This ancient Zen Kōan Holds The Key to Creative Thinking
Think back to the moment when you learned about computers, space exploration, or the Internet (or any other fascinating thing that you’re passionate about) for the very first time.
Wasn’t your mind just overflowing with questions: some trivial, some obvious, and some profound?
You were probably confused, but you were also looking at it with curiosity and wonder: trying to fill the gaps in your knowledge, piecing together all the little bits of information you had, and searching for meaning.
That mental state — of constantly asking questions, being proactive about learning more, and being mindful of how much you understand — is known as Shoshin in Zen Buddhism, or what I like to refer to as a beginner’s mindset.
The Paradox of Knowing Everything
Now, you might be thinking, isn’t having a beginner’s mindset more of a hindrance than a help? So many people spend more than a quarter of their lives just pouring over books and filling up their heads with information in order to become skilled and experienced in a specific subject or craft — beginner’s mindset just seems to just throw all of that down the drain.
So, it feels counterproductive: why would you choose to ignore all the valuable lessons you’ve learned, maybe even the hard way? Isn’t it better to have experience, knowledge, and wisdom?
Yes, all those factors are important as well, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. But, the problem is, having too much knowledge and understanding can also blind you from observing the truth. Your perspective is already so overflowing with limiting beliefs, preconceptions, and analogies that you cannot even see what’s directly in front of you.
The Tale of the Overflowing Teacup
This lesson can be observed in an ancient Zen Kōan:
Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master, once received a University professor who came to inquire about the way of Zen Buddhism.
The master began to discuss several common teachings of Buddhism, like meditation. But the visitor interrupted the master in an attempt to impress him and said, “Yes, I’m already aware of that.”
The master then invited the visitor to have some tea. When the tea was ready, the master poured his visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept on pouring, spilling tea over the sides of the cup and onto the table.
The visitor watched the cup overflow with tea until he no longer could restrain himself. “Stop! It is overflowing. You can’t pour tea into a full cup.”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in replied, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The best way to apply a beginner’s mindset practically to everyday problems is to learn how to reason from first principles.
Usually, we have the habit of reasoning by analogy, which means that we follow common trends, and we get sidetracked by our own limiting beliefs and preconceptions. We think that if everybody else is doing something, we should go down the same path as well. But that just blinds us to so many other possible solutions.
When you have a beginner’s mindset, however, you instead reason by first principles: you question every assumption you’re making about a problem, deconstruct it down to its core elements, and then start building up from there. This requires you to accept that your personal experiences might not reflect reality as it really is, and thus forces you to escape your own narrow worldview, and embrace something greater than yourself.
And that’s the main benefit of reasoning from first principles. It helps you think like a beginner again, not only allowing you to rediscover the curiosity and opportunity of starting something new, but also regaining the mindfulness and joy of beginner’s mind, or Shoshin.
- Adopt the first principles framework as a habit in everyday life.
- Identify and define your current assumptions.
- Break down the problem into its fundamental
- Create new solutions from scratch that are free from
limiting beliefs and preconceptions.