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.

 

PILLOW MARKS

The first woman to arrive walked through the door at 8:15, with red pillow marks creasing the right side of her face. She had woken suddenly, she explained, fearing she’d missed the class. For several days preceding, she had been “in the hole” and had worried, there, that she wouldn’t make it back by Sunday to the unit where we meet. Her abrupt waking that morning, I inferred, was ignited by the fuel of the whole week.

This past Sunday morning was my third spent facilitating mindfulness groups at the jail. It was not so easy for me, either, to wake and rise, with earth’s tilt and spin holding the dark in place longer—a striking change, in just one week, that raised my consciousness of the season the way goose-pimpled skin raises hairs in their follicles. Fall is coming, and winter right behind.

It seemed perhaps this shift was felt throughout the jail. When I arrived at the women’s unit, the cafeteria space was sparsely populated, and the bunk beds beyond were full. I organized the photocopies I’d brought while I waited for the group to gather. As I waited, I had the chance to reflect on how I was feeling about the waiting—the quietly rising stress of not having time to get through the day’s agenda, and the discomfort of knowing that group members would need to be woken in order to join me. (The fact that the stress rose quietly represents progress I’ve made.)

My self-noticing was buttressed by a scrap of conversation I’d caught en route to the jail, between On Being’s Krista Tippett and her guest, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As I drove along the tree-lined highway, beneath a sky cleared by the night’s rain, he commented on how his performance is affected not just by the instrument he’s using, but also by the space he’s playing in, which he considers another instrument. The environment is part of what happens—it has to be. “If you’re going to perform someplace,” he said, “please don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed.”

My plans for the day involved a discussion of “fight, flight, or freeze” and the maladaptive role that our evolutionary stress response can play in situations that are not actually a matter of life or death. I was looking forward to hearing the inmates’ perspectives and also to communicating my enthusiasm for the power of the brain as demonstrated by Dr. Ellen Langer’s research, gathered in Counterclockwise, and V.S. Ramachandran’s work with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome, as profiled some years back in The New Yorker.

(When I discuss such concepts, I like to ask first if the inmates in my group are familiar with them; if they are, I invite them to share what they know with any others who require explanation—a tried-and-true approach to increasing involvement in the class and also one that demonstrates respect for inmates’ experience and learning, the richness of which many times flies in the face of common assumptions about jails and those who end up there. One young man in a group I guest-led in August, for example, knew about the Ramachandran discovery using mirrors to “restore” the missing limb of an amputee. I loved hearing him tell it and knew I could always restate things if I saw the need, or fill in any gaps after he had finished speaking.)

All this is to say that I had plans, and I thought they were good ones. Our period of discussion was intended to lead into a body scan activity, followed by one involving progressive muscle relaxation, after which I would share handouts for them to keep, detailing the two exercises. I was nervous to bear the responsibility of being the guiding voice during these, but I was eager to offer the women (at 8:00) and the men (at 9:00) potentially new skills to practice in the weeks to come.

Our session didn’t begin until 8:30, though, and even then was missing two members—one who’d been removed from the unit for a spell and not made it back, and one who sent word that she was sick. The call for medication dispensing further interrupted proceedings, as did a brief discussion about the circumstances leading to all this lost time. Body scan? Muscle relaxation? Not a chance. There was barely time to consider what to prioritize in my notes, although I settled quickly on “adaptive” and “maladaptive,” another pair of terms I relish from my social work education.

I admit, I was disappointed and also challenged as to how I’d make up the lost half-hour in our eight-week curriculum, which I’d plotted out so carefully over the course of the summer. But in that first fifteen minutes, when it was just the one young woman and myself, she shared with great excitement that she had been allowed just one book during her time of exile, and that some inspired person in the jail—blessings upon whomever that was—had given her Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger to take with her. She shared with me that she’s not usually much of a reader but devoured this book and identified deeply with it. “I don’t know,” she said, seeming to marvel at the confluence of events. “This class, this book—there’s just something about mindfulness.”

 

EACH AND ALL

Trees and water

Yesterday morning, I led my first “skills of mindfulness” groups at the county jail. (Within the institution, the group meetings are referred to as classes, and I’m considered a teacher; but I think of my role more as that of facilitator, since I’m strictly a volunteer and there to learn from the inmates as well as to relay what I can.) I found the experience so profound that I felt I couldn’t simply return home afterward and instead did something I too rarely do: I went to a park and sat at a picnic table to look at my curriculum and just be with my thoughts under the sun and shifting shade of old trees.

Somehow it surprised me how many other people came to the park and seemed to respect it as a quiet refuge, too. Among them were an older woman, a younger woman, and a boy of perhaps three. They walked down to the edge of the pond and spent a long time there. I was absorbed in my contemplations and didn’t look up all that often, although I noticed the pleasure the boy seemed to take in throwing stones into the water. Finally, I heard them discussing plans to return home, and the boy, with infinite curls, ran ahead of the women. As he passed my picnic table, I offered, “I like your stripes!” He had horizontal stripes on his shirt, vertical stripes on his shorts. He said, “I’m running so fast!” “You are,” I said, “you’re running like the wind!” Up the hill he went, the two women following.

Ten minutes or more later, I glanced up and saw him making his way back down the hill, drawn like a magnet to a utility pole with some fuse boxes on it. He reached up to touch them, and as the women were not yet in sight, I called out, “Hey—you know, I think there’s electricity in those boxes, so it’s probably better not to play with them.” “Oh!” he said, and ran over, directing his curiosity toward the large jar of tea that sat on the table. We had a little chat about my tea, and how much of it there was left to drink, before the women caught up to him, and again they made their way to the water before turning around to head home.

This time, the boy did not run. “You’re walking!” I said. “Before, you were running like the wind. What are you walking like?” He came over and grasped the edge of the table in his small brown hands, seeming to give the matter serious thought. “I walk like a person,” he concluded.

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How does this story relate to mindfulness? It’s the fact that we were both so much in the moment. We shared the present moment together. And because of the way he seemed to let his mind rove through the realm of possibilities, in a manner that I imagine would delight Dr. Ellen Langer, before landing on the one that struck him as true and right. The beauty of his free and open mind reinforced the joy I’d felt that morning, sitting in two different rooms, in two different units at the jail, with men and with women who were choosing to try something new. There they were, and there I was, sharing the present. All of us, each of us, being like persons.

LEMONADE STAND

I was walking back from the farmers’ market, on a recent Saturday, when I came upon a front-yard lemonade stand and its four young proprietors. Their refined sales approach caused me to pause in admiration: they let the tall, cool glasses and low, low price of 25 cents speak for themselves.

Only after I’d paused did one of the girls ask politely if I’d like some. “I don’t drink sweet things,” I said, but not wanting to disappoint them, “I’ll donate the 25 cents.” I dropped a quarter into their jar. As I turned to walk away, a wee lad of three or four piped up, “I like your blue eyes!”

He was looking at my green sunglasses: green lenses, green frames. I didn’t seize the opportunity to explain that statistically boys are more likely to be color-blind than girls; I did, however, proceed to argue with him about the nature of reality.

“My eyes aren’t blue!” I exclaimed, pushing up my glasses for him to see. “They’re green and brown! I like your blue eyes, though!” “My eyes aren’t blue!” he retorted winningly, all evidence to the contrary.

Did a satisfying conclusion exist for this friendly dispute? Standing there with four kids looking at me, I realized that I had betrayed the principles of mindfulness as espoused by Susan Kaiser Greenland. In her book The Mindful Child, she suggests a classroom exercise in which children take turns pairing off to tell each other how their eyes look, as opposed to what color they are, in acknowledgment both of individual perception and of the possibility of change. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have asked the boy, “Oh, do my eyes look blue to you?” and had an exchange that didn’t negate his very dear opening remark. Facts may (or may not) be facts, but regardless, they don’t necessarily need to come first.

“Possibility” has been a key component in the work of Dr. Ellen Langer, which I was excited to discover early this summer; her books represent decades of inspired and inspiring research. In The Power of Mindful Learning, she describes experiments in which material to be learned is presented conditionally—in essence, “This is one way it could be” vs. the more common “This is how it is”—with positive results.

In one study, free piano lessons were offered to participants randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was asked to memorize through repetition, as is typical, while members of the second group were encouraged to vary their style as much as possible while doing preliminary fingering exercises, and to pay attention to the influence of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Each group was given the same specific lesson, and the piano playing was taped and rated by two experienced observers (presumably not privy to the grouping, although that’s not explicitly stated in the summary). The mindful players were seen as demonstrating greater competence and creativity—and also enjoyed the activity more.

In the first chapter alone, a number of other examples echo that theme: that more exceptional performances, as well as greater satisfaction, arise from the invitation to engage mindfully, which Dr. Langer describes in slightly different terms than the definition popularized by Jon Kabat Zinn. She identifies three traits of mindful learning as “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Having recently begun The Power of Mindful Learning at the time of my walk, its insights flashed through my mind as I was ruing my poor conversational choices, and I realized I could at least plant a different seed of possibility, before moving on. “Now you can decide,” I said, “whether you want to just keep that quarter as a bonus, or donate a free cup of lemonade to the next person who walks past.” Maybe they gave some thought to that; maybe it will stay with them.

 

A seed is, itself, a possibility. A small, good thing.

 

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The Mindful Child (2010) by Susan Kaiser Greenland, from Atria Paperback, New York.

The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen J. Langer, from Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. Quoted with permission from the author, from p. 4 of this edition.