Shoshin - The art of curiosity (or how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich)

I’m a little obsessed with a word I learned recently, shoshin.

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddishm which means “beginners mind.” It’s a way of seeing the world fresh. With new perspective, curiosity and excitement.

Shoshin gives you permission to release your mind of its preconceptions and open yourself to begin seeing your blind spots. Imagine having the mind of a child with the privileges of an adult.

 Stay child-like....

Stay child-like....

This is my new life goal. To live in a constant state of Shoshin.  

Many of us neglect to ever question why we think or behave the way we do.

Why do you believe what you believe?

Chances are, if you were born in the United States you have some ties to Protestant Christianity, becoming increasingly Catholic as you move south into South America, whereas if you were born in the Middle East, your religion is likely Islam.  

 Map showing geographic distribution of religions.

Map showing geographic distribution of religions.

How can something so fundamental to people’s core values, like religion, be a matter of geography?

Simple: we tend to repeat and mimic the behaviors we are exposed to and the systems we are raised in. It’s inherently difficult for us to step outside of these systems and simply observe them for what they are – break them into simple components.

As a teacher, I used to instruct my students on how to write step-by-step methods for a scientific paper. To do this, I asked them collectively to give me instructions on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while standing in front of a lecture hall with the appropriate ingredients.

 I enjoyed this far more than my students. 

I enjoyed this far more than my students. 

Inevitably they would start with, “Put the peanut butter on the bread.” To the tune of a communal groan, I would place the jar of peanut butter on top of the plastic wrapped loaf.

 Just following instructions! 

Just following instructions! 

“No, no, like open the jar and spread the peanut butter on top of the bread.”

I’d dip my fingers into the jar and smear it all over the plastic or if I was feeling particularly sassy, would smash the jar of peanut butter in an attempt to “open it.”

 Seems so simple....

Seems so simple....

My point was that we have a million assumptions that people know to what we are referring when we make statements. And perhaps even more dangerously, we short circuit our own minds in navigating decisions too quickly that require more curiosity and thought.

Shoshin asks for practicers to approach the world in a “child-like” manner. To the extent that you were a curious child, that’s great! “But why,” is a favorite question of most youngin’s and one we seem to underuse greatly as adults.

 Don't buy into it! 

Don't buy into it! 

Perhaps this is the result of being told “because I said so!” a few too many times. This is not an acceptable answer*. (*Disclaimer: to be clear, if you are the parent of a three year old I completely get this and couldn’t handle your position so tell them whatever you need to!) But as an adult, this answer should never be satisfying.

 "Because I said so. That's why."

"Because I said so. That's why."

“Because I said so,” “because it’s always been done like this,” because “why change what works?” are all deeply rooted blind spots that the practice of Shoshin can help to expose.

Children aren’t dumb. They are asking all the right questions, all the time. But as adults, in order to grasp this concept, we have to approach life with the curiosity of a child and the understanding of a completely foreign alien life form. I’ve been tempted several times now to write something about behaving like an imbecile (in reference to my behavior above in making PB&J), but I think that’s an unfair assessment.  

 And therein lies the problem. 

And therein lies the problem. 

The keen observation and listening that it takes to “play the imbecile” requires great focus and attention to the assumptions being processed by self and others.  

Give it a try.

Trust me, playing the part of clueless is a lot of fun (although as a word of caution, this can be infinitely frustrating to those around you – ask any of my students).

Your mind naturally closes as it forms patterns and wirings for the “correct” way to do things (like make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or worship the “right” deity).  Instead of really listening to what’s being said, we wait to hear something that confirms the way we have learned is “correct.”

Putting a peanut butter jar on top of a bag of sliced bread may seem a bit ridiculous but use the analogy to break down more important discussions in your life.

What’s really being said?

Does that fit with your current philosophy?

If so, be careful that you aren’t cherry-picking information to justify it. Our brains are superb at hearing things we “know” to be true, and blocking information that doesn’t fit.  

 Be willing to hear it all. Not just the parts that confirm you way of thinking.

Be willing to hear it all. Not just the parts that confirm you way of thinking.

Practice the art of curiosity today by listening carefully to the exact way things are being portrayed instead of jumping right in to contribute your own suggestions (“maybe we open the plastic wrap around the bread first?”).

You might be amazed at what you discover about your own assumptions and the million different ways to combine bread, jam, and peanut butter.  

 Stay curious my friends. Very curious. 

Stay curious my friends. Very curious.