Whether you consider yourself a ‘beginner’ practitioner or an experienced yogi, our perceptions of how much we ‘know’ and how much we don’t can have a profound impact both on the mat and in daily life. Read on to find out how adopting a ‘beginner’s mindset’ can actually open the doors to receiving a world of knowledge and experience we never knew existed.
The experienced yogi
As a yoga teacher myself, I’m one of the first people to admit that the most difficult people to ‘teach’ can sometimes be the students who don’t think they need to be taught – the ‘experienced yogi’. The one who feels they don’t need to listen because they already know.
There’s an ancient Zen story to illustrate this point, and it encourages us to realise that the moment we say “I know”, we put a stop to our ability to know more.
A long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them and enlighten them in the way of Zen.
One day an important man came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way. The Zen master smiled and said they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. Whilst preparing the tea, the important man began explaining what he knew about Zen, and why he was worthy of enlightenment.
When the tea was served, the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and onto the robes of the man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over me. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind ready for filling.”
The idea of having an ‘empty mind’ is one explored throughout yoga and meditation practices, and also an aspect so many of us find difficult to practice and attain. But what if we thought of having an ‘empty mind’ not so much as having a completely blank brain, but having a mind that wasn’t already full, one that had space for learning, experience, personal growth and life’s many lessons?
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few ~ Shunryu Suzuki-roshi
Children are able to learn a vast amount whilst they’re still young, and this isn’t only because the brain is creating and mapping neural connections and pathways at a rapid rate, but because of the attitude of the children themselves. For those who have children; how often have they repeatedly asked “why?”. “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “How do aeroplanes fly?” “Who made the sun and the moon?” “What happens when we go to sleep?” All questions we might brush off with “It just is”, or “Because that’s how it is”, but all genuine questions that offer the opportunity for expansion and exploration. Children are imbued with the mindset of endless possibility, curiosity and potential, and these are three things we begin to lose as adults, especially if we already feel we ‘know’ enough.
For the beginner yoga practitioner, there’s a world of possibility and potential just waiting to be explored, and there’s also the ability to truly listen. Once we think we ‘know’, we stop really listening. Instead, we filter out the parts we want to hear and those we agree with, and simply ignore the aspects that don’t resonate or slot into what we ‘know’ and therefore believe to be true.
Perhaps it’s because we live in a modern age in which we’re expected to know things instantly, to have the answers and ‘get things done’. With schedules so tightly packed and day-to-day stress so high that there’s no room left for wondering, daydreaming, researching, making mistakes and learning from them, and discussing why, who, what, where, if and how? Hitting ‘search’ on Google has taken the place of experimenting and exploring infinite possibilities and also made our brainpower and attention span a fraction of what it could be.
It’s okay not to know
Not knowing something is an aspect of ourselves many of us have been conditioned into fearing since childhood. When asked a question in school, knowing the answer was praised and not knowing it was punished – either in the form of a low grade or embarrassment in front of peers. Our whole academic lives we’re taught to believe that success is all about ‘getting it right’, knowing the answers, ticking boxes and moving onto the next and more difficult topic. Even when the topic seems to have no relevance to every-day life and living. There’s no pause, no reflecting, and those who dared to say they didn’t understand were deemed less intelligent and less ‘able’ than others.
If we’re exposed to this way of thinking and being throughout our entire childhood – whilst our brains are developing, opinions and egos forming – it’s no wonder we find ourselves in adult life terrified of not knowing. Even if it’s something as simple as having a conversation with a friend, we seldom sit patiently and really absorb what the other person is saying, rather we’re already forming sentences and half-hearted responses as they speak, eager to tell them what we know rather than hearing something we could learn if we only took the time and energy to listen.
Emptying the cup
A practice of un-doing years of conditioning, of course, takes commitment and time (something we continually tell ourselves we apparently don’t have enough of), but if we can gradually open ourselves up to learning and receiving – emptying our cup just a little so there’s room to fill it with something fresh – we give ourselves the gift of potential. We give ourselves the ability to expand, we physically give ourselves the gift of growing new neural connections and a healthier brain, and we also give ourselves the gift of self-acceptance and openness, once again able to ask the world, ‘why?’
Practise in class
Not knowing what’s going to happen is a very beneficial practice because it keeps us connected to our body and the present moment. It’s actually this attitude that keeps us fresh and alive, no matter what happens in our daily life. Cultivate this attitude in Sandra Carson’s class Loving Uncertainty – Hatha / Level 1/2 / 60 mins