The Joy of a Beginner

It is a great pleasure to work with a new swimmer or one who is totally new to our way of swimming and training and have them be so open and excited at the new possibilities and see hope emerging in their mind. Their joy of discovery becomes my joy. Their open-minded approach to learning is also a lesson for those of us who’ve been swimming for a long time. 

I have one gal, later 50s, who started coming recently for help learning to swim better. For her, swimming has become a precious time for self-refreshment in the midst of care-giving responsibilities and the pandemic stress we’re all facing together. She told me that she just got into swimming within the last couple of years but then showed up with better skill in place than I anticipated from her initial self description. Despite how well she was already doing on her own, she sensed it could be a lot better and so sought out my help. From the first moment she has been remarkably receptive and pleased to take even the most fundamental skills from our lessons back into her personal practice time and explore her swimming body as if she was learning to move for the first time. She has treated each concept with eagerness to learn and grow.  

As we end each lesson her excitement leaves me excited to see what she will discover in her practice time ahead. From experience I know what these concepts are supposed to produce and what people commonly discover about themselves, but when I come across someone with a Beginner’s Mind like this, I know to step back and stay open because they can find meaning in and impact from fundamental skills in ways I may not have seen before. In this atmosphere the teacher prepares to be a student. 

What is the Beginner’s Mind?

Jon Kabat Zinn, in teaching the 9 Attitudes of Mindfulness, describes how the expert’s mind sees very few possibilities, but the beginner’s mind sees many. The expert comes to the situation with strong ideas of how it has been and how it should be, while the beginner has little of this, just openness and wonder. In the activity, the expert’s brain is busy refining and reinforcing existing neural circuits, while the beginner’s brain is busy growing new ones and expanding its connections.  

Those of us who have been swimming for decades can so easily take for granted the vast possibilities of each new day in the water because our routines and earned accomplishments can easily lure us into thinking we’ve experienced about all there is to this activity. We know what we know. However, the relentless focus on harder, farther, faster, tougher – a one dimensional concern for quantities – hinders our ability to see the fresh rewards that may await us in each new day. 

Kabat Zinn uses various phrases to describe the Beginner’s Mind: 

  • Seeing things as if for the first time
  • Making room for novelty
  • Seeing many possibilities
  • Coming to it fresh
  • Not getting stuck in one’s (expert) opinions
  • Not getting caught up in ‘I like / I don’t like’ (see Benefits of Non-Judgment)
  • Not assuming how the outcome will be
  • Not expecting the same thing as last time

Langer & Moldoveanu (2000) highlight the attributes of the Beginner’s Mind by defining mindfulness as “the process of drawing novel distinctions” in each moment, which “can lead to a number of diverse consequences, including (1) a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving.” In other words, one who is demonstrating the attitude of Beginner’s Mind continually looks at the seemingly same things in new ways, or takes care to notice differences in one moment to the next, in one routine event from another. 

Experts See Narrowly

There is a lesson here for the experienced, the accomplished, the expert in our sport. Those of us who have been doing this for a long time, from all that experience, tend to lose the ability to notice and appreciate new things as well as old ones. We get stuck in our routines and expectations, or hold a very narrow focus on what we have conditioned ourselves to think matters. We might be expertly focused on building our fitness and skills toward a particular goal, but we’re no longer open to new information that does not seem to immediately relate to what we are working on. When we set fixed goals, especially objectively-defined ones (e.g. going a certain distance, swimming a specific speed) the mind naturally filters out that which does not seem to contribute to it. We tend to move into a performance-oriented mindset, which narrows down the field of vision and interest to that which only pertains to what we’re trying to accomplish.

Now, we acknowledge that there is the possibility of great satisfaction in achieving performance goals we had to work hard for. But the day-to-day joy of living comes from novelty, discovery and savoring what we’ve found. 

What I observe is that newer swimmers more often demonstrate this kind of joy, while the more experienced ones do not. I do know a few exceptions who’ve started with that joy and have found a way to preserve it for years. Then there are those who have rediscovered it along the way, like they have been reborn. These are the ones we can learn from. 

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

From Expert to Beginner Again

Shapiro et al. (2006) point out that “learning to see clearly (and learning in general) depends upon the ability to disidentify from prior patterns and beliefs.” Experts are experts because they have spent so much time studying and refining their patterns and beliefs, and developed their extraordinary capabilities around those. What makes them strong can also make them weak when something credible comes along to challenge what they think they already know. An attitude of openness, of humility to acknowledge there is more to learn, and the attitude that is eager to pursue even contradictory insight mitigates that weakness. 

How do the experienced, the accomplished, the old-timers return to this Beginner’s Mind? Or how do we protect from losing it in the first place? 

For a start, we should remember that everything changes – our bodies, our selves, others, our environment – and often in small, barely detectable ways from moment to moment, day to day. If we detect nothing, then that is an indicator we’ve been caught in the expert mind, or worse, that we’ve become rather mindless because change is always occurring under our noses.  According to Langer’s definition, mindlessness is no longer seeing distinctions (changes, differences) that come about from time passing, no longer noticing the newness of things inside and outside of you. 

To get out of this, when going into our routines, we can make it a point to notice that which is different – and there is an enormous amount that is. For this we’ll need to exercise our awareness and attention. A mindfulness practice really helps build those mental muscles like pushups build the physical ones. Do just 2 or 3 each day this week and next week you can do 3 or 4, then next week 5 or 6, and so on. Everyone starts this way. The weaker one is at this, the more reason there is to do the exercises to get stronger.

We can set learning goals instead of performance goals. Practice then becomes more about answering the question, “What I can learn and apply?”, than, “What can I do?”. Then any result, positive-neutral-negative, in a training session becomes interesting and informative. The details of our immediate environment and our results within it of no-change/success/failure all indicate something that we could possibly learn from and become a better swimmer by.  

Learning goals provoke curiosity. There is always something different. We can ask challenging questions of ourselves:

  • What is different?
  • Why is this different?
  • How did it get that way?
  • What effect do these differences have on me?
  • What are different ways I can respond to these changes?
  • What can I experiment with next time?

We can pursue improvements in qualities of our experience and of our performance. Measuring progress only in terms of distance or speed is uni-dimensional and not even close to providing a complete picture of one’s true fitness and mastery. A truly good performance is measured not just by what you produce but by how you produced it, and at what cost before, during and after the performance. 

We can practice with self-limiting exercises which restrict our usual mode of thinking and doing and require us to see and do things in new ways. We can engage in physically limiting activities, like swimming with fist gloves or one-arm swimming, to force the body to solve the efficiency puzzle in new ways. We can engage in mentally limiting activities, like suspending concern for distance or speed for a day or week and swim with the objective of maintaining just one prized internal quality. We can practice in a totally new (and more challenging) environments. By voluntarily, regularly taking ourselves out of our routines, we can shake things up for our minds and give them a chance to notice new things, or things we’ve forgotten or lost appreciation of. 

We can take up a totally new activity where we have to start all over at the beginner stage again, or close to it. They may say that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but it’s well supported in science now that the brains of ‘old dogs’ experience rejuvenation when we try to. It’s the intention and effort that matters, not the accomplishment. By putting ourselves in the position where we have to learn totally new complex movements (or a new musical instrument, or a new language, or a new art, etc.) we provoke new body and situational awareness, new insights, a more humble (and therefore, more masterful) attitude, and we grow new neural connections which help the brain stay youthful. 

 

The Maturity of a Beginner

The Beginner’s Mind is not a regression to a less mature stage. It may actually be regarded as part of the basis for greater wisdom. This mindset may be something we’re granted as a gift when we are young or start a new activity, but then lose it along the way when we start to feel like we know most of what there is to know. A true master of an art or discipline is one who realizes there is so much more to learn, even within the fundamentals, while a faux master thinks he’s getting near the ends of the realm of discovery. 

It’s not that one has to give up on pursuing higher performance, but to not surrender the joy of the practice either. The Beginner’s Mind keeps the door of potential always open through learning and discovery and these are ingredients of engagement. It creates both the opportunity to find pleasure and intrigue within the day-to-day work of training as well as the opportunity to grow in more dimensions and periodically find better ways of pursuing the achievements we dream of. It may even lead to discovering new dreams we did not realize before that we had within us.  

At the end of the day, at the end of the season, and possibly at the end of one’s life what’s going to be regarded as most important any way?  We could make the case that one who maintains a Beginner’s Mind will ultimately, year after year, be more likely to keep going because they enjoy the process, and they will be in better position to accomplish great things because of all they keep learning and by how they keep gracefully changing along the way. 

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Langer, E. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The construct of mindfulness. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 1–9.

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., & Astin, J. A. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373–386.

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View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:

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