Don’t-Know Mind, or Beginners Mind, is a Buddhist principle. It helps remind us that clinging to certainty, although natural, can cause us suffering. In parenting, it can interfere with our children’s innate ability to learn from experience.
There aren’t many jobs we sign up for in life where the stakes are as high as they are in parenting. We are suddenly required to be on call 24/7 without prior training, schooling, or mentoring. No matter how many books we have read, or how many children we have spent time with, we enter this job mostly ignorant of what it entails. Living outside of parenting and observing it is unfathomably different than living inside of it.
In our culture we like to “know” what we are doing. We read books, we do research, we seek control over our lives in myriad ways.
Good parenting, however, requires “don’t-know mind.” It is a letting go of preconceived ideas and a letting go of the notion that we have control over how things are.
While we might want to enter parenting with our answers in place, how can we know the answers before we have been “in” the experience? Parenting is a moment-to-moment dynamic relationship that involves environmental and situational variables as well as the child’s and parent’s ideas, thoughts, sensations and feelings.
As author Laura Davis put it:
As much as we might like to enter parenthood with all our answers, techniques, and strategies in place, doing so would mean building a system that fails to include the input of our children. Our ability to stay open, adaptable, and responsive necessitates that we don’t start with all the answers but that we dedicate ourselves to figuring them out along the way. (p. 27)
When we come from a place of certainty, we are not receptive to what stands outside of our preconceived ideas. If we enter parenting with a rigid stance about how things should be, we not only leave out the variable of who our children are and who they are becoming, but we cloud our ability to allow our children and our experience to be our teachers.
In human development, stasis means something has gone awry. It is an undesirable state. Growth and development can be derailed both by certainty and by the anxiety that can accompany doubt. Don’t be certain, don’t be in doubt? Then what guidelines should we follow? Here is where the teaching of “don’t-know mind” can be particularly useful. As the Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi said:
“Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not. (Quoted by Gil Fronsdale)
And as Fronsdale put it:
“The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify.”
Fronsdale adds that while doubt and uncertainty are involuntary states, “don’t-know mind” is a conscious practice in which: “(We)…cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.”
The wish to know is a natural human tendency. Having a path in mind is helpful since it highlights when we have veered away from the things that are most important to us. But holding our beliefs lightly, being willing to sit with the discomfort of not knowing may be equally important.
Babies seek to learn and grow even in the absence of our “stimulating” them. They learn from experience and are constantly experimenting with different ways of making sense of the world. Perhaps our challenge is to be more childlike ourselves, letting each new moment be different from the last, full of surprise, wonder, and sometimes fogginess.
Try these exercises to help you with don’t-know mind:
- Notice thoughts of certainty as they arise and see if you can soften the edges. Try to remain open to the possibility of things being different and allowing your beliefs to shift.
- Spend a few minutes observing a baby, witnessing their receptivity and openness to learning and growth.
Davis, L. (1997). Becoming the Parent You Want To Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years.
Fronsdal, G. Not-Knowing – Adapted from a public talk February 2004