This essay by Eleanor Rosch on beginner’s mind is fantastic. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people in the field of cognitive psychology lament about how Rosch went from doing all this fabulous (and extremely well-known) work on concepts and categories in the 70′s to this “crazy Buddhist stuff.” It’s a terrible, terrible shame that so many scientists are so unwilling to even consider things that don’t fit their existing models of how the mind works, as she says herself in her introduction:
“The beginner’s mind claim, ordinary yet radical, is that we already have … basic wisdom … Thus people do not need to acquire more information, more logic, more ego, and more skills to make them wise. What they need is to unlearn what they have accumulated that veils them from that wisdom. When they do this, it is believed, they find not only what they themselves really are already but what the world actually is, and, from that vantage point, they can live a good life.
The psychological picture that corresponds to beginner’s mind (which I will also call “inner path”) teachings is of different levels of mind (or modes of functioning or ways of knowing). On the surface is the mind of ordinary concepts, emotions, desires, fears, even boredom – the mind with which everyone is familiar. Below that is the mind that is more in contact with basic wisdom and better able to see and act from it. This point may be clarified, hopefully, by a computer analogy. Imagine the ordinary surface mode of knowing as a particular computer program running on a more basic operating system. In daily life (and in psychology and cognitive science — and wisdom studies?) researchers mistake the limited surface program for the whole system. The research community keeps trying to study how the system works, but all it can see is the functioning of the program in which it, as well as the people it is studying, are confined. Every attempt to see beyond or get out of the program, either in science or religion or scholarship, is frustrated because to try to get out, one is only using the operations of the program itself. The situation would be hopeless, except that it is the operating system that supports and defines the program in the first place and the operating system that offers the escape keys that allow one to return to it.
Although this is basically a claim about psychology, two religious traditions are examined as examples because it is within religions, particularly the meditative and contemplative strains in religion, that different modes of knowing and the levels of wisdom such modes might reveal have been most clearly codified and taught. Psychology and cognitive science generally take religions to be no more than cognitive beliefs about personified deities whose purpose it is to provide illusory comfort or to explain things that science can explain better. Such an approach obscures the other aspects of religions. As people pursue an inner path, their vision of religious objects changes radically; perhaps that is why inner path teachings have historically had such uneasy relations with their parent religions. If scientists and educators dismiss everything related to religion out of hand, they may miss the chance to understand aspects of the mind that no other part of society can as readily bring to our attention.”