‘We’ve had enough of experts...’ said Michael Gove a few years back. To be fair he was misquoted as he was interrupted mid-sentence and wasn’t talking about all experts, but it stuck. Many people reacted in support: “yes, we know things deep inside, we have common sense, we don’t need to be told what to do." And, of course, there was a great deal of righteous indignation as well: “we need people who are trained and educated to help us solve difficult problems. We need doctors to heal us and engineers to stop our bridges from collapsing, and so on...”
Now we have experts coming at us through our radios, TVs and web-browsers nonstop. Some of them may be right, some of them will be wrong. And now we hope a certain few experts will deliver us from the Covid Armageddon with a vaccine. It’s just too early to tell. But of course we need experts. We crave them in fact. “Just tell us the answer” we scream inwardly, and often outwardly.
But do we need to be experts at life? We can aspire to be wise, certainly. We can try to be skilful. We can learn every day, consciously or unconsciously, especially when we try something new or different. But what if we were to approach situations as if we had never encountered them before, to approach everything with a child-like curiosity and wonder?
We all know what it’s like to be flummoxed by some new challenge, using Zoom or some other computer application, for example. We begin with ‘unconscious incompetence’: What is Zoom? Then we grapple ham-fistedly with whatever it is we are learning, the ‘conscious incompetence stage’, we know we are incompetent at what we are trying to do but we work at it anyway, learning through the ‘conscious competence’ stage before we arrive, we hope, in the flow-state of ‘unconscious competence’, just doing it without thinking. But take a step back. Wasn’t that learning process, before we started forgetting that we couldn’t do something, rather magical? Did we not experience the joy of discovery, and at least the possibility of mastery? And if we begin looking at everything as if it’s a brand new situation, with curiosity and wonder - "how do I do this, how do I navigate around this?"- could we not bring more of that joy and satisfaction into our lives?
And it need not be something we practice just when we’re learning something. We can apply this to every activity. Like eating. A favourite mindfulness practice is the raisin-eating exercise, seeing and eating it as if for the very first time. But we can also apply this to drinking a glass of water, or eating a meal. We really look at the raisin, the glass, the food, the bowl, the spoon, trying to see details that we might not normally notice. We notice the textures, tastes, smells, and sights of the food or drink, paying close attention as if we don’t already know how the experience will be, trying to appreciate every bite or sip as a precious gift.
We can apply our beginner’s mind in new situations when we feel lost and confused, saying to ourselves not only “yes ok, it’s alright to feel like this”, but also asking ourselves what joy and wonder we can get from the experience. And, in tried and tested situations, when we might think “oh yes I know how this goes” we really don’t. In fact, there are so many things we don’t know, and it can be liberating to feel the truth of this, to relax and become comfortable with it. Socrates reputedly once said that the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. This is where the beginner’s mind morphs into the ‘don’t know’ mind and, in a world where we are expected to have an opinion about absolutely everything, even when we have no real grasp of the facts, it can be refreshing just to say to ourselves, and to others, “I don’t know”.