By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW
Allow yourself to become quiet for a moment and let your mind think back to a time when you first experienced something about which you had no expectations. It might be the first time you attended a recovery meeting, your first trip to a new city, or some other novel experience. Do you remember how you took in every detail, noticing people, behaviors, colors, and many other aspects of the experience with a fresh eye? That is “beginner’s mind,” the ability to approach any task free of biases or opinions, even without understanding anything about it. Unfortunately, our brains begin to take things for granted as we become accustomed to routines, no longer noticing the commonplace and causing us to become less alert and aware of things both internal and external.
Why is beginner’s mind important for recovery? Put simply, recovery is an ongoing learning process that is greatly enhanced with an open mind. How many of us allowed ourselves to believe that we could actually go a day without using drugs or acting out? In recovery, how many of us accepted instructions from sponsors based on trust, perhaps with some skepticism but willing to take a chance? That is beginner’s mind, and it is essential for the most important principle of recovery – acceptance – because it allows us to see beyond the closed world we have constructed and become open to new ideas and experiences.
Why do addicts lose the beginner’s mind? Some of this can be explained by the shame and stigma that surrounds addictive behaviors. People gradually become dishonest with themselves as the consequences of their actions accumulate, and they begin to lose any ability to view their own predicament objectively. Over time, addicts acquire hardened thoughts and beliefs about their lives that are resistant to change.
The beginner’s mind can also be lost because addicts become “experts” at addiction, and being an expert is the exact opposite of beginner’s mind. I have worked with substance abusers who knew far more than I about the molecular structure and impact of various drugs and clients with eating disorders who had highly-detailed knowledge about nutrition. But despite the extensive knowledge, they were unable to rescue themselves from their addiction.
Finally, the beginner’s mind fades due to something called confirmation bias, which is the phenomenon whereby someone sees what they expect to see, subconsciously ignoring facts or data points that don’t correlate with their expectations. For example, if I believe recovery is impossible, I will probably notice those who relapse and minimize to a far greater extent the success of those who don’t.
Here are some tips for maintaining a beginner’s mind:
- Be open to possibilities. Addicts can be very jaded, holding strong opinions and knowing with certainty what will work (or not) for them. Try to approach recovery with no opinions or expectations. Focus on what you need to do right here in the present, remembering that popular definition of insanity involving repeating the same behavior with the same outcome. A type of psychotherapy called Solution Focused Therapy uses the “miracle question” to break out of this limited worldview, asking the client to imagine what he or she would notice if a miracle occurred overnight and he or she awoke to find life much improved.
- Learn as you go. Keep your recovery experience fresh by maintaining a beginner’s mind. Working with newcomers is an excellent way to do this, triggering memories of your own insights and experiencing their growth vicariously. When you feel resistance to some aspect(s) of your recovery program (and you will), follow another recommendation often heard in the rooms: Take what works and leave the rest.
- Adapt. Anyone with even the most minimal time in recovery undergoes tremendous changes in their behaviors, moods, and outlook. It is not uncommon for certain aspects of a recovery program to work well for a period of time, only to lose effectiveness. For example, someone might at first simply need tools and skills to contain the acting out behavior; later he or she may need more reflective feedback from sponsors and friends about an emotional issue. It is important to recognize that the tools that are working today may not work tomorrow and adaptation may be necessary.
The beginner’s mind keeps us in touch and connected with one of the great inspiring forces of healing: the miracle of recovery.