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Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind
Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

Entering the Cloud of Unknowing

Friday, March 24, 2023

Drawing on teachings from The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century text on contemplative prayer, Father Richard describes the necessity of a “beginner’s mind”:   

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is always saying you’ve got to balance your knowing with a willingness not to know. The mind of itself, the brain in itself, is incapable of wisdom. It’s only at an experiential level of existence that we know something, but that knowing is not subject to telling. I think that’s why we don’t like it. It gives us no ego rewards. We can’t prove it. We can’t measure it. We can’t convince anyone else that we’re right.  

What the author says is that first we have to enter the Cloud of Forgetting—to forget all our certitudes, all our labels, all our explanations, just forget them! They are all a waste of time. They are nothing but our ego projecting itself and announcing itself. It has nothing to do with objective reality. If the world doesn’t learn this kind of humility, what we’re calling beginner’s mind, I think we’re in trouble. And we’re seeing it at the highest levels—the absolute arrogance of “knowing” and of being convinced we do know and no one else knows like we know. To think the United States has often been willing to stand alone against all the other nations of the world. We’re so convinced that we know, it’s frightening.  

The author of The Cloud teaches that after we enter into the Cloud of Forgetting, letting go of our hurts and our labels, then we must go into the Cloud of Unknowing, where we actually don’t need to label anymore; we don’t need to know that we know. I think the biblical word for that–and hear it now in whole new way—is faith. Many of us have heard that word ever since we were children. That’s why Jesus idealizes faith so much and congratulates people who have it. It’s this willingness to live with a certain degree of humility. 

When the ego invests itself in its knowing, it is convinced that it has the whole picture. At that point, growth stops. The journey stops. Nothing new is going to happen to us after that point. The term we’re using here, “beginner’s mind,” comes from Buddhism. For Buddhists, it seems to refer to an urgent need to remain open, forever a student. A beginner’s mind always says, “I’m a learner. I’ve got more to learn.” It has to do with humility before reality, and never assuming that I understand. If there are fifty thousand levels of the mystery, maybe I’m at level forty-five. Maybe there’s more that needs to show itself to me. Can you imagine what a different world it would be if we all lived with that kind of humility?  


Adapted from Richard Rohr, Beginner’s Mind (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2002). Available as CD and MP3 download.   

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, Winter Bird. Jenna Keiper, Mystic. Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

There is humility in accepting how much we don’t know. 

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