Life with Limitless Possibilities: Shoshin

Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept meaning “beginner’s mind”. Do you remember when you were a child and you would experience wonder throughout your everyday life? When dirt mounds were mountains you and your friends had to fight to the top of? Where ravines and alleyways were deep in enemy territory? Where sticks were swords and the world was huge? Now we just see dirt, dark alleys, and sticks we need to step across.

What happened to that wonder? What happened to that enthusiasm for life? Where has all this conditioning come from? Shoshin is more than just looking at the world with wonder again. It is about viewing the world from a pure state, as things are. Eagerness, optimism, and openness to begin an endeavor are all aspects of shoshin.

A very large part of shoshin is going forward without preconceived notions, prejudice, or bias. These things only serve to cloud the mind and to keep one limited, to keep one afraid and tied down. These things limit your possibilities. Imagine a world where you can go forward without limitation, with perfect enthusiasm for any endeavor.

There’s an old Chinese Zen tale about a Buddhist scholar that came to a Zen master to ask about Zen Buddhism. Perhaps some of you have heard this before, but it’s still important to be reminded. The two shared tea and at one point the Zen master began refilling the scholar’s cup, though he didn’t stop when it reached the top and the cup began to overflow. The scholar exclaimed that the cup was full and that it was overflowing. The Zen master smiled and said, “Exactly. You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

I make no claims that this is easy. Even the most open-minded of us are filtering everything we experience through years of past experiences. So how do you get there? How do you actually start to develop shoshin?

Shut up.

If you’re talking, how can you listen? If you’re constantly trying to validate yourself or add value to a conversation, how can you pay attention and absorb new information like a brand new sponge? You know, the crisp new sponge that has never hit the bottom of the sink or a set of dirty dishes? Be that new sponge, ready to soak up everything around it. I’ve never heard a sponge speak, have you?

Pretend you know nothing, especially if you’re an expert.

Again, preconceived notions will run you awry! Stop it! Pretend you know nothing. Empty that damn cup! Take your new instruction or new endeavor with a truly open and empty mind! It’s a lot harder to learn as an expert than it is a beginner because that expert may know 90% there is. There’s already less to learn, so it’s harder to come by. Sure, you might know the majority of something someone is showing you or teaching you, but that remaining 10% won’t be learned unless you shut up and learn it.

Do something completely new.

Get out there! Do something completely new. Do something so new that you have no preconceived notions about it, or at least not many. Are you a karateka? Go take some kung fu lessons. Are you a web developer? Go to poetry night and write a poem instead of code. Do something out of your comfort zone that will help you break into Shoshin. Once you feel shoshin, you’ll understand it better than reading 1000 books on it.

Ask questions.

How do I…? Why…? When would..? Ask all the questions you can. Ask someone to tell you more about anything you’re unfamiliar with. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous and daring, ask them to tell you more about something you’re already familiar with and then shut up.

I’m not saying you might suddenly be enthusiastic to shovel crap or do other hard work. But as we live and breathe, we are an accumulation of all of our experiences, our judgments. This is not an easy task, to exhibit shoshin, so I recommend taking small steps toward it. This is easiest when first taking on a new task or starting something new like a hobby or beginning classes at a new martial arts school.

While I’ve got you on martial arts, that’s actually a great way to explain things. There are multiple styles of martial arts. There’s A LOT of them. There’s Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Muay Thai, and even styles within those styles! Say you learned one of these styles because your family practiced it. So you go forward in life with that style being the base for future things like fighting, self-defense, etc. Everything is now going to be tainted the shade of that style. These are your past experiences, your judgments, casting a shadow over everything new. But who says that style that you learned was the right one for you? Maybe a different style would have been better for you. By allowing this shadow to be cast, you are allowing yourself to remain a slave to your old experiences and beliefs instead of moving forward with a beginner’s mind, with shoshin.


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

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971)

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