By Katherine Olivetti

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki


At the point of retirement you might wonder why you need a beginner’s mind. Shoshin, a concept that originates in Zen Buddhism meaning beginner’s mind, invites an attitude of openness, an emptying of expectations about outcome, curiosity, and a naïve and eager expectancy. In another system, the Tarot, the attitude is characterized by the Fool, the first card of the deck, where every journey begins.

the fool

His eyes are focused on heaven and even in the face of imminent hazards his attitude is one of optimism. The fool or beginner’s mind captures an attitude that helps a person to get out of the familiar mindset because as Einstein so wisely noted, the mind set that created a problem is not the mind set that can solve the problem.

At the point of retirement, the “problem” is often success! Now that’s a strange idea, isn’t it? The very strategies that helped you get to the top of the mountain you climbed, even though they are valuable and stellar, may not be the right ones to help you with the next challenge, maybe a sea journey to a place you’ve never been.

Often the skills that are acquired in the course of a successful career include drive, ambition, taking charge or control, pro-activity, hard work, goal setting—often in Eastern language yang oriented activity. At a transformational point in life, there is often a call for a new orientation. This is why points of transition are often painful—because they call us to navigate with skills we don’t have yet. The irony is that in the process of getting to the next point, we develop those very skills. If you have children, think of all the things that developed as you became a parent….or like in playing tennis, you learn as you go. That is the way of transformation and growth.

Successful people are often like fabulous wagons with 3 perfect wheels and one sort of not-so-great one. With the 3 wheels whizzing along, you zoom successfully; there is no reason to notice something is under-developed. But at midlife that undeveloped part of the self begins to pinch from inside. Familiar, skill rich activities can become stale or no longer possible, something else is nudging from inside. This is the point at which we need to cultivate the beginner’s mind.

All that striving, driving, goaling and yang energy may need to step aside in favor of what Eastern philosophy calls yin—the receptive, receiving, open stillness that can listen deeply. Learning to turn the ear from listening to the outside to listening to the wee voice within can be challenging. There are activities that help cultivate that inner listening: journaling, meditation, solitude, quiet, time spent in nature, therapy, and spiritual practices. Often a guide who knows about those practices can help.

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Katherine Olivetti is Co-Founder of Life Reinspired, a reset lab for successful Baby Boomers contemplating a meaningful next chapter of life. She is a practicing Jungian psychoanalyst, family therapist, coach, writer, and editor, training professionals throughout the world.

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