The Mindful Officer: Cultivating the “Beginner’s Mind”

By getting back to our naturally curious roots, we can improve service & public safety

By Shawn Perron  |   Nov 28, 2016
Does your sense of "been there, done that" prevent you from actually perceiving reality?

For more than 2,000 years Zen teachers and their students have used a “beginner’s mind” approach in living peacefully and, at times, in training for battle or combat. Beginners mind—or “shoshin,” as it is called by Zen Buddhist practitioners—teaches or trains one to negotiate life with an attitude of open-mindedness, curiosity, and without preconceived ideas or thoughts.

For samurais and modern fencing students “beginner’s mind” is often taught to greatly improve reaction and response to attack or aggression. In simple terms we have all heard before that action is faster than reaction. So in response to a threat of attack there is no time for having to readjust or re-act (correcting a mistake in anticipated directional attack).

Another easy comparison or obvious parallel is through observation of a child or recollection to when you were a child. Everything is new and interesting. As kids, we had no preconceived thoughts or ideas to the spoil that bright, glorious discovery of all new things.  For most of us that was the last time our natural form of beginner’s mind was working for us.

Getting Back to It

You may even remember the first five or so years as young officer, how it was hard to remove the permanent smile from our faces. Back then we all wondered, “Why are all these older street vets so grumpy and unhappy?” Perhaps now we feel a bit more like the rolls have changed. Some aspects of practicing beginners mind could help raise the level of our performance.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”–Shunryu Suzuki

The first time I was deemed an “expert witness” in court, I was thinking, “That’s some pretty cool, stuff.” Right? The thing about experts, or those who consider themselves as such, is that once “expertise” has been conferred, learning slows or ceases altogether. The expert mind becomes constrained or at least conceptually limited. Experts are supposed to know it all (at least much more than the lay person) about whatever their subject or field may be.

In police work, we don’t have that luxury. It’s the nature of crime itself to evolve. Trends change—and often in response to an effective police response. So just when we think we’re getting good … they change tactics. So new ways of looking at and preventing crime or violence is a good thing. We often say, we need a “fresh set of eyes” to take a look at this.  Or how about “beginner’s luck”?

Sometimes an expert mind can hinder or obstruct an otherwise obvious solution. I am not much of a golfer, but be it golf or (for me) competition shooting, the more we know (or think we know) about fundamentals the worse our swing or shooting gets. Then you take a few weeks off with no serious competition, and then your first tournament or shoot back you wind up on top of the leaderboard.

Looking at problems we face from as many different aspects as possible usually yields innovation and success. Cops usually don’t like change much, but change is what brings us new opportunities. Practicing beginner’s mind can help us adjust our perspectives.

Applying beginner’s mind to our social interactions and in relationships also makes good sense. It could help bridge the gaps between police and those we serve. In the arena of communication the benefits of beginner’s mind are obvious. Since we serve a diverse public, our long-accepted “been-their-done-that” attitude is closely being scrutinized if not phased out.

Our oath to serve others includes anyone and everyone—regardless of our perceived differences in race, culture, sexual preference and identity, religion, and economic backgrounds. We all have some degree of bias and prejudice, which is quite normal. Denying it would be dishonest. When we approach persons we are familiar with (on duty) or contact on a regular basis, we tend to adjust our demeanor and tactics based on totality of what has occurred with them in the past.

Example: Those we know from violent encounters or known mental consumers, we may approach “hot,” thus escalating the situation unnecessarily.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, someone we have known to be peaceful and non-threatening in the past may be met with less caution and lower level of awareness or concern. Either of those situations can go downhill very fast. Simply by approaching each in the same open-minded alertness can be more advantageous and safe.

Conclusion

You will find that approaching everyone with beginner’s mind the ideas and circumstances that you encounter will cultivate greater compassion and concern for those you meet and serve. This creates lasting connections and relationships between the police and community. You may find the excitement and enthusiasm closely resembling that which you experienced years ago.         

The outcome is a return of smiles to your face. A smile not only benefits ones own health, smiling is the most universally recognized facial expression. A smile peacefully negotiates many of the barriers we bump into each day, such as language, culture, race, socio-economics, and other distractions from the present moment.       

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Shawn Perron

Shawn Perron

Sgt. Shawn Perron has worked as a police officer in Texas for 22 years. He regularly attends mindfulness retreats and has studied meditation and eastern philosophy at many Zen Centers throughout the U.S. Sgt. Perron writes in his spare time and voluntarily teaches basic mindfulness techniques.