Professor Isaac and the lesson of beginner’s mind

Among the many amazing things about babies is their insatiable curiosity.  There seems to be no end to their desire to explore and test the world around them. And who can blame them?  Everything is new.  Many things are shiny.  Some even light up.  But the more you hang out with babies– especially ones around Isaac’s age, the more you notice that the objects of their infatuation aren’t exactly random.  Rather, if the 11-month old you know is anything like ours, (s)he will revisit the same objects and repeat identical actions time and time again.  This is often cute and certainly admirable; sticktoitiveness is a good quality, after all.  Babies learn about the world around them by exploring objects, testing new actions, and then consistently repeating those actions over and over … and over … again.  They are, if you like, our world’s youngest research scientists.  

Like any good scientist, Isaac sets out to prove the reliability of his experiments through testing and re-testing his hypotheses.  If I drop the cup this time, will it go ‘thud’ on the floor just like it did the last 79 times?  If I bang on the mirror, will my identical twin inside the mirror replicate my actions precisely?  If I press the buttons on the phone will it call Bangalore again?  Yes, the mousepad tasted spongey when I ate it before, but what will it taste like this time?  And this time? What about now? How do external conditions affect my hypothesis?  What happens to my experiment when it’s sunny outside?  Dark inside?  Raining? When it comes to testing hypotheses, one can never be too thorough.

As I was saying earlier, we have come to recognize that Isaac’s explorings aren’t exactly random.  There are particular objects of his attention.  We like to refer to these as his research interests.  As scientists’ research interests change over time, so too have our little professor’s.  Here’s a quick synopsis:

6 months:  Rattles; Dropping things; Eating paper
7 months:  Toilet paper; Opening and closing doors
8 months:  Knocking books off the shelf (particular penchant for Mike Royko); Flipping pages; Buttons that light up or make noise
9 months:  Shaking his head ‘no’; The washing machine
10 months: Cordless phones; Mobile phones; Clapping; Taking out the cable card
11 months: See research interests at ten months.  Oh, and the washing machine and head shaking.

Isaac’s ‘taking out the cable card’ experiment is particularly distressing for Dan, and never more so than during Match of the Day, when highlights from the week’s football games are shown, or during the Sunday morning Andrew Marr Show.  Dan has tried telling Isaac, firmly, ‘NO,’ but Dan’s ‘firm’ is most other people’s ‘polite,’ so it usually comes out in a tone that might be better used to say, ‘um, Isaac, if it isn’t too much trouble, I mean, if you kindly could refrain from… I know you enjoy removing the cable card, sweetheart, but Daddy would like to watch Match of the Day.  Or not.  Actually, I’ll just flip through The Islington Tribune instead.  That is, if it’s okay with you?”

While it’s fun to razz Dan, he doesn’t really deserve the blame.  My ‘no’ is notably firmer, louder and scarier than his, and while I may at least get Isaac to pause and gaze at me quizzically (often with a droplet of drool poised and ready to parachute down from his lower lip), he inevitably goes right back to his broadcast interruption, as if to say, “sorry, Mommy, but learning ‘NO’ will have to wait.  Any scientist worth his salt must be thorough.”

Without going on at length about Isaac’s experiments, I will share the most important lesson that I have learned from watching him in the lab:  To try, as best I can, to approach my life with “beginner’s mind.”  Using beginner’s mind means attempting to appreciate all of my experiences– even routine ones– as new.  When brushing my teeth, for example, I might be tempted to completely tune out; after all, I know exactly what to expect: bristles, foam, a tingling sensation on the tongue, swishing and swashing, and finally, a minty aftertaste.  I can predict what tooth brushing will feel like this morning based on my past experiences of tooth brushing, and in this way my mind is free to float to any one of the myriad things that are clamoring for its attention:  work, what to make for dinner and laundry, to name just a few on the hit parade.

But what if I took a cue from Isaac, and applied beginner’s mind to my next tooth brushing experience?  I might notice different things about it.  I might notice that today’s experience of tooth brushing feels decidedly different from yesterday’s.  I might decide to slow down, play with it, experiment.  What happens if I leave the brush on my tongue for a long time?  What happens if I gurgle?

As it turns out, we’re also exploring beginner’s mind in my mindfulness class (don’t you just love when different strands of your life come together?!?).  Over several of the weeks, our homework assignment has been to do a routine task mindfully.  So far I have attempted taking a shower, flossing and brushing my teeth mindfully.  It isn’t easy, or always fun, but I will say that a lot more happens when you pay attention.  You realize that the routine experiences in your life have more to offer than you might expect, and often, that you can appreciate them in new ways.  More importantly, you gently encourage yourself to stay in the present moment.  Using mindfulness to stay in the present can be extremely valuable, especially when it keeps you from letting your mind wander down well-grooved paths of worry or rumination.

So, the next time you’re brushing your teeth or doing the laundry or taking out the trash (rubbish), give beginner’s mind a try.

Try washing the dishes to wash the dishes, rather than washing the dishes in order to have the dishes be washed.  A subtle switch, but one that can make all the difference.

Isaac testing mousepad sponginess quotient

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11 Responses to Professor Isaac and the lesson of beginner’s mind

  1. Lindsay says:

    So much to learn from babies! Love the blog and will link it to mine. Talk soon! xoxo

  2. jerri says:

    This is awesome, Ali! Loved the Dan/Ali “no” descriptions. I’m so glad you started a blog and you are a great writer! Thanks for letting me know. I will link you to my blog if you don’t mind–that will help me to look you up frequently, as well. Love to Dan and Isaac-Bear! 🙂

  3. ari says:

    so glad you’re writing, ari. you are so talented. and have so much to share and say. my mindful flossing did not last long at all. but that’s why they call it practice!

  4. Ariel Kalil says:

    If you haven’t read it already, you would enjoy reading a terrific book by the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnick called “The Scientist in the Crib.”

  5. Aine says:

    Ali – You write so well and I am so looking forward to reading more about Professor Isaac. He’s a wise one stopping dad watching Tottenham. I predict great things for that boy.

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