A small child encountering an ant for the first time is enchanted. She wonders, “What is it? What is it doing? How many legs does it have? What is that sticking out of its head?”
When I see an ant in my house, I think, “Get that ant out of my house. Oh no, I hope I don’t have an ant problem.” I don’t notice anything in particular about what makes the ant, an ant. I see something in my house that I don’t want to see.
One day as I was approaching the pedestrian bridge over the Providence River, I noticed that a woman crossing the bridge stopped at the midway point and stepped into a small projection over the water. She looked around, turned her body toward the morning sun rising above the trees, closed her eyes and inhaled. It looked like she was soaking it all in. She saw the river beneath her, noticed the leaves changing color on the trees, and felt the sun warming her face and body. After a brief pause she continued on.
The child encountering the ant for the first time is a literal example of a beginner's mind, which can be defined as approaching something as if you’re seeing it for the first time. And the woman pausing as she crossed the bridge is an example of the quality of beginner’s mind that we can bring to any experience in any moment, whether during a formal meditation practice or when just going about our day.
Over time, meditation practice can become stale. At first I may have been quite curious and interested as I brought my attention to my feet or my breath, but then a sense of knowing what my feet or my breath is like sets in, and now I’m not really paying attention to how my feet or breath actually are. I’m glossing over my experience because I think I already know.
It’s remarkable how easy it is for the mind to take shortcuts and make assumptions about what it knows. As soon as my mind does this, I am no longer experiencing whatever it is that’s in front of me, I’m relating to an abstract concept of it. My concept of the sun is quite different from what the sun feels like on my face on a crisp fall day and different from what it feels like when my skin is sunburnt and the hot summer sun is beating down on me. Likewise the embodied experience of feeling my feet or breath, or whatever my focus of attention is substantially different than bringing my attention to my focus of attention because I want to cross meditation off my list of things to do today.