Beginner’s Mind

This is the third in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non Striving, Acceptance and Letting Go. Each post will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

Absolute Beginners

I’ve nothing much to offer
There’s nothing much to take
I’m an absolute beginner
When I’m absolutely sane

As long as we’re together
The rest can go to hell
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners

With eyes completely open
But nervous all the same

David Bowie – Absolute Beginners written by Paul Weller

The phrase ‘beginner’s mind’ is used in meditation and mindfulness as an encouragement to greet the present moment as if it was the first time we had experienced it. That it is an original and unique moment is often distorted by our mind’s habit of labeling, categorizing and interpreting our world. It’s a useful trait, some might say an essential one, for survival, and to learn and grow into our lives. Through interpreting its raft of sensory information the mind is able to establish what it is that we are experiencing. The cataloging, labeling and summation happen instantaneously. We can imagine that each unfolding moment is part of the last, part of the whole and is nothing unique.

It is a paradox that this is both true and false, at the same time. Each unfolding moment is part of the whole and is related to other experiences. But every moment is also unique. Mr Bowie is correct, we are all ‘absolute beginners’. However, the cultivation of an attitude of beginner’s mind can support our intention to be present in each moment of our lives.

Developing beginner’s mind

The cultivation of a beginner’s mind is an intention. We resolve to receive each moment as if it was the first time we experienced it. (Which it is!) We imagine that the sensory information we are experiencing is fresh and new to us. We really notice what it is that we can see, feel, smell, touch and hear.

When we are sat, meditating, the object of this intention is often the breath. To sit and experience the breath as if for the first time is to alert our senses to where and how we feel the breath in our body. Its cool entry at our nose. The gentle rise and fall of our stomach. The subtle expansion of our chest. The sharpening of our senses brings us into the experience and roots us in the present moment. To expand this practice into other areas of our day and life supports our intention to be mindful.

The trick is taking this sensory experience and developing it in situations and environments that are familiar. This is a re-tuning of our senses. A conscious decision to notice. We may choose one particular sense to work with or simply remain open to what our senses reveal.

As applied to photography

The very essence of this practice brings us into the moment, encouraging our presence within our current experience. In photography this can be explored as part of a mindful photography practice. Our intention within the practice is to notice the visual experience as if for the first time.

There are two potential approaches. Either we visit a place/location that is completely new to us or we cultivate our ‘Beginner’s Eye’ by visiting familiar territory. Both approaches provide the opportunity to cultivate a grounding in the present moment. To see what we see as if for the first time. Perhaps the latter practice, on familiar territory, provides deeper opportunities to cultivate a gratitude for the familiar; to ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’ (John Updike). Something that we can then take into other aspects of our life.

A mindful photography practice

  • Choose a familiar location
  • Limit your area of observation to a 100 x 100 metre area
  • Spend 30 – 60 minutes slowly walking through this area, tuned into your visual experience
  • Tune into the colours, the shapes, patterns, lines and textures rather than the named objects
  • Receive photos that represent your experience
  • Share your favourite photos with me and I will share them here


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