The Secret to Happiness – A Beginner’s Mind

Beginner's Mind

The psychologist, researcher, and Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck studied mindset for decades. She coined and popularized the term. It culminated into her book by the same name, Mindset, now considered the preeminent entrée to the topic. 

We’ll spend much of the Curious month in our program summarizing for you the major findings and lessons from her work, and you can read our summary of her book here.

But before Dr. Dweck and her industry-changing research, Zen Buddhists believed in a “Beginner’s Mind.” (To dig deeper, you can read Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.) 

Let’s look at the basic tenets of a beginner’s mind.

Live in the Moment

One who has a beginner’s mind lives in the moment. This person focuses fully on their current action – even if that action is doing nothing. 

The Zen way is that this focus is what brings peace, calm, and gratitude to your life. It is the secret to happiness.

Living in the moment isn’t just a splashy headline. There are exercises and philosophies one can practice that brings this mindset. There is of course meditation, breathing, and posture. There is also a certain way to think about goals, control, excellence, and judgment. Let’s cover each in turn.

Detach Goals From Practice

Those with a beginner’s mind detach external goals from their experiencing of the day-to-day moment-to-moments of life.

It is the Zen Buddhist’s philosophy that we tend to let our negative thoughts and emotions discourage us, and that those thoughts derive from our constant focus on the end not the means. In other words, we don’t participate in and witness our daily activities in and of themselves – we do them conscious of the end goal. And that focus takes us out of the moment, and puts stressors on the activity to achieve the needs of the goal.

Instead, the Zen way is to be in the activity, and that any negative thoughts should be fuel for our practice. 

Relinquish Control

We are constantly trying to control our environment, including the actions of others. This is mostly futile and inevitably difficult. Instead of trying to control, the Zen Buddhist believes, be an impartial observer. Accept what is as part of all things, connected and a part of you. 

Excellence

Society tells us to appreciate effortless excellence – people who are “naturally gifted.” According to Zen, go the opposite way. Instead, value patient perseverance. Don’t worry how easy or hard an activity is. Simply practice, without the goal of excellence. Don’t chase success; practice for practice’s sake.

Wrapping It All Up

The aim is to detach ourselves from the results of our activity. From the goal… from control… from chasing success. Results-attachment invites judgment. The goal is to rid yourself of that judgment – the pride or disappointment in the result. The judgment brings worry, and worry detracts us from the purity of the action. 

The goal is to instead be in the action – in the moment. 

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