Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind,” is the mind which doesn’t know.
That is, the mind which doesn’t hold within it any ideas at all about what is going on.
The value in this, is that you’re not preoccupied whatsoever when it comes to doing things. That means the natural intelligence of your own automatic functioning can take over and do things for you.
Zen master Takuan Soho gave a great explanation of what this looks like in practice, using the example of someone learning sword fighting:
As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.
Now, don’t worry if the value of shoshin, the beginner’s mind doesn’t make sense to you at this point. As is the custom in Zen, I’m not going to try to explain the concept fully with words alone. Rather, I’ll show you some more examples and stories so you can better grasp what it’s all about.
Let’s go right to my favorite story that illustrates the virtue of “the beginner’s mind,” which is a story by Daoist master Zhuang, or better known as Zhuangzi. This is what made me understand it for the first time when I was learning this stuff.
I’ve made my own translation of the story for here clarity. It goes as follows:
When a drunken man falls out of a cart, though he may be injured, he does not die. His bones and joints are the same as other people’s, and yet the degree of harm done by the fall differs radically, because his spirit is in a condition of wholeness. He knew nothing about his getting into the carriage, and knew nothing about his falling from it. Ideas of life and death, or of any alarm or fear have no way to enter his breast; and so he doesn’t flinch, tense up or shrink away when he bangs against things. If such security is to be got from wine, how much more is it to be got from trusting in your own natural functioning!
As you can see, the point is that shoshin, the beginner’s mind results in action that is automatically appropriate to the circumstances you find yourself in. Here’s another example by Zen master Takuan Soho that explains how that appropriateness comes about:
Treading on water is just like treading on land, and treading on land is just like treading on water. The meaning of this will not be known by anyone unenlightened about the very source of mankind.
If the fool steps on land like he steps on water, when he walks on land, he is going to fall on his face. If he steps on water like he steps on land, when he does step onto water he may think that he can actually walk around.
Concerning this matter, the man who forgets about both land and water should arrive at this principle for the first time.
That principle being, of course, “beginner’s mind.” You can see here that the idea of “walking on land” or “swimming in water” only gets in the way of the person’s own natural, automatic functioning.
As for why that’s the case, neuroscience has the answer. This kind of action is far more skilled because it’s the rapid, unconscious kind of action born from the place of not knowing, rather than the slow and inaccurate deliberate kind of action that we mistakenly block it with all the time through our own conscious attempts to “take the wheel,” you could say. As neuroscientist David Eagleman describes,
Only when the slow system of consciousness is pushed to the back of the queue can rapid programs do their work. Should I swing forehand or backhand at the approaching tennis ball? With a ninety-mile-per-hour projectile on its way, one does not want to cognitively slog through the different options.
And that slow system of consciousness we’re so accustomed to using is inaccurate. You see, it can never get as close to reality as not knowing, because “knowing” means you have an idea of how things are, which is a preconceived notion. It’s like a wax model of a person, which can seem lifelike when there’s a great deal of attention to detail, but it will never actually be that person, only an imitation.
Shoshin does away with all concepts of how to do things, and so, gains the full potential of the body’s own automatic, natural functioning. That is what is called De, or “seemingly miraculous ability,” because that’s how much better our automatic functioning is than the way we do things normally.