The best way to talk to walls (or practice with a beginners mind)

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

— ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

A teacher of mine told me that she felt like she was finally “advanced”, no longer a beginner.  I said something about how I doubt I’ll ever have an “advanced” practice since I feel like I am still working on a forward fold. 

We were texting, and the second my text was sent I saw the bouncing dots of her response taking shape.  Her reply: “I meant advanced as a teacher – in practice, we are always beginners.”

Always practice yoga… life… as a beginner

Think back to the last time you started something, or you visited a new place.  At that moment, in the beginning, your senses are alive.  You see more.  You pay attention more. 

There is an uncertainty about where you are going that implies opportunity. 

Even walking along a street in a new city there is a curiosity about what comes next, about what could be around the next corner. 

With experience this fades – we know what is there, so we stop paying attention.  We begin to tune things out and rely on our knowledge, which is both incomplete and, since it is based on past experiences, out of date. 

I remember once visiting the circular whispering wall in Beijing.  The acoustics draw sound around the wall, a whisper on one side can be heard on the other.   

Tourists walk up to the wall and speak at it in a low voice sometimes cupping their hands around their mouths as they did so.  The expectation was that the acoustics would take their words all the way around the wall. 

But it was immediately apparent to me that this wouldn’t work.  The way they were approaching the wall, it would never work. 

I was right.  In Beijing, you must speak at an angle and give the sound a chance to reverberate.  Whispers are okay, but cupped hands directly into the wall, not so much.

The expert mind helped, then hindered

Then my son introduced me to the whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal. Again people were talking into the corners the same way and expecting their voice to transmit to the other side of the room.

And again, I knew that it wouldn’t work.  I rolled my expert eyes. I knew corner speakers were wrong. 

It was Beijing all over again.

But my son didn’t know about Beijing or my armchair physics he just walked up to the wall, cupped his hands, whispered… and I heard him clearly all the way on the other side of the room; despite all of the chaos around us.

Wall whispers have a tendency to practice with a beginner’s mind; kids too. In Beijing and Grand Central the whisperers were trying different ways to experience the acoustical phenomenon.

Most of them wouldn’t work. And sure, an expert can explain how and why the walls work best.

There are also people like me lurking around looking at all of the experimenters, with confidence that we know best and that there is only one way these things work.

But it is only through experimentation that people discovered these acoustic anomalies in the first place. 

I don’t know about Beijing but in Grand Central the effect was not intentional, it is the byproduct of a particularly well-built arch. 

At some point in time, a beginner walked up to the corner and talked into it, revealing a hidden experience that is now in every New York guidebook. 

Anybody watching surely thought he was a fool.   

Think about this: what are we missing because our expert minds are closed off to new possibilities? 

Practice with a beginner’s mind to free yourself from expectations. 

Back to yoga, a beginner doesn’t know what postures the body can get into.  A beginner knows she probably can’t express a posture perfectly so worries less about doing so.  A beginner is open to the opportunity and possibility of the practice, a beginner feels the experience. 

The expert is confident in her limits. She knows which poses she can get into and which ones are a challenge.  Because of the progress she has made in her practice, she knows her limits.

So she stops pushing and experimenting; which then impedes her progress.

Which is the crux of the matter: Once you feel that you are progressing, you begin to shut off the very curiosity that makes progress possible.  Once you stop questioning, seeing and trying because you “know,” growth becomes elusive. 

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts.  You have to listen carefully to your body to not injure yourself.  There are poses you can’t get into.  If you go to the whispering wall in Beijing, you will have to talk at an angle to the wall.   

Knowledge and learning are essential to growth.  If you want to build a perfect arch, there is a lot of engineering that you have to know. 

Reality exists. 

But discovery comes from challenging, exploring and trying. 

Powerful solutions to challenges, whether that is getting into headstand or innovating new technology, comes from combining knowledge with the openness and curiosity of a beginner’s mind. 

How do you approach your life with a beginners mind?

  1. Practice observing your thoughts. You have to start here because you have to observe thoughts before you can impact them. You will NEVER CONTROL your thoughts but you can observe your thoughts.

  2. When your thoughts venture into that territory of knowing ask the appropriateness of it. You know fire is hot: there is not need to try this out again. But when you are stretching into something new, when you are experimenting, when you are trying to solve a problem that expertise can hold you back.

  3. Let go of what you know and challenge yourself to see things differently. This is easiest to see in yoga: I knew for a long time that I couldn’t bind my hands behind my back in side angle. Then I tried. And I could. Solutions to problems that seem ridiculous sometimes aren’t and even if they are they sometimes reveal entirely new approaches.

Try it

Let go of what you know. You can always come back to it. But see if you can see things from that beginners mind.

Challenge yourself, learn, experience, study, discuss and then strive to approach challenges with a beginner’s mind.  You will find a whole new world of opportunity.

And, when you find a wall talk into it however you want.  I’ll join you.