Beginner’s Mind: The Zen of Work

Zen Buddhists talk of the “beginner’s mind” – that presence and openness that allows us to remain original and fresh, where there is no thought of achievement or thought of self. If you can keep your mind receptive and empty, like a beginner, it will always be ready and open for whatever comes.

Yet as we practice anything year-in and year-out, we will improve our skill. We will learn to recognize subtleties and patterns, and come to be valued for our expertise and insight. But as our assumptions become embedded in what we do, we can also become blind to when those assumptions are irrelevant or not shared in a particular circumstance. There are countless times that I would be negotiating an agreement between experts, where they spoke the same language and used the same terms, and would suddenly, through my ignorant questions, discover that they meant  very different things. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” Shunryu Suzuki said,” in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

So every now and then I try to take on something new, something to insert myself into a different space where I can become a beginner again. I started mountain biking a few years ago, and now every weekend am picking sticks out of my spokes and gravel out of scraped-up knees. I’ve taken up Spanish because don’t make a fool of myself often enough in my own language.  And after practicing a narrow legal specialization for over a decade-and-a-half, I switched to a new practice in a new industry where nothing is familiar.

And while Suzuki speaks of the elevating clarity and grace that comes with becoming a beginner, it is as frustrating as hell.  I went from being the expert – where people deferred to me and relied on my advice for important decisions – to a space filled with patronizing remarks and dismissive shrugs, a place where my credibility and value and confidence are questioned daily (even if only by me).  Sometimes, very many times in fact, I just want to be able to fall back on what I know and am comfortable with.

But if you are persistent, and continue to question and push when things don’t make sense, and learn to laugh at you own presumptions and needs, those around you will occasionally listen to what you say. They will remark that they had never thought of things that way before, and you will begin to become an expert again. And it will be time to start all over again.


Source: Quotes and background on the Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki from

©2017 John Albert Doyle, Jr.


  1. Sean, thanks for highlighting the virtue of being open to receive any experience as though it will be for the first time.
    Beginner’s mind is like the little child’s mind whose purity is so significant to show us the way toward unlearning our prejudices and pretensions.
    In this regard Hz. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” [Mark 10:15].

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