Lifelong Learning and a Beginner’s Mind

Lifelong learning is the practice of continuing to learn throughout one’s entire life, especially outside of or after the completion of formal schooling. It is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.

Image by Gyae Min

Lifelong learning can be informal or happen in more formal settings and courses. There is a wide range of experiences that fall under this large umbrella. Internships and apprenticeships and taking actual courses in a school setting but not pursuing credits or a degree qualify as lifelong learning. Teaching yourself a new language or how to play an instrument also qualifies. Sometimes the formal and informal mix. You start playing tennis with a friend and then take some lessons to improve your game. Maybe you’re learning a computer language to advance your career. Maybe you’re learning French so you’ll be better prepared to travel to France.

I have written a lot about online learning on other sites. Back in 2012 – which was called “the year of the MOOC” – I was very involved in this new form of online learning. These Massive Open Online Courses were seen as a way for learners to take courses free of cost online along with thousands of other learners. The courses were being offered by the top universities worldwide. This idea of “open education” was not completely new but was still considered a radical shift.

I taught (or perhaps facilitated) an early MOOC about MOOCs in education. I took dozens of courses for free. I gave talks about them. My wife and I wrote a chapter for a book about them.

The hype and buzz of MOOCs have cooled down but they still exist. Some evolved with a business model, so the “open” part is gone. I taught graduate students at a university where we offered certificate programs that packaged several courses together for people looking to add to their skillset while employed or to upgrade skills in order to move up or move on to other careers. during employment. This is quite formalized lifelong learning.

I have also done much more informal lifelong learning both as a student and teacher. I have facilitated classes in writing, art, and technology topics for libraries, galleries, and adult learning schools.

I am currently working with a local lifelong learning organization in New Jersey. They offer opportunities for in-depth, high-level learning and socialization for 55+ adults. These classes are free of charge, but registration is required.

During the pandemic, almost all the courses offered went virtual and for two years I was teaching online. We are just emerging from that and offering in-person classes again.

Image by truthseeker08

All of this had me thinking of the concept of a “beginner’s mind.” Originating from Japanese Zen Buddhism, the term (also known as shoshin) refers to a paradox: the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.

To have a beginner’s mind it means dropping expectations and preconceived ideas about something. It means seeing things with fresh eyes and an open mind, like a beginner. When you learn something new, you can be confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning. But a beginner’s look is also curious and can be filled with wonder.

Lifelong learners are best approaching new learning with a beginner’s mind which means an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. That is true even when you are an adult and studying a subject at an advanced level.

This is not an easy thing to do. Preconceptions and closed-mindedness is probably as much or more likely the older or more experienced a learner has become.

I first learned about beginner’s mind (not surprisingly) in a class on Buddhism. The book I was assigned to read was the classic Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind,

There are lots of places online for lifelong learning. MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, Canvas, FutureLearn, Udacity, P2PU, and The Open University, as well as other sites like Skillshare and Duolingo offer thousands of classes and most are available for free. I don’t know about you but my wife and I have learned how to do any number of things from YouTube how-to videos. Yes, all that is lifelong learning.

Beginner’s Mind

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

That is how Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki begins. This is a book that I first read in college when I was, like many people my age in that time, exploring paths and philosophies. It may be the best known of all the American Zen books.

It is not a long book and that simple opening line is actually a good summary of what the book is about.

As I got deeper into and more serious about Zen Buddhism, I met people who considered “American Zen” to be a lazy path to true Zen. I was certainly a rather lazy American student of it. I was far less interested in learning about postures and breathing than I was supposed to be. I had a lot of trouble staying focused in zazen meditation sessions. “You have monkey mind,” said the abbot at a monastery I attended. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in a tree.” Yes. That’s also known as Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have returned to the book several times since that first encounter in an attempt to return to beginner’s mind – something that it is not easy to do.

Shoshin is the word in Zen Buddhism that translates to “beginner’s mind.” It means to have an attitude of openness to new things. It is that freshness, and eagerness we usually bring to something early on that interests us.

In a workshop I gave many years ago, I used many non-Buddhist examples, from a child with a new toy, to a person newly in love. Participants also came up with lots of examples, such as when you first begin a new hobby or sport, take up a musical instrument etc. In these situations, you truly have a beginner’s mind. What is much more difficult is to have that approach when you have progressed further – perhaps to the point of being an “expert.”

That attempt to once again be a beginner is why musicians go back to taking lessons. Any “back to basics” approach has a bit of that Zen approach in it. I had an art teacher who told me I should try painting with only one tube of paint. That was an attempt to get me to focus more on other aspects and forget about trying to get “the perfect flesh tone.” Why would a pro athlete or musician go back to doing beginner drills and exercises? Same thing.

I think of how Orson Welles approached his first film as a director, Citizen Kane. He had experience directing actors on stage and in radio plays, but film production was new. He came to it with a beginner’s mind free from preconceptions, even though some might have considered him at an advanced level in other ways. He wanted very deep focus shots with objects in the foreground and background all in focus. He wanted low angles that showed ceilings (something that wasn’t done at that time). He was told that those things just are not the films are made. He asked the kinds of questions that a child might ask. “Why can’t we do that?”

Welles and Toland
Welles and Toland set up below floor level for a low-angle shot

Luckily, Welles’ “teacher” was his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who must have also had a beginner’s mind and was willing to approach something he was an expert at as if he was a beginner. They added ceilings and did those low angles. They figured out a way to do those long, deep focus shots.

The naturalist, Rachel Carson, wrote something that sounds like Zen.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

Lately, I have been thinking more about having that kind of mind in my close relationships. I believe I am relying too much on assumptions. Things do not seem “fresh.” I need to try to consciously to drop some of my assumed views. This is difficult.

The poet, Rilke, wrote:

“For there are moments, when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”