Musing Moon Mystery School
Articles & Essays


© Kenneth S. Cohen 2009

Note: A version of this article appeared in Experience Life Magazine, July 2004. Reprinted here with permission of the author. For more information on the work of Kenneth Cohen, visit

As our society becomes more complex and quicker paced, order and routine become more important for efficient functioning. We can't get away from routines: 7 AM at the gym, the kids off to school, 9-5 at work, and meal times determined by the clock rather than by biology. The problem is that routines create mental ruts. In large corporations, new employees often have the most enthusiasm and innovative ideas but without, unfortunately, the power or influence to put them into effect. As people become expert at their jobs, routine substitutes for creativity. Rigid patterns of behavior also make relationships stale. Rather than risking the unexpected-- re-igniting the very spark that is the source of passion-- we conform more and more to how we are expected to behave, or perhaps even worse, how we expect ourselves to behave. Isn't it odd that although we know that the law of life is change, we feel obliged to be who we were?

Yet, it is never too late to recover the "beginner's mind," a term from Zen Buddhism that means to experience life in a way that is refreshing and unburned by the past. A person with beginner's mind feels renewed moment by moment. He or she recovers the freedom, spontaneity, and joy of childhood, when the world was always new, and a day seemed like an eternity.

In the early 90s I was asked to represent Chinese medicine at an international alternative medical conference in Basel, Switzerland. During my keynote speech I described a new and innovative school for health education that I had founded: The School of Agnosia. Agnosia is Greek for "unknowing" -- not ignorance, but rather getting rid of superficial or excess knowledge and reclaiming simplicity as a virtue. I described the School of Agnosia as a university without walls, a place for self-paced learning with the goal of decredentializing. We have many schools that offer degrees such as the B.A. M.B.A., M.S., Ph.D., and M.D., but what do people do who want to get rid of degrees? The School of Agnosia will certify all graduates as being free of credentials and titles. "Our alumni," I informed my distinguished audience, "have normal sized heads and refuse to play games based on rank or one- upmanship. We believe in the innate worth of all human beings and the importance of looking at life freshly, with a beginner's mind." I received warm applause. When the lecture was over, to my surprise and amusement, a young German man met me as I descended the stage. "Von Zing you forgot to mention, Herr Cohen, is ze address of ze shcool und how to register." The unfortunate lad was quite serious.
In The Importance of Living, author Lin Yutang said, "Culture is essentially a product of leisure. The sage, therefore, is the one who loafs gracefully." This philosophy is not so different from that which advises us to "consider the lilies of the field." And both viewpoints are rarely considered in today's fast paced, information age. Have we lost both perspective and priority? In our quest for personal and national progress, we have forgotten the art of looking at life with fresh eyes, experiencing people with an open and unprejudiced mind. I am not seriously suggesting that we get rid of degrees or standards of competency. I am, however, advocating a return to some very ancient and universal values.
Wisdom may be not so much a matter of learning new things but, rather, of seeing anything, whether old or new, with new eyes and in a new way. "The wise person," said Mencius (4th Century BCE), " is one who doesn't lose the child's heart and mind." Information makes us jaded. We become expert at the tools of our trade, but in the process, we may lose some of our enjoyment, appreciation, and enthusiasm.

Practice Silence

Appreciation and knowledge need not be mutually exclusive. The key to the beginner's mind is not allowing words to dominate your mind or to substitute for nonverbal experience. Language is like a piece of transparent graph paper. Looking through its lattice work-- with boxes of slightly different dimensions if you speak Inuit, Chinese, Arabic, or English-- the world appears to be broken up into boxes. But the boxes are an attribute of the words. Take the graph paper away, and you will see that the world itself is not so divided. Nor is it, on the other hand, a homogenized mess of oneness. The world simply is. How refreshing to look at a sunset, to hear a stream, to enjoy a work of art, without internal chatter. To put it simply, to increase enjoyment of life, practice silence.
It is not difficult to understand the difference between talking "about" and direct experience. The philosopher Alan Watts suggested playing the game of "Vish" with a friend. Each of you looks up a favorite word in the dictionary. Find a synonym and look up that word. Continue looking up synonyms, until you return to the original word. The first one to return to the original word exclaims, "Vish," short for "vicious circle." You have proven that words are based on words. Although we know that somewhere down the line words must be grounded in an experience-- a thing, a perceived attribute, yet we have become so mesmerized by their power, that few of us are aware of where words start. Stuck in the game of Vish, the mind goes around in circles.
Equally problematic, words give the illusion that life is fixed and unchanging. After all, words do not change. For communication to occur, they must have relatively fixed definitions. But life is always changing. You can't step twice into the same river. Words symbolize life, but words are not life. The word "apple" is not the same as an apple. Taste one and you will understand!

Painting With Words

To appreciate the difference between thought and experience, try the following experiment either alone or with any number of friends. From either indoors or outdoors, look at a relatively fixed object or scene, perhaps a house plant, a tree, or a building. Describe it out loud. If you are with a group, take turns, adding to the description, like painting a picture in words. "It is green." one person says. "The grass is swaying in the breeze." And it's OK to be poetic, "The breeze makes a sound like the ocean." Keep painting the picture, until you or the group are satisfied. Now, gently close your eyes, and practice inner silence. No words, no pictures, no thought. A human being rather than a human doing. If you spent five minutes describing the scene in words, spend an equal amount of time in silence. Then open your eyes, and look at the same scene again. What is the difference between your experience now and the earlier word-painting? Are you surprised? Do you still believe that skill with words always improves understanding?
I have performed this experiment with thousands of students, and always with similar results. People are astonished at the clarity that proceeds inner silence. They perceive greater depth and texture, sharper lines, brighter colors, and feel more connected to what they are seeing. Contrary to what our "headucational" systems would have us believe, appreciation and perception are honed. Beginners sometimes know more than experts.

The Way of Qigong:
Body, Breath, and Mind

"Concentrating your energy and developing suppleness,
can you become a child?"
--Lao Zi, Taoist Philosopher, 500 BCE

Who wouldn't wish for the wisdom of age and the vitality of youth? The problem is how to get there. In ancient China, doctors and Taoists developed a wonderful system of exercise and meditation designed to improve health and awaken the beginner's mind. It is called Qigong (pronounced chee gung), literally "life energy work." Qigong is practiced as a daily exercise routine, before but not instead of your workout at the gym.
Although there are many styles of qigong, they are all based on a practice called Standing Meditation, a way of standing like a tree with deep roots and tall, supple branches. Standing Meditation is said to improve posture, balance, strength, and vitality. It also makes the mind quiet and alert. The practice is based on "the Three Tunings"-- gently adjusting the body, breath, and mind so that they make clear and harmonious "music."

Tuning the Body

Stand with the feet shoulder width apart, the knees slightly bent. Your feet are rooted to the ground, like a tree. Your arms are in a round shape in front of your chest, as though embracing a beach ball. Your spine is straight, but not stiff. Imagine that it is stretched long; the crown of your head is reaching gently for the sky while your tailbone is reaching for the earth. Your breast bone is relaxed, neither depressed nor distended. Your shoulders are dropped, sitting downwards. If you have a problem with tight or raised shoulders, imagine that your elbows are heavy, pulling the shoulders down. Most important, relax; use minimum effort as you stand. Stand with stability, yet so delicately that you may imagine that if a feather landed on your head, your knees would buckle because of the added weight!

Tuning the Breath

To purify the air and conserve moisture, breathe through your nose. As you inhale, the abdomen gently expands. As you exhale it gently and naturally retracts. No need to force the breath. Just allow it to enter and leave, effortlessly. (Note: According to the medicine of both East and West, abdominal breathing is the healthiest way to breathe. It sends the most oxygen to your cells, relaxes the muscles, improves brain function, and, because of the movement of the diaphragm, massages the internal organs.) Think of the breath becoming slow, long and continuous, deep like the ocean, and smooth as silk.

Tuning the Mind

Once your posture is balanced and your breath is slow and quiet, then naturally, your mind can become calm. Qigong masters have discovered that the quickest way to change your mind is to change your body. You can't try to calm the mind; that's like trying to calm water by pounding on it. Rather, the waves of thought settle by themselves as a consequence of posture, breathing, and an attitude of self-acceptance and attentiveness.

Practice Standing Meditation once a day before breakfast, or at least 2 hours after. Hold the posture for a comfortable length of time, never straining or forcing. Most beginners can stand for about five minutes. Week by week increase the length of practice. Within a few months you should be able to stand for twenty minutes at a stretch. When you finish Standing, rock your weight gently front to back, side to side, and in circles to relieve any stagnant feeling in the feet. Imagine that as you rock your weight, the ground is giving you a foot massage.

Preserving Life

"People are valued for the amount of information they command." That was the opinion of a web designer, as we conversed about ethics in the information age. How sad, I thought, that people are valued for information rather than for their generosity, parenting skills, kindness, and courage. Have we wandered so far? Qigong, and ancient contemplative practices like it, are important and more needed today than at any time in the past. Information is only of value if we have the wisdom to use it properly. Experiencing life, enjoying life, and preserving life all require a mind freed of selfishness, preconception, and prejudice-- a beginner's mind.

Kenneth S. Cohen, M.A., is a world-renowned health educator and Qigong Master. He is the author of "The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing" (Ballantine Books), "Honoring The Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing" (Ballantine Books), best-selling Sounds True® audio and video courses, and more than 200 journal articles. In 1993, Ken won the leading international award in energy medicine: the Alyce and Elmer Green Award for Innovation and Lifetime Achievement.
For more info on Ken, including his teaching schedule, please visit:

Reprinted by permission.

Back to the Musing Moon Home Page

"...when someone identifies himself, not with his self-image or his thinking process but with the flowers, the snow and all manifestations of the life force, he can do the things of which Rolling Thunder speaks."
'Rolling Thunder', Doug Boyd



Copyright 2009 Rich Goodhart/Beginner's Mind Productions.
All rights reserved to Rich Goodhart and Octagonal Madness