find it. Teaching mindfulness to children offers them a salutary awareness of their sensations and reactions that hopefully can at least help them express, to themselves and others, their challenges. If they can’t tell you where something began, and thus satisfy the demands of logic, they may at least be better able to say where they’re at.