Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Most babies go through a phase in which they are fascinated with their hands. They watch them intently as they move in and out of their sight. As they get older they enter another phase, where they repeatedly drop items from a high chair onto the floor. Over and over and over. It can seem like they’re trying to annoy you, by requiring you to continuously pick up the same item. But that’s not why they’re doing it.
So what are babies doing in these two phases? It turns out that they are simply discovering the world. At just a few weeks, their hands are a fascinating item. They watch them to discover how they move, what they look like and what they can do. And, when they are just a little bit older, gravity is not obvious. Let go of a spoon and it drops to the floor. If you let go again, will it drop again?
Child developments researchers sometimes refer to babies and children as mini-scientists. They watch the world around them intently and conduct experiments to understand how the world works.
As we get older and come to know the world, we forget that it was once a mystery. We no longer wonder what will happen when we let go of an item. We know it will drop.
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As we grow, we learn other things about our world. But much of what we learn is not the laws of physics, but the dynamics of human interaction. For example, one person may have experimented early on and found that if they ask for help they are considered “needy” while someone else may find that if they ask for help, they connect with others and receive help. These two different experiences will create different expectations of how the world works.
When we act, we are often doing so based on all kinds of social learning that, like gravity, has simply become how the world operates.
We follow routines, get stuck in the same patterns of interacting with others and fail to notice simple and pleasurable experiences around us.
As a child, faced with new experiences throughout your day, you were much more likely to notice detail and richness in ordinary experiences.
A child can spend hours splashing in the water in a sink. This is because the child approaches the water coming from the faucet as a beginner. The water is interesting and miraculous. In this case, the child doesn’t approach the water as if it already knows everything interesting about it. It approaches the water as a beginner, as if there is so much to discover.
As we age and gain experience, we so often lose our sense of wonder at how the world operates and in losing our wonder, we lose our ability to see the possibility or the richness of any given, ordinary situation.
Try This: Beginners Mind
Cultivate your beginners mind as a daily life experiment. Try to approach a problem at work with fresh eyes. Imagine you’d never encountered this problem before and explore it in all its detail. Do the same with daily experiences, such as dinner-time or while in a conversation with a friend or spouse. Look at the interaction with new eyes. You may want to imagine you are watching the interaction as an observer. Search for details that you’d previously ignored because the situation is so familiar. Notice how people look, their tone of voice, how they respond to you and their body language. When you look with beginners eyes, what do you see, that you previously overlooked?
As you do this exercise in daily life, do you find your mind clearing of automatic expectations and judgments? Did you notice anything that you’d previously overlooked? Does slowing down and allowing yourself to simply observe the world around you give you a sense of peace or wonder?
Routine and knowledge of how the world works allows us to make choices about where to focus our attention. But sometimes we get so used to seeing the world in a particular way that we miss important aspects of our experience.
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