Imagine if you knew you were doing something for the last time—for example, driving to work, standing on a train ride, holding a book, eating an orange, hugging a friend. How would your experience of these activities change?
In the 2009 film “A Single Man,” Colin Firth’s character George decides he’s going to kill himself.
As he goes through what he plans will be his last day, it’s clear that he’s fully in every experience—smells, sights, conversations—because he knows he won’t have them again.
Nothing is missed from his day. The implication seems to be that even as he plans his death, he’s more alive than ever. There’s a richness to his experience.
Thankfully we don’t have to wait until death is upon us to practice this level of awareness. No matter how much of our life lies ahead, we can deliberately treat our experiences as though we won’t always have them.
While George finds this approach as he anticipates the end of his life, the practice is often referred to as “Beginner’s Mind,” as described in many texts on mindfulness (e.g., Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki).
Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan writer and mindfulness instructor, urged his readers to engage in this practice:
“You can look so much, you can look further, and then you can see so beautifully…. You can feel the warmth of red and the coolness of blue and the richness of yellow and the penetrating quality of green…. You appreciate the world around you. It is a fantastic new discovery of the world.” (Shambhala, pp. 60-61)
And in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book that details the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (Full Catastrophe Living), he describes a beginner’s mind as one of the essential attitudes to bring to mindfulness training.
If you’re interested in this approach then literally every activity is an opportunity to practice, from embracing a loved one to making a phone call to bending a knee to pick up laundry. Here are some examples you could try:
Reading a book. Like most of our experience, it’s easy to take for granted the simple act of reading. It’s something we do automatically, even effortlessly. And yet there are many aspects of the experience we can notice as if for the first time: the feel and smell of the book, its weight, the sound as it opens, of the pages as they turn. We might be aware of the feeling we have as we read, whether it’s settling comfortably into a book we love or drilling down into a challenging textbook.
- Going to bed. Like any daily routine, we’re conditioned not to notice the experience of lying down to go to bed at night. Bringing a beginner’s mind to bedtime can enrich the experience; it may be especially helpful if we have trouble falling asleep and going to bed has become a source of anxiety. It can be useful to let go of past experiences of falling asleep, and open to this night, whatever it may bring. You can pay attention to the feeling of your body pressing down into the mattress, of the mattress supporting you, the feeling of your head on the pillow, the sheet or blanket resting on you, any ambient sounds in the room or outside the room, and the sensations of breathing.
- Daily grooming activities. Whether it’s showering, shaving, brushing your teeth, or combing your hair, the daily grooming can feel like a chore. And yet if you’ve ever not been able to do these things for a while, you know there’s a genuine pleasure in returning to them. For instance, if you’ve camped overnight and weren’t able to shower, the first shower after you’re back can be a great experience (see this related post about mindful showering). I still recall the joy in finally being able to brush my teeth following oral surgery. A beginner’s mind can transform these daily activities from drudgery into a pleasant experience.
- Eating something. As with grooming, we appreciate eating much more after not being able to do it, like if you’ve had to fast before a medical procedure. We can enjoy food as if we’ve never eaten before, by actually noticing the food we’re eating: its color and aroma, the feel and taste of the food in our mouths, the sensations of chewing and swallowing. A common exercise in this area involves eating a single raisin as though for the first time, and noticing the whole experience. (You can try it here: raisin not included.) You can do it with any food, including an orange or a clementine as in this exercise.
- Being outside. Most of the time our surroundings fade into the background, and we don’t really see the sky, hear the birds, smell the air, or feel the breeze on our face. If we had never been to planet Earth before, what a strange and awe-inspiring place it would be—even just stepping out our front door. The next time you go outside, you might pretend you’re a visitor to this planet (or in truth, realize you’re a visitor). What would you notice if this were your first time here? What might stand out to you that most of the time you’re not aware of?
When my son was 3 years old I saw that something had suddenly captured his attention outside. I thought someone must be at the front door and asked him what it was, since I couldn’t see from where I was sitting. He pointed and said, “That tree.”
I looked at it with him, and felt like it was the first time I had actually noticed it, this pear tree by the curb. No wonder he was arrested by it. Kids can be great teachers of this practice since they are truly beginners.
For those of us who are any number of years removed from childhood, we can intentionally practice taking nothing for granted, even if we’ve seen it or done it a thousand times. We might be surprised what we find.
Suzuki, S. (2010). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living, revised ed. New York: Random House.