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Keeping a ‘beginner’s mind’ is key to learning

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Autumn has always been about new beginnings, moreso than even New Year’s Day. People return from summer vacation, students head back to school, and the days become shorter and cooler.

Although we tend to think of students as kids or young adults, an increasing number of older people are heading back to classes, as well. One of my friends went back to school recently to take an accounting program, and another person I know is returning to the University of Manitoba to complete a degree she had left unfinished a few years earlier, when she had decided to follow a different career path.

I applaud both of them for having the courage to jump back into the fray. It’s not easy to crack open the textbooks again after being away from the classroom for years, while still maintaining family and work responsibilities.

Aside from the cost and time involved, I think some people avoid further education simply because they are afraid of being novices again, and they’re worried about looking foolish. This beginner’s awkwardness, though, is something that we should embrace.

Remember when you first learned to ride a bike as a child? You fell off and got back on. You twisted the handlebars back and forth as you struggled to keep your balance. You fell off again. And, you were thrilled when you finally managed to pedal a short distance on your own (until you took another tumble).

That’s the Zen idea of a beginner’s mind — a mind free of preconceptions, that’s open to possibilities, and where failure is always an option. It’s a state of mind we tend to lose as we grow older.

When I hear about seniors who are still mentally and physically active, I believe it’s because they still have beginner’s minds. They pursue activities that continue to challenge them, and they constantly learn new things well past retirement.

Many people lack the novelty in life that characterized childhood. Every day is no longer a new adventure but rather a daily routine. Perhaps that’s why we sometimes feel like time is flying past. We become set in our ways and our day-to-day existence ends up compressing the units of time, as days melt into months and years and we wonder where the time has gone.

My two friends have set an inspiring example, and it makes me want to brush off the mental cobwebs, too. We should all follow their lead and sign up for a new learning experience, whether it’s a formal class, or learning a new hobby, sport, or activity. Whatever you choose, it should be something that challenges you — maybe even something that you think you’re bad at — because it will demand effort and focus, like when you first learned to ride a bike. And that effort, that struggle, is what life is all about.

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