Zen Mind Beginner's Mind Buddhist Monks Learning

Photo credit: Christopher Martin

I would like to share an interesting observation I’ve had recently about a specific phrase that my family tends to respond with. I have been back home with my family recently for the holidays, and I think with the start of the new year, this would be such a fitting topic for us all to start afresh. It’s said so much around here, that it made me think about what’s really going on when the knee-jerk response is blurted out in an almost defensive manner. I suppose I’m hyper-aware of this because of my trainings of acuity and awareness (as well as the fighting it leads to)… but most likely because I myself had to overcome this triggered response.

This seemingly innocent phrase, or at worst, seemingly ego-driven defensively rebuttal, is simply:

I know.”

Now of course inflection, tonality, context, communication history, etc will play a part in deciphering the replier’s intent, and may make whatever beginnings of an argument easier to empathize with… but that’s not really what I care about discussing. It’s not that understanding the situation is unimportant in a real conversation, but rather, it’s honestly irrelevant to growth and elimination of such a phrase altogether.

Bonus therapy fact: all “stories” (history and explanations of why somebody does something) really just prolong the ego and the continuation of unresolved internal (and external) conflicts. This alone will save thousands of dollars by avoiding traditional therapist and psychologists that simply talk more about the problem and excuses, instead of focusing on the solution.

If I’m NOT referring to conflict resolution, then what IS the core, key issue, that this simple phrase of “I know” brings about?

First, we nee to be aware of the two major situations this usually comes up:

  1. A defensive, or ego-based, rebuttal to somebody telling someone something (either in a repetitive/argumentative fashion or not)
  2. An internal dialogue or automatic subconscious response to being taught (seemingly) already known information

At the root of both is basically the same issue of one’s ego. Whether it being a legitimate concern for defending itself from a condescending teacher or simply a belief of already being competent in what’s being taught, the ego comes up to save time and/or defend itself.

The Problem

Check it, this is why this is even an issue: when one thinks they already know something, they shut down their ability to learn more.

There is actually a subconscious reaction when one says or thinks “I know”. This activates a psychological block in your unconscious mind that prevents most, if not all, new learning to take place. If you already know something, there’s no point in being open to learning it again, as your mind starts to compare it to the existing model in your head in order to judge it. This comparing and judgment, while helpful in other situations, is the major failure of acquiring new learnings and understandings, increasing an already conditioned resistance to change. The scary part is that this usually happens all out of the awareness of your conscious thoughts, so the chances of catching it are low unless you know about this… and the fact you just read that and can’t unlearn this means you’re automatically going to be aware of yourself when this happens.

When one thinks they already know some­thing, they shut down their ability to learn more

Whoa. Read that again. And then re-read it. There’s so much gold in that last paragraph.

When somebody thinks they already know something, their mind automatically switches to “compare & judge mode” rather then “sponge absorb and soak mode” (scientific terminologies I’m sure). I’ve heard so many miserable adults and seniors say “bah, I’m too old to change”.…  and this is one of the biggest reasons why. The older the person, that harder it is for them to change — as this mindset develops momentum and is the mind’s cholesterol and calcification (checkout these analogies, I’m on a roll).

What can be done about this, is there anything that we can do to stay open while hearing (perceived) know material? Yes, of course! …but what’s the point?

The purpose is to always be growing and expanding your learnings and understandings, as there’s always something to learn, even from something you’ve mastered. You hear adults saying all the time their children blow them away with what the parents learn from their children. I’ve told people to read a book, and they reply with “I’ve already read that like 10 years ago”. I’ll tell them that they’ve updated it with brand new revisions and material, and to read it again. They come back saying “OMG you’re right! I’ve learned so much more from this new version!”.

Was there really a revision? No, of course not. It’s the same book as it was 10 years ago. The difference is that they’re not the same person they were 10 years ago, so they see the information through new filters and experiences, thus getting a different impression from the same exact book.

The Solution

So what can be done to prevent this? How can we become more empowered?

For me, I really like the whole concept of Zen Buddhism’s Beginner’s Mind. This basically says that you approach everything from that of a newbie, novice, beginner. How do you do that? Basically you just pretend that what you’re listening or reading is all brand new stuff. For me, the easiest way to do this, is to classify and give a new label to whatever concept you’re learning.

For example: if I were listening to an introductory talk on sex from an unknown lecturer, chances are I’m going to be in judging mode (due to previously learn a lot about it) to see if what they’re saying is any good or not (as honestly, most tend to be garbage). If I’m listening to something by somebody I respect and trust, I’m going to be much more open even if I (think I already) know the material. So what I’ll do is basically quickly determine if this is somebody I want to listen to that knows their stuff, and then open my mind-learning sponge up a little or a lot depending on that. Don’t confuse having a beginner’s mind with lack of discernment, as something you learned before may be better than something new, and something new can replace an obsolete belief previously learnt.

I hold the belief there is always some­thing to learn

If they’re talking about say, “sex positions”, I may know too much about that subject, so I’ll classify it in my mind as “Greg’s Tantric Sex Style” instead. Since there’s an empty entry under that label in my mind, it’s not able to as easily compare and judge it to what I already know enough to put up a learning block. After the lesson is over, I’d then merge it with what I already know and leave or keep what I didn’t or did agree with. It’s only after the lesson that the comparison is useful, and when you should see what ideas and beliefs you wish to accept.

I hold the belief there is always something to learn from everybody, and there can be gems to find in the garbage that I’d miss if I were to simply dismiss the person or say “I know all this already, this is basic”. Most people never master the basics because their ego says they’re above the basics… which mean they haven’t mastered the basics. Ironic.


As I go through day-to-day life, as well as academic situations, keeping this in mind and using it has shown incredible results in gaining wisdom, as well as the added bonus of strengthening friendships. How so? Well if your buddy is helping you out with advice, and you interrupt him to say “I know”… he’s probably going to get defensive himself and tell you “no you don’t know, or else I wouldn’t be here telling you this”, or will eventually stop offering you advice since you’re a “know-it-all”.

Trust me, I used to be that guy… he wasn’t fun to give advice to. Don’t be that guy. I did some introspection and learned that there were some unconscious beliefs I was holding on to about being right and the defensiveness of being wrong or mistaken, and as soon as I released them, this whole process was 1000x easier.

Keeping a beginner’s mind throughout one’s whole life, always being a student AND teacher, will lead to the demise and eventually the death of “I know”.



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