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.

 

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.