The Beginner's Mind
For the past 12 years I’ve been including this quote at the top of my syllabus for my Introduction to Sociology class. I put this quote at the top of my syllabus because it serves as the motto of the whole class. In fact, this quote really serves as the motto for all of my classes and I would say for the whole process of teaching and learning—maybe even for the whole journey of life. It comes from a classic book of Zen Buddhism called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
In this book, Suzuki encourages us to have the beginner’s mind. What this means is that we should never feel as if we have something all figured out. We should always be hungry for more information and view ourselves as works in progress. I think one of the most basic ways to think about the beginner’s mind is to speak of intellectual curiosity—to have this insatiable desire to gain more knowledge and wisdom because we know there is so much more to learn. As Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’”
When most of us first entered school we epitomized the beginner’s mind. We were so excited to learn anything and everything. We had this unlimited intellectual curiosity. We were constantly asking questions such as: Why? How? When? Where? But after years of being told what we must learn, when we must learn, and how we must learn, much of this curiosity has been extinguished. And after years of memorizing the answers that teachers poured into our heads just so that we could regurgitate these answers on quarterly exams, many of us have actually come to dislike learning.
This makes many of us much more used to having an expert’s mind than a beginner’s mind. We have that “been there, done that” attitude. We feel as if once we’ve learned something or experienced something there is nothing more to be gained and we can move promptly onto the next topic. Or we think that just because we know someone’s characteristics—maybe their race, their gender, their sexuality, their social class or even their hobbies—we feel confident that we know what type of person they are and whether or not they are our kind of people.
These are all examples of the expert’s mind. At the very least, the expert’s mind results in narrow-mindedness and closed-mindedness where we shut others out and strengthen arbitrary borders instead of work together to build bridges. At the very worst, the expert’s mind results in prejudice, discrimination, fanaticism, and oppression—things we see all over the world each day.
I like to equate the beginner’s mind with a sociological mind and an expert’s mind with a non-sociological mind. Now I am not suggesting that sociologists are immune from having the expert’s mind. There are certainly some know-it-all, closed-minded sociologists. Instead, what I am suggesting is that if we truly want to see the world through a sociological lens we must embrace the beginner’s mind. The two go hand-in-hand.
To see the world sociologically assumes that one wants to see more (the bigger picture instead of a narrow view), learn more (beyond the typically accepted explanations), and experience more (strive to walk in the shoes of others and not just your own shoes).
In this sense we might speak of a sociological beginner’s mind. A sociological beginner’s mind is willing, able, and genuinely excited to see the complexity and chaos of everyday life. A number of sociologists have actually alluded to this way of thinking without specifically using this language. Consider this statement by Peter Berger from his classic book Invitation to Sociology in which he implicitly suggests a sociological beginner’s mind:
People who like to avoid shocking discoveries, who prefer to believe that society is just what they were taught in Sunday school should stay away from sociology. People who feel no temptation before closed doors, who have no curiosity about human beings, who are content to admire scenery without wondering about the people who live in houses on the other side of that river, should probably also stay away from sociology. They will find it unpleasant or, at any rate, unrewarding.
To ask sociological questions, then, presupposes that one is interested in looking some distance beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined goals of human actions. It presupposes a certain awareness that human events have different levels of meaning, some of which are hidden from the consciousness of everyday life. It may even presuppose a measure of suspicion about the way in which human events are officially interpreted by the authorities, be they political, juridical, or religious in character.
In effect, a sociological beginner’s mind is an open mind, an unbiased mind, a welcoming mind, and a curious mind. But it’s not just a cognitive perspective or a mind set; it’s an experiential perspective, a way of being in the world.
When you have this sociological beginner’s mind for the people you meet, the ideas you encounter, and the circumstances in which you find yourself, you will feel greater connection and concern for these people you meet, you will experience a greater openness and awareness for these ideas you encounter, and you will have much more excitement and enthusiasm for the circumstances in which you find yourself. If you can get to the point where you always have a sociological beginner’s mind, your possibilities will truly be endless.
[Note: This blog is partially adapted from my 2011 Convocation Lecture to the incoming class at SUNY New Paltz.