Beginner’s Mind

A beginner’s mind is described within Zen Buddhism as the optimal capacity to take in and apply new information.  This is an important element in our ability to learn and grow.

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In the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance there is no question of the importance of mind-based skills and strategies.  In order to achieve these goals in any domain of life, it is important to be able to take in new information and learn, grow, and develop accordingly.  A corresponding classic Zen mindset was described by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  The beginner’s mind consists of an open-minded perspective that is ready to take in new information and consider many possibilities and options.  This is contrasted with the expert mind in which the mind is more fixed, closed, and constricted with little capacity to consider alternate possibilities.

It is interesting to consider the concept of beginner’s mind from a polyvagal informed perspective.  Many of the attributes of this mindset overlap with the mind-based characteristics of the ventral vagal state.  Within this biological state, the psychological attributes typically include an open mindedness that is capable of consideration of different options and possibilities and is receptive to new information.  Given this convergence between the mind-based attributes of the ventral vagal state and beginner’s mind, it is reasonable to infer that the beginner’s mind emerges from ventral vagal stabilized states.  

Continuing this consideration within the polyvagal informed paradigm illustrates the contrary reaction to receiving new information while in a mobilized sympathetic or dorsal vagal state.  While in such a state, we can easily become defensive or protective when presented with information that may challenge or contradict our understanding or narrative in that moment.  For example, when presented with feedback regarding our performance, if we are in a ventral vagal state, we can accept the information and consider it without becoming defensive or protective.  Further, we can integrate the knowledge within our paradigm for growth, learning, and development.  In contrast, while in a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state, the same information may lead to us becoming protective or defensive as we don’t have the capacity in that moment to take in new and contrary knowledge.  In this situation we may lose the opportunity to benefit from the information provided to us.

There is an important analogy which exists between acknowledgement of biological state without criticism or judgment and acceptance of feedback without becoming defensive or protective.  In each situation, the information that is presented, either in the form of attributes of a biological state or feedback, can be accepted without associated self-critique or judgement.  When we are able to simply acknowledge these cues and accept that they are information with which we are able to learn and develop, we optimize our potential for self-growth.  Adopting and applying such a perspective is enhanced through ventral vagal stabilization.

In his recent book, Unlocked: Embrace Your Greatness, Find The Flow, Discover Success, George Mumford provides further illustration of the application of the concept of beginner’s mind within the realm of human performance.  Mumford is an experienced meditation and performance teacher who has worked with a wide variety of individuals, including high level professional athletes and individuals widely considered amongst the greatest of all time in their craft.  He recounts how the best players with whom he worked approached their tasks with a beginner’s mind that allowed them to be open to new ideas and information and to orient towards accepting feedback and, even, criticism as an opportunity to learn and grow.  This description provides a powerful example of the benefits of developing a beginner’s mind.

From the perspective of experienced meditation teachers, including Mumford, the beginner’s mind is trained and reached through meditation.  This is no doubt an important and available pathway to obtaining and reinforcing a beginner’s mind.  From the polyvagal lens, this strategy to reach a beginner’s mind is also considered.  However, the polyvagal informed paradigm also provides an additional method by which to reach a beginner’s mind.  Specifically, this relates to utilization of the wide variety of body-based skills and strategies to shift towards a ventral vagal state, thereby allowing for emergence of the beginner’s mind.  By implementing the polyvagal informed perspective, we incorporate multiple strategies by which to reach the goal of embodying a beginner’s mind.  This may provide greater robustness in our available resources to reach this objective.

It is also informative to further consider the importance of a beginner’s mind within the domain of human performance.  In order to optimize our ability to be at our best, we must be able to learn, grow, and develop our skills and abilities.  As described above, a beginner’s mind enhances our ability to achieve this.  From the perspective of the performance hierarchy described by Michael Allison, the beginner’s mind would map to both the ventral vagal state and the blended state of ventral vagal and sympathetic activation which is optimal for human performance .  The polyvagal informed lens provides the greatest flexibility with which to reach these states, thereby allowing the beginner’s mind to manifest.

As can be appreciated from the above discussion, a beginner’s mind is a key element in the pursuit of reaching our potential in any, and all, domains of life.  While the meditative perspective is an important consideration in how best to embody a beginner’s mind, it does focus on mind-based skills almost entirely.  By incorporating a polyvagal informed paradigm, we are able to broaden the available skills and strategies through which to reach a beginner’s mind.  For this reason, the polyvagal perspective is an empowering and important lens through which to consider the achievement and maintenance of the beginner’s mind.

The polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete emphasizes the development and utilization of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies to acknowledge our biological state and shift our state as needed.  There is a recognition that training as wide an array as possible of these skills is beneficial as different strategies are highly likely to be more effective in certain circumstances.  This paradigm, therefore, allows for the greatest flexibility and adaptability in pursuing health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

Mumford G.  Unlocked: Embrace Your Greatness, Find The Flow, Discover Success.  New York: HarperCollins, 2023.

Suzuki S.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala Pulications, Inc, 1970.

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