Beginnings are often associated with birth, January 1st, introductions and first dates. Yet each and every moment is, in itself, a beginning. We just aren’t always aware of these beginnings because they blend into the backdrop of our everyday lives. Just like the first bite of cake, beginnings bring an intensity that soon gets diluted as we start to normalise our experience, and by the 4th bite you’re bored and wishing you’d gone for the caramel slice instead. Same cake, different attitude.
When we adopt a beginner’s mindset we create a playful absence of assumption, free from fear and open to unexpected opportunity. Knowledge might give us power, but not knowing offers us an open book. So how might a beginner’s mind help you to invigorate your life with new perspective and purpose? And how might you bring your work, home and relationships back to the beginning? Back to that feeling of brand new…
When I was 22 I went to RADA to study acting. I wanted to learn the art of creating life on stage and for several years I told stories on stages all over the world. Yet, what I discovered was that creating life on stage was the easy bit: keeping it up was the challenge. It didn’t matter how exciting the play was or how big my part, as soon as the lines and staging became familiar I would sense myself becoming complacent. Once the first few nights were out of the way I’d have to work really hard to keep my performance fresh, so not to slip into a robotic run-through of the play. Life on the other hand is not limited by a script, directions or staging and is essentially one long improvisation. Yet in spite of this freedom, a sense of ‘normality’ can creep into almost every aspect of our lives. As soon as we become accustomed to something, whether it be people or projects, work or home life, we start to look for what we expect. To use the well known phrase, familiarity breeds contempt. Yet, as with many common sayings we might do well to investigate how true this really is. Is familiarity really the cause of our contempt? Or is something else causing our disappointment with the ordinary? Maybe we’ve simply stopped seeing how extra ordinary our ordinary lives are.
Beginnings can be hard because they expose us to the unknown. The unfamiliar can cause us to fear failure and worry that we won’t be good enough. However, it’s important to remember that anyone who ever did anything was once a beginner because no one starts at the top. Standing at the bottom of a mountain might seem daunting but it can also be exciting, as it offers new possibility, potential and perspective. Unfortunately, the modern world encourages habit and regularity and brings to mind the motto made famous by Fatboy Slim: “Eat Sleep Rave Repeat.” We repeat things reliably and expect the expected in the belief that this will keep our lives safe and stable.
Our everyday lives aren’t scripted and yet we try to schedule them according to a predetermined plan based on memory and past experience. So, what happens when life doesn’t live up to our expectations? When your morning train is delayed by 15-minutes? Or your partner gives you a boring birthday present? We can find ourselves frustrated and disappointed that life didn’t live up to our expectations. And this unconscious creation of what you think will happen can cause you more distress than the situation itself. You have set yourself an illusion of certainty in an uncertain world. A world which you can’t control.
With hindsight I can see that what I loved most about performing was rehearsing. I was so often focused on the end result: the applause, the audition outcome or the review. But really, where I got most satisfaction was during the rehearsal process. As soon as I became an ‘expert’- when I knew all my character’s lines, actions and thoughts- the work was never quite so exciting. So in a sense, I longed to be a beginner again. As much as they were scary, auditions, read throughs and opening nights were some the most exciting experiences of my career.
Buddhism and Beginnings
The notion of ‘beginner’s mind’ originates from zen buddhism. To use the words of Shunryu Suzuki, a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher renowned for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” The beginner is truly seeing and being in the world whereas the expert paints mental pictures of what to expect. When I was acting in a long-running production I would actively practice listening on stage. This simple act of noticing subtle changes in my cast member’s intonation and speed helped me to stay present and connected. When you get good at something it’s all too easy to slip from unconscious competence into unconscious incompetence, and before you know it, your fellow performer has accidentally skipped a page of dialogue and you’ve failed to catch up!
“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.”
The beginner’s mind embodies the essence of meditation, which was once so beautifully explained to me by a friend and former monk as “follow the breath and notice change.”Change can be anything. Sensations in the body, sounds around you or movements in the mind. Noticing change is what brings you back to the present moment and meditation is one way of practicing this skill. However, you can practice ‘follow the breath and notice change’ anywhere and at anytime: it doesn’t have to be practiced eyes closed in a crossed legged position. It’s simply recognising that the moment you are in has never happened before and it will never happen again.
Psychologist Ellen Langer describes mindfulness as “noticing new things” about a person. So when you get into the office on Monday morning set yourself the task of noticing 3 new things about a colleague. It could be something as small as a freckle on their forehead. It’s not about what you focus on, it’s about the presence that the conscious attention creates. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be limited to meditation as it’s something that can be practiced at the dinner table, in the car or even when talking over the phone. Break out of your usual Monday morning routine and start seeing the people you work with as exactly that: people in the present moment as opposed to objects fixed in time.
If you want to bring back the spark, take it back to the start…
What I loved most about the acting profession was its constant stream of new beginnings: there were always jobs, auditions, and people exiting and entering my life, keeping it fresh and fluid but also incredibly unstable. At the start of a new relationship people often experience a similar ‘whirl wind’ of beginnings and it is something that many long to rediscover as stability and security start to sink in. However, maybe it’s not about losing the spark at all, but about losing the beginner’s mindset. I’m not talking about bringing home flowers or going out for fancy meals (although by all means do if this is what helps you to rekindle the flame!) It’s about really listening to the other person and seeing them as they really are. The curious, child-like lens that you first saw them through starts to fade when the brain begins to familiarise and you not only start to preempt how they look and speak, but also how they will react and respond in situations. When you look through this lens you limit them to being one type of person: the person you have projected and not- the person that is in front of you. Author and teacher Rachel Naomi Remen (who has a fascinating podcast on Kristin Tippet’s On Being) believes that “being safe is about being seen and heard and allowed to be who you are and to speak your truth.” Instead of chasing new beginnings, or believing that the grass is greener can you notice the beginnings that are blossoming around you right now?
If you want to bring back the spark, take it back to the start…
Presence over projection
At the tail end of my professional acting career I joined the ‘Spontaneity Shop,’ a wonderful improvisation troop with whom I created stories on stage every night. Creating stories from nothing we walked out on stage not knowing where we were going or what we were doing, which was both terrifying and exhilarating and it was when I started to love living in the moment, script-less, fearless and free. So I replaced control with curiosity and started seeing life’s curve balls as creative challenges, a switch which completely changed my life. Whilst we don’t always know what is around the corner we can choose to stay curious.
“Every moment is a fresh beginning.”
If we don’t want to sleepwalk our way through life due to our preconceived ideas about people, places and situations, then we must make a conscious effort to wake up. To make it easier for our brains to process information, we go into lazy mode, or what neuroscientists call ‘the default network.’ A 2007 study called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” by Norman Farb revealed how the human brain has two distinct ways of interacting with the world, via 2 different networks. The ‘default network’ includes regions of the medial prefrontal cortex and regions such as the hippocampus. This region becomes active when not much is happening and your mind wanders off to its own little world. This is why, whilst waiting for the train you might find yourself stressing about a project at work, instead of enjoying the beautiful sunshine sparkling off the snow covered rooftops. The default network is responsible for daydreaming and planning and can be incredibly useful when strategising or goal-setting.
This network also becomes active when you think about yourself or other people. Over time the network builds up narratives about the people in your life and just like characters in a play, they become ‘type-cast’ and fixed to a premeditated story line. Our lives are constantly evolving and so if we only experience our lives through the default network, we limit our lives to these projections. So, how do we throw away the script and start improvising our way through the day-to-day? We have to tap into the second network in the brain responsible for direct experience. When the direct network is activated you are not thinking about the past or the future but experiencing life as it happens. As a result, your senses become heightened because they process information as it arises. This is why so many of us love to travel because the unfamiliar, sights, smells, sounds and flavours help us to stay present. However, present awareness isn’t about the place or the people around you: it’s about the way you see them. This is what I love about this work because it gives you the power to transform your life. It’s not about where you are, who you are with or what you are doing: it’s about the lens you look through.
In his experiment, Norman Farb discovered that those who regularly practiced noticing the two different modes of operating (for example regular meditators) had stronger differentiation between the two paths and could easily switch between the two. Those who hadn’t practiced this ’noticing’ were more likely to resort to the default mode of operating. Therefore, mindfulness and meditation exercises can help your brain to stay present, by continually bringing you back to the beginning. Each breath offers a new beginning, so where will your next inhalation take you?
Being a beginner
If we can embody beginnings, particularly when teaching or leading, we can help others to live in this fresh, open minded space. This will not only keep the experience interesting for ourselves but it will also help to keep others engaged. As an actor I had to bring a sense of ‘beginning’ to each and every performance as the majority of the audience would be experiencing the story for the first time. One way I managed to trick myself into beginner’s mind was by telling myself that there was someone really important in the audience. This belief was enough to keep me present, connected and conscious- even if it was for the 455th show!
Our eduction systems encourages a sense of arrival: we pass exams, get qualifications and we take on a title. We become the thing we trained to be, whether that is a manager, a lecturer or a head nurse on a busy ward. However, it’s important that we remain open minded particularly when we take on these positions of authority, because it keeps us flexible to change and open to learning. Maybe your next biggest lesson will come from the most junior person in your team. They may be lower in the corporate pecking order but perhaps they will be your greatest teacher, offering you a nugget of knowledge or an insight that you weren’t previously aware of. Stay open to what your colleagues might be able to teach you and you will encourage them to do the same: to see the daily fluctuations in your way of being and to appreciate the simple fact that you are human: you aren’t a robot and you don’t have all the answers. So give yourself and those around you the gift of conscious creation and the freedom to use these three magic words: “I don’t know.”
No one knows what’s coming next…
We may think we know what’s coming next but really it’s a mystery, regardless of whether you are at the beginning, middle or end of your journey. So instead of fearing change and living under the illusion of certainty, why not seize the power of the present moment. We are improvising all of the time and we are surrounded by constant opportunities and sources of inspiration. So why not choose to live life like an improviser. Stay open and flexible to life and don’t lock yourself inside a story. To use the beautiful words of Lao Tzu: “Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” The longer we can hold on to the beginner’s mind, regardless of the situation, the better we prepare ourselves for change and the more open we are to chance. Life would be boring if we knew what was coming next, so let’s celebrate the uncertainty. Let’s revel in the unknown territories of brand new beginnings and bring a ‘childlike’ lens to our lives.
“The tragedy of growing up is not that we lose childishness in its simplicity, but that we lose childlikeness in its sublimity.”
– Ravi Zacharias.
Perhaps instead of living each day like it’s our last, we should start living each day like it’s our first.