Musings: Beginner's Mind Over Matter

by Chris Gillen, associate professor of biology

A few years ago, I left the comfortable world of road running to try trail ultramarathons. The challenges arose not just from the sheer length of an ultramarathon, a course exceeding the standard marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 feet. Though I was an experienced runner, the switch from roads to trails made me in many ways a beginner.

Beginners and experts see the world through different lenses. Experts sometimes treat beginners with condescension, even contempt. But an appreciation of the joys and potentials of the beginner's role can be valuable, even to an expert, in work as well as in life. Properties of the beginner's mind are summed up by Richard Baker in the introduction to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Baker describes the beginner's mind as "empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities." A beginner's mind, he says, "can see things as they are."

I saw the trail as it was, all right, for better and for worse. Bounding down rocky paths, encountering interesting wildlife, and savoring hilltop views, I felt exhilarated. But I was also afraid of getting lost, falling into a cold river, or failing to meet the mental challenges. On the trails, I experienced both sides of a beginner's mind, the potentials as well as the risks.

As a novice trail runner, I leaned heavily on what I already knew—road running—and found that many of the fundamental training principles could be transferred to the trail. I also sought out experienced trail runners and listened to their stories and advice. Finally, I accepted failure—a precondition for moving beyond it. In my first attempt to finish the Mohican 100-mile trail race, I dropped out after seventy-five miles, unwilling to tackle a streamside path in the middle of the night on shaky legs. Although that failure was agonizing, it motivated me to train better, and a year later I stood on the starting line confident that I would finish—and I did, in 27 hours and 36 minutes.

Embracing a beginner's mind in my personal pursuits has helped me to work with students, who by their very nature are beginners in my field. I better understand their fear of failure, anticipate their difficulties, sympathize with their struggles, and appreciate their successes. I also recognize their capacity, as beginners, to see with their fresh eyes something important that may elude the practiced eye of the professional researcher.

But as a teacher and scholar, I am expected to be an authoritative expert. In my professional life, I've tried to cultivate a beginner's mind without compromising an expert's knowledge and judgment. In scholarship, beginner's mind is a prerequisite for doing imaginative research, a requirement for recognizing new opportunities and starting new paths. On the other hand, without an expert's proficiency, scholars are at risk of making mistakes and choosing unproductive paths.

Sometimes, the beginner's role is thrust upon us. Upon arriving at Kenyon from a research institution, I had to change my research direction from mammals to crabs and caterpillars. The smaller organisms were better suited to a liberal-arts research program, but for a biologist this is a dramatic shift. I was required to learn a new system, invertebrate physiology. Getting up to speed reinvigorated my passion for research and helped forge a strong connection with my student collaborators. We shared a sense of mission as we learned a new subfield together. The challenges, however, were daunting. I found myself in competition with investigators whose entire careers had been devoted to invertebrate physiology. At times I felt swamped—to take a metaphor from the trail—by the difficulties.

So I applied the same lessons I would later apply to the trail: forge links to past accomplishments, connect with generous experts, and accept disappointments and a few embarrassments. These strategies helped me decide to anchor my emerging research program in my previous expertise in salt transport across cells. I sought out knowledgeable collaborators at Kenyon and beyond, and learned from the inevitable mistakes and frustrations along the way. These approaches smoothed the initial transition. They also led me towards my current collaborations exploring calcium transport in crayfish and the role of body size in the biology of caterpillars. Both are new areas for me that build on old strengths. It's been a delight to set out in fresh directions, where I can draw on past work and at the same time exercise my beginner's mind.

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