Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Mindfulness: Using beginner’s mind to stay open to new ideas.


There are known knowns. These are things that we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things that we don’t know we don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld.

This quote is a wonderful example of using words to hide meaning. At the height of the first Gulf War it was made as part of an explanation for some error on behalf of the coalition forces.

On the surface it sounds like so much spin-doctor nonsense, however, it is in fact a very profound remark and goes beyond the usual level of awareness that many of us have about the workings of our own minds.

Donald Rumsfeld should perhaps have also gone on to mention unknown knowns. This may sound daft, but there are many things that we know at a non-conscious level, and of which we are not consciously aware, that have a significant influence on both our behaviour and well being.

These are the things we have programmed our brains to do without always allowing them into awareness. They are the subroutines that help us to react rapidly, but not always wisely, to events that occur in both in our internal and external worlds.

These subroutines have been set up during our development as a species and as individuals. We use them all the time to perform activities and to monitor sensory information of which we have no need to be consciously aware.

This lead some researchers to believe that we do not have free will. They seem to mistake these pre-programmed actions, developed as part of our survival response to dangers in the environment, for a lack of active involvement in making decisions about how we behave.

Lack of conscious involvement at every stage of the action meaning that free will is imaginary.

The conscious aspects of our mind can process less than 0.01% of the information that the brain receives each second. As an indicator of what this means, it should be noted that we use over a third of our available bandwidth in holding a conversation. This perhaps explains why it is so dangerous to drive while using a smartphone.

This information becomes significant when something changes, as change often indicates danger. If we were to be aware of every single breath we take, it would soon overload the system. For this reason we have developed ways to respond consciously only to those things that need attention, the things that indicate change or danger; the two often go hand in hand.

Some of these sub routines are included in the genetic makeup of each individual and species. After hatching goslings imprint onto the first thing that they see that  moves. This is usually their mother and so this inherited subroutine has a strong survival value. It is only when ethologists like Konrad Lorenz become involved that things go awry.

Many baby birds have an automatic response to the shadow of birds of prey, whether this had been cast by a live hawk or a cardboard cutout. They hunch down and make themselves look inconspicuous in their nests, only then do they look around and analyse the situation and make an alternative response. An action to maximise their chances of survival comes first followed by a secondary response to the live situation.

As human beings we also have many of the automatic control systems. We walk around without consciously thinking of the process of taking every step – we spent long enough falling on our bottoms when we originally learnt to walk. Our “fight or flight” response has significant survival implications and demands a response from us when it occurs, albeit one that is limited to actions that make our survival more likely.

We need to become aware of the things that require us to make active decisions. Much of the responses we make are set up in the subroutines designed to respond to a particular configuration of stimuli. Many other subroutines are set up out of our active and deliberate choice.

Driving, playing a musical instrument, processing the specific knowledge and skills needed for our own particular areas of expertise are all examples of this. For instance the areas of the brain involved with memory and spacial orientation are larger in London taxi drivers than in other people. We also set up these routines in the social and emotional arenas. The events and experiences that we have had as we grow up also influence the development of our subroutines, they seem especially good at writing unhelpful responses into our repertoire.

Unless we are aware of what is happening in our mind we are not in a position to exercise free will, and out of habit we will act out the learned behaviours from our childhoods.

She votes the Scottish way,

Just like her father.

The Proclaimers.

An awareness exercise.

This is one of my favourite exercises in being mindful, and is of course, a lot harder than it sounds. It comes from Jan Chozen Bays book ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant’. It involves transitions from one space to another.

Whenever we leave one space and enter another, we pause, even for just a second and take a deep breath. We focus and become aware of the differences we feel as we pass from one space to another. Temperature, light, smell, sound etc.

If we are going through a door we pay particular attention to how we close the door behind us, closing it quietly and not letting it slam without due care. We finish with one space before moving into the next. Many people, myself included, find this hard to achieve. Too often I think we tend to have already headed through the door into the future before we have actually passed through the gap.

Mindfulness helps us to monitor the information that we allow into consciousness, and how we then choose to respond to it. We are in a position to change these automatic responses should we so choose. There is good evidence that we can alter the responsiveness of our neurons in real time, through the process of synapsal regulation that changes the ease with which particular nerve sells respond to incoming information.

Different nerve cells transmit information at different speeds. The nerves controlling the large muscles in the body send messages at about 120 metres/second, pain neurons at about 0.6 metres/second, and the cells that we use to think send these impulses at about 25 metres/second.

The time taken for a message to travel 20 centimetres os so around the brain varies from about 0.0016 seconds at the fastest to 0.3333 seconds at the slowest. Our ‘thinking’ cells send messages over the same distance in about 0.008 seconds.  Depending on which type of nerve cell is used to send the original message there would be plenty of time to both think about the response we are making and to change it.

What we choose to shine the light of out attention on becomes very important in how we think and respond to our worlds. These inputs can come from our environment as well as from our personal, internal model of the world.Both of which require our responses to be modulated, if not completely made afresh.

How we direct our attention is a skill that is worth practicing, and ultimately this ability reflects how we choose to exercise free will.

Many of us go through life in a bit of a blur. In a fifteen minute period over lunch today I visited the local mall. In that short visit I was nearly knocked over six times, the other shoppers involved were not present in the real world. They appeared to be lost online sending tweets, checking emails or updating their social media. Of the other people I saw, getting on for half were either talking on their phones or oblivious to the world listening to their MP3 players. One young mother seemed unable to see her new baby crying for texting.

Perhaps it is time that we developed “Beginner’s Mind”.

Beginner’s mind is a translation of the japanese words Shoshin. It is a concept that is found in many areas but more particularly in martial arts and in Zen buddhism.

This means taking an approach to life and events that is free of preconceptions and expectations; if someone is trying to chop you in half with a Katana, you don’t want to be making any assumptions about where the next attack in coming from. When we allow house room to our preconceptions they narrow own the possibilities and new information that we can retrieve from any situation.

In the beginner’s mind

there are many possibilities.

In the mind of the expert

there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki.

If we have beginner’s mind then we are open to new information, and are able to learn from each situation. We can approach even the most habitual of experiences with fresh ideas, eager to see  what is different each time we find ourselves in a familiar situation.

The key element in Beginner’s Mind is mindfulness. One of the most important aspect is th ability to recognise what we thinking or feeling, to influence this, and to change our subroutines. We can change the way we think about, and respond to events.

This is a dynamic process. We build on each change by making further changes. Allowing ourselves to move step by step in the direction that we choose to travel. We can come to see things with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, and leave our accumulated beliefs, conclusions, and prejudices to one side.

This means that we are able to see new possibilities whatever the situation in which we find ourselves. Gradually becoming more aware of what are often subtle differences between our present experience and similar ones from the past. By choosing to focus n the present, staying in the here and now, we are by definition being mindful. This helps us to recognise that the pst is the past, and makes it easier to stop brooding on past mistakes and the things we cannot change, and so reducing out vulnerability to depression.

Beginner’s Mind.

  • Remains open to new possibilities and actively seeks them out.
  • Helps us to focus on what we learn from our present experience.
  • Asks “What else?” Does not assume that all is known and that no more can be discovered.
  • Increases our awareness of the present, allowing us to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes.
  • Leaves aside our usual prejudices, preferences, dislikes, opinions, and judgements.
  • Permits us to decide our actions based on what is happening right now and not on what we think is happening.
  • Lets us set aside our expertise. Allows us to use our learning to understand what we have learnt, as opposed to using it to limit the knowledge we can acquire by reducing our ability to see and hear the reality.It is too easy to slip into an automatic, mindless way of thinking and acting when we believe that we already know something.

Most drivers seem to have had the experience of setting off to go to one destination only for the autopilot to kick in and then to find themselves half way to somewhere else. Heading for work on the weekend rather than the beach.  This seems a reasonable metaphor for the mindless life, living in a sort of perpetual dusk, missing out on the full colour and joyfulness of life.

Beginner’s mind means that we approach problems and events as though they were occurring for the first time and no-one has ever thought about them before. This permits us to see new challenges in familiar situations and to develop new insights or techniques for understanding and solving the dilemma of life.

An exercise.

1. Identify the things in our lives that we take for granted. Perhaps a possession, or a view we see regularly, some other habitual activity or a person.

2.Consciously choose to respond in a fresh way, choosing a different and novel response. Avoid using our habitual and tired or worn our responses.

3. Deliberately set out to think “outside the box”, approach the situation from a different viewpoint or direction. Gain a new perspective on the familiar things in our lives. Try listening to an isolated instrument or the rhythm in a favourite piece of music.

4. Slow down. Try and remain in the moment. Worrying that this is not the life we planned or wanted keeps us out of the present and means that we cannot shake things up. This makes it hard to enjoy the good bits and living the bad. We are unable to plan the changes we need to make if we are to send our lives in a different direction.

Developing the approach of living with beginner’s mind, helps us to establish fresh neural pathways, to reroute and modify old ones, and to rewrite or develop new subroutines to use in running our lives the way we want. This helps to change our default mindset and transforms our experience of being alive.

Life can remain fresh and exciting, allowing our minds to remain younger and much more open to learning and trying out new things. This can give each day a frisson of excited joy at having something new to discover each and every day.

Openess and interest generated by having beginner’s mind allows us to be mindful in our daily lives. Doing something differently helps us to think differently. When we think differently we pay attention to what is going on, and how we respond to it. Using our attention deliberately in this way makes us yet more mindful generating a virtuous circle where mindful action leads to mindful thought.

This is, of course, much easier to describe than it is to put into action. Deliberate, daily mindful practice helps us to keep this process fresh and allows us to develop a new skill. A skill that will serve us well for the rest of our lives.

As Sharon Salzberg so eloquently puts it;

Mindfulness is the ultimate mobile device,

You can use it anywhere,



Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

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