Suggesting a beginner's mind as a life and travel strategy might sound odd. Being a beginner can be uncomfortable. The learning curve is steep, the journey can feel overwhelming. There are fears, so many of them. Some of my own early travel experiences especially bear this out.
But there are advantages. The ultimate benefit of observing the world through the eyes of a beginner is captured by a quote from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.”
Unearthing new experiences, making personal discoveries, expanding our perspective on the road — isn’t this what we travelers continually pursue?
Are You Open? Truly?
In Zen Buddhism, the beginner’s mind is captured by shoshin — openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when considering a subject, a task or a problem.
“But of course I’m open when I travel,” you say. Sure.
Have you planned? You probably have.
Do you have ends in mind? I would imagine.
Bucket list, anyone?
Those are all useful. Keep them. But for a moment, put some space between you and those plans, ends, goals and expectations. Make your mind a blank slate. Now what?
By training yourself to see outside of the boundaries of your experience and conditioning, you can slowly clear your mental windshield.
A temporary setting aside of all that you know, or all that you think you know. Suspend “certainties” so you can explore the deeper meaning of your travels, including the metaphysical and spiritual mysteries of life. If you prefer, dismiss all those squishy benefits and focus on the tangible.
See unseen details in an ancient site, experience new flavors in a dish, and connect with humanity in the smile of someone you've just passed while walking down the street.
Remember as a kid how you allowed wonder to flood into your senses? There was something almost subconscious about it. Lack of experience was an advantage. Judgment, you of yourself, others of you — while not always, but often — was on hold.
You were a kid after all. You were allowed to figure things out. You carried less freight of what ought to be. No history to grapple with. No preconceived notions. No shoulds.
Allow yourself to be the beginner. By training yourself to see outside of the boundaries of your experience and conditioning, you can slowly clear your mental windshield.
Why would you want to open yourself to such details and observation?
To see and understand what you might not have otherwise, from a different or unusual angle.
And why would you want to do that?
A richer, more fulfilling experience. Greater happiness, more lifelong satisfaction through discerned meaning.
If we employ the beginner’s mind, there are no guarantees though. There are only possibilities, just as in life itself. The trick is how to see and open those possibilities.
So how do we activate the beginner's mind while traveling?
How to Activate the Beginner’s Mind in Travel
Absorb one step at a time.
It’s easy to become focused on what we must see and do without fully absorbing what it is we set out to see and do. When we pack our itinerary full, it’s easy to miss something enriching as our holiday passes by in a blur.
Pull your camera back for a moment. Before you catch up with the group or the next item on your list, take a deep breath and sit with what brought your there — appreciate an old church, a cave painting, the strands of pasta on your dish. Notice the sights, smells and sounds – no matter how insignificant — around you.
You'll maximize gratitude for the moment. At the same time, you'll also develop your ability to see challenges, opportunities and beauty in a different light. Appreciation through observation builds not only happiness but also longer lasting satisfaction.
We often accept certain characterizations of the world as fact. Especially those that conform to a world view forged by culture and life experience. What if we suspend those judgments or assumptions, even if for a moment? In other words, what if you put on hold what you think you know of the world?
Allow yourself to say and feel, “I don’t know.” You are no less because of it.
On a recent flight, I recall sharing our travel experiences in Iran with a retired American military officer seated next to us. He responded wide-eyed, “The world is not always as we’re told.”
Take it further. The world is not always as our conditioning has taught us. The world is not always as we have told ourselves, as others have told us. But there’s no way to see beyond the walls we have built around ourselves until we can actually see those walls. Then, we must force ourselves outside of them.
Leave room for failure.
Accept that some things will work. And some won’t. Call it failure. Call it something else if uttering the word “failure” does not help. When we dust off our courage and set out to parts unknown with incomplete plans, stuff will inevitably go wrong. But stuff goes wrong even when all our plans are fully baked.
Much to the detriment of new discoveries, that’s the failure we don’t often give airtime to.
Accept that you don’t know. And that you may never know.
Isn’t this at the heart of the wonder we feel when we travel? Why spend so many cycles fighting it?
Allow yourself to say and feel, “I don’t know.”
The world is a big place. Saying “I don’t know”, even when you think you do, can be liberating. Feel the words, feel the meaning. And feel that you are no less because of it.
“I don’t know” is the warrior’s wisdom. If you know everything already, the implication is that there’s nothing new to add.
If nothing remains for you to learn, your personal growth is finished. And life becomes limited, stagnant.
Embrace that we are in flux.
The world has changed from what we thought we knew. It will continue to do so. To once prevailing human wisdom, it was flat. Now it is round. We were once the center of a universe, now only a speck.
This is life. When we travel the world, we find that “what is” is fluid and often more temporary than we’d like.
Our acceptance of this is for the sake of our own happiness and also for the betterment of the world. We balance connection and detachment from that which moves, changes and vanishes.
Ask questions like a child, of others and of yourself.
Entertain the possibility that the way you look at the world is not the only way. If your motivation is to understand, it’s acceptable to bare your ignorance.
I would not have lived half the life I’ve lived had I not opted to show what I didn’t know when I didn’t know it. In fact, I experienced more because I did. I asked questions so I could learn. In most cases, my vulnerability has been rewarded.
Questions borne of genuine curiosity can be joyful regardless of whether we find answers. Even if those we ask cannot answer them, we will share a connection based on sincere mutual interest in one another’s being and culture. Our most resonant life lessons have come from unlikely teachers: an Afghan vendor in Bangkok, an unassuming guide in Ladakh.
Ditch some “supposed to’s” and “shoulds.”
Some of our greatest missed opportunities stem from what a traveler “must do” and “must see.” The beginner's mind helps balance your needs with expectations crafted and set by “experts.”
The joy of the unexpected gains passage only when we allow our experience freedom to unfold.
I don't advise dismissing recommendations out of hand. Instead, put them in perspective. Suspend prevailing wisdom and suggestions. Honor the fact that time is limited and we all gain satisfaction in different ways.
When you’ve spent hard-earned money to get where you want to go, to do what you want to do, expectations are natural. Remain open to circumstances that take you off itinerary and show you a place or culture in a different way.
What if you miss a couple of the 10 “must-see” sights next time you visit Paris, but you have an unforgettable, unexpected conversation in a café one long afternoon? Is it worth skipping the Mona Lisa?
The joy of the unexpected gains passage only when we allow our experience freedom to unfold.
Experience the moment in full, from all angles.
Examine all angles for the joy of it. Look at it slant. (Sound familiar? Emily Dickinson suggests: “Tell the truth, but tell it at slant.”)
Photographers often advise students to “look at the object…this way…that way,” as they move their bodies, crane their necks, and turn upside-down. This holds also for the mind’s camera, the mind's eye. If we wish our experiences to carry richness, we must bend our perspective to see the ordinary in a new light.
Know when experience is essential.
Don’t take the beginner’s mindset while crossing the street or riding a bicycle through a busy intersection. Your adventures might be over if you do.
When it comes to danger, separate the wheat from the chaff. The beginner's mind is a deliberate setting aside of what we know when our personal safety is not at immediate risk.
The beginner’s mind can help us build our life experience and shape our sense of the world. Using this mindset is one method of living out favorite proverbs such as “Life is a journey.”
When we set aside our assumptions and judgments, the angle of our life lens widens. It also draws us in directions we never imagined.