In the end, it is our knowledge that hinders and blocks us from seeing what is as it is. Take labels, as J Krishnamurthy once said. When you teach a child that a bird is a bird, they learn the word “bird.” From that point on, they see the word, not the bird. Labels of all kinds work that way. Once we know something, the mind quickly assumes, “I know what this is,” and we stop looking closely. For example, if I showed you an orange, the label immediately comes up, “It’s an orange,” and you cease to truly observe it. You may not realize it, but you’re not really looking at it. The beginner’s mind is a way to look at things as if you didn’t know, adopting a “don’t know” attitude and observing deeply.
Perhaps you notice some bruising on the peel or the scent that you’ve never noticed before. Things will arise when you’re open to seeing something fresh. Our beliefs, concepts, and what we know act as filters that shape our perception of reality. In more complex cases, beyond labels, let’s say you identify as liberal or conservative, and you’re watching a balanced newscast that presents both sides of the story equally. Regardless of your identification, if something counters your beliefs, you’ll discount it, thinking, “That’s liberal crap” or “That’s conservative crap. I know better.” On the other hand, if an article aligns with your views, you’ll smile and nod, affirming your preconceived notions.
Our own beliefs and knowledge restrict what we can recognize and absorb going forward. That’s why the famous saying attributed to Bruce Lee, which originates from earlier Chinese and Eastern philosophies, emphasizes the importance of emptying our cup. There’s a story of a scholar who had extensive knowledge but went to a teacher to learn more. The teacher quickly assessed the scholar’s mindset and advised them to empty their cup. The beginner’s mind is about assuming that you don’t know, unlearning what you’ve learned, and approaching things with a blank slate.
So, as you walk around in the woods or go about your day, try playing with the experiment of adopting a “don’t know” attitude, a total beginner’s mind. Simply look at things, experience them, and if you catch yourself trying to categorize or judge, recognize that you’re referring to your past knowledge and beliefs. Stop yourself and let it go. Say, “I don’t know. I need to look at this as if I’ve never seen it before.” You may be surprised by what you discover. In the end, it is our knowing what we don’t know that allows us to truly learn and grow.