Letting Go of Ego by Cultivating Beginner's Mind


Years ago, when I was in med school, I was a companion to an elderly woman named Flo. She lived with her daughter, due to her having dementia and not able to fully take care of herself. I would come to their house a few days a week and make lunch or dinner for her as well as keep her company when her daughter was at work. One of things I enjoyed about my visits with Flo was that she had wonderful stories to tell me about her life living in the West from the early-mid 20th Century and beyond.

Flo’s short-term memory was quite compromised, but her long-term memory was excellent and she loved to talk about her early days. I heard about her adventures with her sisters driving their Packard car to national parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, to go camping in the 1920s. She talked about the early days of skiing on Mt. Hood before there were lifts - having to hike up the mountain to ski down and then do it all over again. Flo introduced me the world of archeology when she was part of an archeological team led by a professor of archeology in the 30s and 40s, digging for prehistoric fossils and bones in eastern Oregon. I heard about her beloved Forest Ranger husband, who “never knew a stranger” and tales of their time living in a cabin on Mt. Hood. And yet, she could never remember my name in all the months that I was visiting her.

While I loved to hear her stories, I began to hear them over and over again as she thought she was telling them to me for the first time. Flo seemed to gain so much pleasure from talking about her adventuresome past, that I didn’t want to inhibit that process by stopping her from telling me or reacting indifferently towards her. I decided that I would be a little more creative in the way that I listened and asked her questions, as if I was hearing the stories for the very first time.

I decided that I would approach her with a kind of curiosity and wonder that a child has when they are learning something new. Patiently, I would ask her new and different questions that might allow her to remember and add new information to her accounts. In staying open to this process of hearing her stories as if they were fresh and new, I learned a good deal about myself. I learned what it was like to be in Beginner’s Mind and I was happy to be there.

Beginner’s Mind or Shoshin is a concept derived from Zen Buddhism, where everything is seen from a spirit of newness, openness with no preconceptions even when one knows the information well. It is a way to develop being present in each moment.

In this state of mind, we are:

  • Free of preconceptions of how anything works
  • Free of expectations about what will happen
  • Filled with curiosity to understand things more deeply
  • Open to a world of possibilities, since you don’t yet know what is or isn’t possible

Experience is indeed a wonderful thing. It often helps us do things at a higher level. But knowledge and understanding of how things work can prevent us from seeing clearly what’s in front of us. And most importantly, we may miss something new and important about ourselves and others, because we think we’ve got it all figured out.

The benefits of Beginner’s Mind cuts across many factors of life, and contributes to a deeper appreciation for everything, as we let go of outcomes and live in the moment. This way of being allows us to connect with our deeper creative selves – being in the flow and seeing with new eyes. Everything becomes more intentional; there is greater clarity, curiosity and wonderment which leads us to new opportunities that wouldn’t have been considered before.

When we are in a place of knowing and predicting everything, we are in Egoic Mind or Lower Self. The Ego is many things, but mainly, it is the thing that holds us back. It is both the part of us that says “I’m not good enough” and the part of us that says, “I’m better than.” It represents imbalance, insecurity and fear.

The True or Higher Self is the counter force to Ego. It is everything about you that is grounded, balanced, peaceful and loving. When you’re in Beginner’s Mind there is more opportunity to stay out of Ego. It helps us to notice when Egoic Mind sneaks in and then allows us the ability to overcome it more readily.

How does one cultivate Beginner’s Mind?

Take time to question your expectations or assumptions about things. Staying out of critical and judgmental attitudes keeps you in a lower mind state. Thinking that you are an expert and that there is nothing left to learn keeps you in Ego. These are ways that Ego likes to sabotage and protect itself by knowing things and being right. Noticing and then pausing before going down the rabbit hole of old patterns and biases is quite helpful. It’s important to keep in mind: Can you absolutely know that it is true? Can you absolutely know that you have all the answers? What would happen if you stayed open to all possibilities and to a fresh way of seeing things?

Being curious like a child, not assuming anything helps bring your perspective back to Beginner’s Mind. Allowing yourself to be fully present in each moment and with each experience at hand keeps you authentically in your Higher Self. Open your senses to what you’re experiencing, as if you’d never experienced it before.

Finally, Meditation is a very effective tool to practice seeing with clarity and non-judgement. When you practice the observation of your thoughts, emotions and sensations, moment to moment without judgement, then you are more aware of your expectations, biases, and assumptions. It is in this awareness that you can let go, return to your breath over and over. Here you are reminded that each new breath is a new beginning and that there are limitless breaths and possibilities. This is what cultivates Beginner’s Mind.

Tanya Vallianos, MA, LPC, ATR, NCC, EMDR III, EAP II is a psychotherapist in private practice in Fort Collins, CO. She can be reached at www.innersunhealingarts.com or 970-420-9504.