avatarQuentin Septer


Beginner’s Mind: A Zen Art for Everyday Life

“It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble,” Mark Twain (allegedly) said. “It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

A shūji (Japanese calligraphy) symbol for “shoshin,” or “beginner’s mind.” Image credit: Mizai Sho

There’s an old Zen story that goes something like this:

There was once a university professor who lived in Japan. He was a professor of philosophy, and he wanted to know more about the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. So he visited a Zen master by the name of Nan-in.

Nan-in welcomed the professor, and the two sat at a table to begin their discussion of Zen. The professor claimed he wanted to learn, but he was already an expert in philosophy. Nothing Nan-in could have said would have sounded particularly ground-breaking to the professor. In the professor’s mind, he already knew everything Nan-in had to say about Zen.

Nan-in offered his guest a cup of tea. He placed a cup before him and began to fill it. The professor watched as the Zen master filled the cup to the brim. Nan-in kept pouring the tea, and the cup began to overflow. And still he poured the tea, which flowed onto the dish that held the teacup and on across the table.

“Stop!” the professor said, “The cup is full! Can’t you see that it’s overflowing?”

Nan-in sat back and (I can only imagine) smiled wryly. “Like this cup,” the Zen master said, “your mind is full of opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The story is told in various ways, with different names and different characters, but the moral of the story is the same: you can’t learn what you think you already know.

This is the essence of what is known in Zen Buddhism as shoshin. In English, the word means “beginner’s mind.” It expresses a spirit of openness, curiosity, and humility — a recognition of one’s limitations of knowledge and a willingness to learn. It’s a mindset that students of Zen Buddhism are advised to cultivate and maintain. When they meditate, when they read Zen texts, when they attend dharma talks, Zen students are urged to maintain their beginner’s mind.

But the concept of shoshin, as I will attempt to make clear, isn’t limited to the study and practice of Zen Buddhism. It is an art that any one of us can cultivate and implement in our daily lives, and we would be wise to do so. Shoshin is a Zen art for everyday life.

There’s an old proverb, coined by the Japanese playwright Zeami in 1424, that reads: Shoshin wasuru bekarazu. “Never forget your beginner’s mind.” This advice applies to nearly everything we do in life — in our schooling, in our careers, and in our personal relationships. It applies to the arts and the sciences, to learning and teaching, and to nearly every other professional field. It is an antidote to ignorance, a remedy for arrogance. It is fundamental to learning anything new. It keeps our egos in check, and allows us to see the world with fresh eyes. It allows us to break the chains of rigid, mechanized thinking, and approach problems with innovation and creativity. It challenges us to question what we think we know, and makes us more aware of what we’ve yet to learn. “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble,” as Mark Twain (allegedly) said. “It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The concept of shoshin goes back to the thirteenth century, if not earlier. It was taught by the Zen master Dōgen Zenji in his collected works, the Shōbōgenzō. It was espoused by poets and playwrights like Zeami in the fifteenth century, and incorporated into the Bushidō of samurai living in Tokugawa-era Japan.

Shoshin was first popularized in the West by the Sōtō Zen monk and teacher, Shunryū Suzuki. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” he wrote in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “in the expert’s mind there are few.” It’s the most famous and often quoted line from Suzuki’s book, and it boils the importance of shoshin down to its essence. The more experienced we are in a given field or sphere of knowledge, the more close-minded we tend to become.

And this isn’t just cliched folk-wisdom. It’s something that’s been backed up by modern science.

In 1942, a psychologist named Abraham S. Luchins devised a simple yet elegant experiment meant to test the “mechanization” of problem solving — the tendency to solve new problems with old or familiar solutions. He set three jars before his test subjects — the jars labeled A, B, and C — and he asked the participants to measure a requested amount of water using the jars. The correct answer to the problem followed the equation “B — A — 2C = the requested amount of water.”

Luchins divided his test participants into two groups. To one group, he presented five sample problems, all requiring the same formula needed to arrive at the correct answer. To the control group, he presented no sample problems. Then he presented all of the participants with a new problem. It could be solved using the same “B — A — 2C” formula, but it could also be solved using the much simpler formula of “A + C.” People who were presented with the sample problems used the same formula they were taught to solve these sample problems, while the “blind” test subjects gravitated naturally to the easier, more straightforward solution.

The upshot is that Luchins’s study participants tried to solve problems using the same old tried and true techniques with which they are already familiar, even when simpler strategies were available, right in front of their faces. They were blinded by experience. They had forgotten their beginner’s minds. But those in the control group saw the problem with fresh eyes. They approached the problem with a beginner’s mind, so to speak, because they were beginners.

This phenomenon is known to psychology as the “Einstellung Effect.” It is the development of a mechanized state of mind, the tendency to approach new problems with outdated strategies, simply because that’s what worked before.

The more we learn, the more mechanized our thinking tends to become. The more we learn, the more we leave our ability to think creatively behind. The more we learn, the more we forget what it was like to be a beginner.

Another study, carried out by a graduate student at Stanford University named Elizabeth Newton in 1990, highlights a similar cognitive bias. She took her test participants and divided them into two groups: “tappers” and “listeners.” The tappers were asked to pick a popular song (“Happy Birthday,” for example) and tap the rhythm of the song on a table. The listeners were asked to guess the song. Before the experiment, the tappers were asked to guess how likely the listeners were to correctly guess the song they were about to tap. On average, the tappers predicted that the listeners would guess the correct song 50% of the time. They performed (or tapped) 120 songs over the course of the experiment. The listeners only guessed three of the songs correctly, a success rate of 2.5%.

This phenomenon is known in psychology as the “Curse of Knowledge.” We tend to assume that everyone else has access to the same information that we do. It plays out in education all the time. A teacher or professor takes his or her own knowledge for granted, forgetting all the subtleties and nuances that a given student has yet to learn, and failing to communicate them. Too often, teachers (and “tappers,” so to speak) forget their beginner’s mind.

And too often, people tend to be overconfident in their knowledge and abilities. We often feel like experts, even when we’re not.

A third and final example from the cognitive sciences:

Back in the 1990s, two professors of psychology at Cornell University (by the names of David Dunning and Justin Kruger) devised an experiment to test how aware people are of their own abilities. They created a 20-question logic test and gave it to 45 undergraduate students. After the exam, they had each student rate their performance. They asked each student to guess how many questions they got right, and to guess how well they performed relative to the other students who took the test. On average, the lowest-scoring test-takers (those in the bottom quarter of the sample cohort), estimated that they performed better than 62% of their peers. The highest-scoring test takers (those in the top quarter) estimated that they scored better than 68% of their fellow students. The upshot is that the lowest-scoring test-takers drastically overestimated their performance, while those who performed the best underestimated their own abilities.

The results have been replicated in many fields of study, in everything from physics and biology to education and finance. It’s a counterintuitive quirk of the human mind: those who are incompetent tend to be overconfident in their abilities, while those who are competent tend to undervalue their knowledge. This phenomenon is known to psychology as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

In the words of Dunning and Kruger themselves:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Now, the scientists mentioned above didn’t present shoshin as the solution to these cognitive biases, but the point (I hope) is clear enough. Each of these peculiarities of the human mind highlight a similar problem. When we overestimate our knowledge; when we become too rigid in our thinking and problem solving; when we forget what it’s like to be a beginner . . . well, that makes trouble.

When we forget our beginner’s mind; when we struggle to relate to the people around us; when we overlook what’s right in front of our faces; when we fail to act with humility, honesty, and curiosity; we fail to learn anything new. Our performance and our relationships — in our personal and professional lives — suffer as a result. And this suffering isn’t limited to ourselves as individuals. It impacts the people and the world around us in some not-so-desirable ways. When we forget our beginner’s mind, the results can be embarrassing, unideal, catastrophic.

When we forget our beginner’s mind, the results can be deadly.

In 2007, a teenager by the name of Renee Bach traveled to Jinja, Uganda to volunteer in a missionary-run orphanage. She volunteered with the orphanage for about nine months, helping with food drives, teaching English lessons, and spreading the word of God. Then she came home to the United States. Back in Virginia, she felt that her work in Uganda wasn’t done. She felt called by God to return to Africa and help the Ugandan people.

“It was a very, very profound feeling and experience. It’s kind of hard to even describe in words,” Bach said in an interview with NPR. “Like there was something that I was supposed to do.”

In 2009, she founded a charity of her own. She called it “Serving His Children.” Initially, the charity was a food program. Twice a week, Serving His Children would provide hot meals to the children of Jinja’s Masese district, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. News of the new charity spread quickly, and the children came in droves. By the fall of 2009, Serving His Children was serving food to about a thousand children twice a week. Then local physicians started calling Bach, asking if Serving His Children could feed malnourished children who’d recently been discharged from the hospital. The children were stable, as Bach tells the story, their illnesses already treated by medical professionals. They just needed food and a place to stay.

Serving His Children took the kids in and gave them food, shelter, and medications that had been prescribed by physicians. Bach soon realized that this was her mission: to create a nutritional center where the malnourished children of Jinja could get the nutrients they needed to live healthy, happy lives. By 2010, Serving His Children canceled their food program and turned the house out of which the organization was operating into a full-fledged nutrition center, equipped with specialized foods, medications, and, of course, Bibles. Serving His Children also provided mothers with the information they needed to keep their kids healthy and well-fed.

By the summer of 2011, Bach had hired three Ugandan nurses to provide medical care, and the house that Serving His Children was based out of started looking more and more like a clinic, fit with oxygen tanks and other medical equipment. Jackie Kramlich, a certified nurse who volunteered with Serving His Children during that time, described the facility as looking something like a NICU — a neonatal intensive care unit, a hospital wing where critically-ill children are cared for around-the-clock by a team of medical professionals. “It was a NICU,” Kramlich recalled in the HBO documentary, “Savior Complex,” a film about Bach and Saving His Children.

The problem was, Serving His Children wasn’t licensed as a medical facility. And many of the children served by the organization weren’t just malnourished; they were suffering from critical and complicated diseases. “Pneumonia, intestinal parasites, tuberculosis,” Kramlich told NPR, “many were in stage 4 HIV.” And Bach, who was running the clinic and providing much of the medical care herself, had no medical training whatsoever. Still, she would provide medical care, “without a medical professional standing right next to me,” she admits. “But it was always under the request and direction of a medical professional.”

Kramlich recounts one case in particular, which she describes as “horrifying.” It’s a case that Bach wrote about on her blog, the case of a nine-month-old baby named Patricia.

One Sunday morning in October 2011, a couple arrived at the “clinic” carrying a baby in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.

“When I pulled the covering back my eyes widened,” Bach wrote. “For under the blanket lay a small, but very, very swollen, pale baby girl. Her breaths were frighteningly slow . . . The baby’s name is Patricia. She is 9 months old.”

Patricia fell ill about three weeks earlier, and her parents had been unable to find the medical help they needed. Luckily for them, Bach wrote, someone told the couple about a “hospital” where a “White Doctor” worked. Bach wasn’t a doctor. She wasn’t a physician’s assistant. She wasn’t a nurse. At that time, Serving His Children had yet to attain a medical license, and had yet to hire a single physician.

“I hooked the baby up to oxygen and got to work,” Bach wrote. “Took her temperature, started an IV, checked her blood sugar, tested for malaria, and looked at her HB count . . . I was attempting to diagnose the many problems that could potentially be at hand. Got it: Malaria: positive. H.B. 3.2 . . . a big problem . . . most likely fatal . . . She needed a blood transfusion. And fast.”

Bach started a blood transfusion, and that’s when Patricia’s condition began to deteriorate. “Her neck and face started swelling,” Bach wrote, and her “breathing went from bad to worse. Her throat was beginning to close.”

It was around then that Bach called Jackie Kramlich, Serving His Children’s newly certified volunteer nurse. No other staff or medical personnel were at the clinic when Kramlich arrived. “It was just Renee,” Kramlich said in the HBO documentary. Patricia was “swollen” and “wheezing,” as the blood was being transfused into her vein.

“You know,” Bach told Kramlich, “I think she might be having a reaction. But I don’t know. Because, you know, Google says that if they’re having a reaction, they’ll have a rash. And I don’t see a rash.” That’s Kramlich’s telling of the story. Bach claims that a nurse performed the blood transfusion, and the nurse phoned a doctor, who advised Serving His Children to take Patricia to a real hospital. Bach drove Patricia to a hospital, and the baby lived, though her face would be forever scarred by a case of necrotizing fasciitis.

Kramlich left her position at Serving His Children shortly after the incident, four months into her planned year of volunteering with the organization.

According to Ugandan law and international healthcare regulations, the kinds of illnesses that Bach and Serving His Children were treating needed to be dealt with by certified medical professionals. In 2011, Serving His Children had no physicians on staff, and the facility had yet to be licensed as a medical clinic. Despite all of this, Bach was performing medical procedures for which she wasn’t qualified — diagnosing illnesses (with the help of a quick Google search), prescribing medications, administering IVs, performing blood transfusions. By 2013, Serving His Children had hired two doctors. But the facility didn’t obtain a medical license until 2014, after the “clinic” had been operating for nearly five years. The license expired the following year, and the clinic was shut down by the district health office soon thereafter. Between 2010 and 2015, Serving His Children cared for 940 children, 105 of whom died at the facility.

The case of Renee Bach and Serving His Children is rife with controversy and strong opinions. Some say she is a saint, someone who cared for children who had no other options. Some say she is a murderer, an “Angel of Death.” To my mind, the truth is somewhere in between these extremes.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, let’s say Bach really wanted to help the children she served, that she had the best of intentions. She wasn’t malicious; she was arrogant. Call it the Dunning-Kruger effect — she was overconfident in her knowledge and abilities, though she had no good reason to be so. Had Serving His Children obtained a medical license when they began performing medical procedures, and had Bach hired doctors and nurses to perform those procedures, there wouldn’t be any controversy. Things would have been done by the books, in accord with international and national laws. There wouldn’t be dozens of news articles and an HBO documentary and a social-media shitstorm demonizing Renee Bach and her actions.

But that’s not what happened.

Confronted with the pain and suffering of the hundreds of children who came into her “clinic” in need of help, I think Renee Bach genuinely believed that she was doing the right thing, despite her lack of medical qualifications. She saw herself not as the unqualified beginner that she was in the medical field, but as some kind of expert. Her failure to humble herself and admit her lack of knowledge and expertise and act accordingly led her and her organization to ruin; and may have resulted in the deaths of 105 children who could have been saved, had they been administered to a proper hospital.

Renee Bach had forgotten what she truly was in the medical field: a beginner.

She had forgotten her beginner’s mind.

You might not work in the medical field — the stakes of your career might not be as high as human lives — but the failure to remember your beginner’s mind may very well have some catastrophic consequences in your life and work. I urge you to ask yourself: What might the cost of overestimating your knowledge be? How might the cultivation of shoshin help you be a better person, both in your personal and professional life? What might you gain by admitting what you don’t know, and acting with a little more humility and curiosity?

Who knows, it just might bring some good into the world.

It just might change the world for the better.

It just might save lives.

Louis Pasteur was obsessed with microbes. He spent his days peering into microscopes, observing the strange, microbial world lurking just beneath the surface of our perception. He “became so preoccupied with them,” Bill Bryson wrote in his book of science history, A Short History of Nearly Everything, “that he took to peering critically at every dish placed before him with a magnifying glass, a habit that presumably did not win him many repeat invitations to dinner.” Microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, viruses — were mysterious little creatures, and the scientists of the day knew very little about them. And never did anybody suspect that the things caused disease, until Pasteur came along.

At the time, most respectable doctors and medical professionals believed in something called “miasma theory.” Diseases weren’t caused by microbes, the experts of the time thought, but by a mysterious form of “bad air,” which they called “miasma.” The theory was first proposed by Hippocrates in the fourth century BCE, and it persisted well into the 1800s. Miasma explained the cholera epidemics of Paris and London, the doctors of the day reasoned. This “bad air” could be detected by its foul smell, and physicians urged their patients to stay away from the stuff.

At the time, miasma theory seemed to make sense. Dirty water and rotten meat give off some nasty smells, and steering clear of those awful odors decreased one’s chances of falling ill. So too did keeping things clean, opening up the windows and keeping the air one “breathes as pure as the external air,” in the words of Florence Nightingale. The belief in miasma inspired some adaptive behaviors, behaviors that minimized one’s chances of contracting diseases like cholera (which is spread not by “bad air,” but by food and water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae). But it was wrong.

In many fields, there tends to be a kind of groupthink among experts, often for good reason. If all of the experts agree on a given theory, there’s probably a logical reason for it. But sometimes, an expert’s familiarity with the prevailing wisdom of the day can cloud his or her judgment. An expert can take the accepted knowledge of his time for granted, so much so that he forgets to question whether or not that “knowledge” is true. As the Einstellung Effect shows, experts can become too rigid in their thinking, too set in their ways. Sometimes, it takes a newcomer to see things clearly. “Do not promote what you can’t explain, simplify, and prove,” as Louis Pasteur warned.

Louis Pasteur wasn’t a doctor. He was a chemist, and he’d spent decades studying microbes. He studied fermentation in beer, wine, and milk, and he discovered that fermentation wasn’t the product of miasma; it was the product of bacterial contamination, proliferation, and metabolism. Moreover, he found that different types of bacteria were associated with different types of fermentation. Miasma wasn’t to blame for spoiled milk and cork-tainted wine, Pasteur discovered; bacteria was.

In 1862, he began studying silkworms, though he didn’t know much about the critters. But Europe’s silkworm industry — valued for their production of silk fibers used in clothing and other textiles — was on the brink of collapse, and the experts in the field couldn’t make heads or tails of it. He approached the problem with a fresh perspective, devoid of assumptions. He wasn’t an expert in silkworms, he was just beginning to study the organisms and the mysterious illness that ailed them. But he was tenacious. “My strength lies solely in my tenacity,” Pasteur said. It’s another trait of the beginner’s mind. What he lacked in expertise, Pasteur made up for with diligence and an open mind. He worked on the problem for a few years, and he discovered that the plague afflicting Europe’s silkworms was caused by another infectious microbe, a fungus called Nosema bombycis. He developed a method to preserve healthy silkworm eggs, protecting them from contamination by the invasive fungus. Then he turned his attention to infectious diseases in human beings.

If rotten milk and the souring of sugar beet in beer and wine — and the pébrine disease plaguing Europe’s silkworms — were caused not by miasma, but by microbes, maybe the same was true of infectious diseases in humans. The medical establishment of the era was hesitant to accept the Germ Theory of Disease. Pasteur was, after all, not a doctor. What did he know about human diseases? Fortunately for Pasteur (and for the world), he wasn’t a doctor, and that’s what allowed him to think beyond the dogma of the era’s medical establishment. His work as a chemist had uniquely prepared him to solve this problem. “Fortune,” as Pasteur said, “favors the prepared mind.”

In 1879, around the time Pasteur began his work on human diseases, an anthrax epidemic was sweeping across France and much else of Europe. It was infecting sheep, and it was infecting human beings as well. A German doctor by the name of Robert Koch discovered and isolated the microbe that appeared to be causing the disease, Bacillus anthracis. Independently, Pasteur found the same results. Anthrax, too, wasn’t caused by miasma; it was caused by a bacteria.

Earlier that year, Pasteur investigated a disease afflicting chickens, which came to be known as chicken cholera. Chicken cholera, Pasteur found, was caused by another species of bacteria (a species that bears his name to this day, of the genus Pasteurella). He observed that cultures of the Pasteurella multocida lost their pathogenicity — their dangerous, disease-causing characteristics — over time. So he took some of these benign, “attenuated” bacteria and injected them into some chickens. A couple weeks later, he injected the virulent (disease-causing) Pasteurella bacteria into those same chickens and, lo and behold, those chickens were immune to chicken cholera. Then he sought to do the same thing with sheep and Bacillus anthracis.

In Pouilly-le-Fort, on the outskirts of Paris, Pasteur inoculated seventy sheep with an attenuated form of the bacteria. Two weeks later, he inoculated the vaccinated sheep, along with a group of unvaccinated sheep, with the anthrax-causing Bacillus anthracis. All of the unvaccinated sheep died within a few days. All of the vaccinated sheep lived, happy as a lamb. The Germ Theory of Disease was proven true.

Some years later, Pasteur turned his attention to rabies, a much feared and mysterious disease caused, as he would discover, by a virus. Performing experiments with rabbits, he developed a rabies vaccine. On July 4, 1885, a nine-year-old boy by the name of Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. At the time, this was a death sentence. Pasteur was called upon to treat the boy, and he vaccinated Meister with his newly developed rabies vaccine. The boy lived, as did hundreds of other folks bitten by rabid animals over the coming years. Pasteur, the chemist whose ideas were for so long dismissed by the medical establishment of nineteenth century Europe, had brought preventative medicine to the world.

The story of Louis Pasteur, whose accomplishments and discoveries are too numerous to recount here, highlights a few core principles of shoshin. He was tenacious, as beginner’s often are, making up for a lack of expertise in a given field with discipline and drive. He was open-minded, willing to investigate novel ideas that the medical establishment of his era wasn’t willing to consider, bogged down as they were by dogma and preconceived assumptions that few thought to question.

To my mind, Louis Pasteur is a prime example of what can be achieved when a human being combines hard-won knowledge with a spirit of humility and open-mindedness; when an expert remembers his beginner’s mind.

Pasteur was immensely studious, but always questioning, ever curious to know more. “To know how to wonder and question is the first step of the mind toward discovery,” Pasteur said. He wasn’t satisfied with what he already knew, what he already discovered; he was ever pursuing the limits of his knowledge, bringing the rest of the world with him.

“I am on the verge of mysteries,” he said of his work, “and the veil which covers them is getting thinner and thinner.” It’s a mindset that isn’t limited to medicine and science. It’s a mindset that can be applied to any career path, to everything that we do. “Whatever your career may be,” Pasteur advised, “do not let yourselves become tainted by a deprecating and barren skepticism.”

Whatever your career may be, whatever you decide to do with your life, remember this. Remain humble, stay curious, remember your beginner’s mind; no matter how expert you become.

The concept of shoshin is universal. It can be applied to the arts and the sciences, to education and law, to nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives, big and small. I’ve told two stories here that (I hope) highlight the value of shoshin and the good this state of mind can bring into your life and into the world; and how forgetting your beginner’s mind can lead to ruin, in your life and in the lives of others. I could go on and on, telling stories about how the practice of shoshin can enrich our lives. (I’m currently working on a book about the topic.) For now, I hope the point is clear enough.

Until next time, remember your beginner’s mind.

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