Cultivating “Beginner’s Mind” at Centennial Cone

Centennial Cone Park in Jefferson County, Colorado

Note: This activity can be fun for kids, as well.

Location: Jefferson County, near Golden.

Directions: From Highway 93 in Golden, take Golden Gate Canyon Drive west approximately 8 miles. Turn left on Robinson Hill Road. Continue to Camino Perdido, which is the north access road into the park. The trailhead is approximately one mile to the south. You’ll see brown county signs directing you to Centennial Cone shortly after you turn onto Golden Gate Canyon Drive.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours or as long as you’d like it to be.

Route: Take the Travois Trail from the parking lot. After ¼ mile you can take the Evening Sun Loop or continue left—both paths return and continue to the Travois Trail. You will want to make this an out-and-back hike.

Access Notes: Hikers are NOT allowed at Centennial Cone on even numbered weekend days, only odd-numbered days, and certain trails in the park are closed seasonally. Check the Jefferson County Parks and Open Space website for details here. There are pit toilets at the parking lot and space for at least 20 cars. Limited shade exists, which makes this a great hike on cooler or overcast days or in the winter. Dogs are allowed on leash and bicycles are allowed on even-numbered weekend days.  Horses are permitted at any time. This is a multi-use trail on weekdays.

The Hike

Centennial Cone Open Space Park is a large conservation area owned by Jefferson County – the Travois Trail encircles the park in more than 15 miles of hills, meadows and forest. Most of the area is moderately hilly, with grassy knolls, low shrubs, and ponderosa pines dotting the tops of hills that seem to stretch out for miles in all directions. Large, old narrow-leafed cottonwoods grow along the drainage between hills near the trailhead.

In spring when the grasses turn deep green, this landscape may make you want to run through the grass and sing “The hills are alive!”, a-la Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music (ok, I just dated myself and that’s not good). In the fall, the grass turns a dull shade of cornhusk and grasshoppers take over the area with their hissy calls. This is a relatively low-traffic trail in every season except summer, and the lack of nearby road or air traffic also makes it a particularly quiet place to hike. The ringing in your ears may be louder than any sounds you’ll hear coming from the land, especially on a chilly morning when the grasshoppers are still warming their bodies.

The dirt and gravel trail is narrow and winds around the round hills in loose, wavy shapes, sometimes in shade if the sun is lower on the horizon, or in hot, full exposure if it’s near high noon. The ponderosas and the altitude don’t seem to provide much relief from the intensity of the sun on a clear day. The trails climb up the sides of hills and up to the summits, where a view extending from Denver to Lookout Mountain to Mt. Evans and the mountains west of Blackhawk frame an ocean of forested hills and grassy ravines. At some points on the trail when you’re ascending up, you may have a sense of vertigo as you look down at least 1,000 feet or more down the steep slopes. It can also be a feeling of expansiveness and spaciousness when you’re walking on these sections. There are plenty of boulders and rocky outcroppings to sit on just a few feet off-trail and relax or contemplate, or simply take a break in the shade of a small tree. The trail is well-maintained and easy to negotiate when it’s dry.

Beginner’s Mind

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

In Buddhism, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to a state of openness and curiosity about a subject, devoid of judgment, expectations or preconceptions. It is about throwing out everything you think you know and allowing yourself to experience the world anew.

To illustrate this concept, there’s a well-known parable about a scholarly monk who was seeking a master teacher so he could become his student and learn more about enlightenment. The monk approached the master and during his interview, bragged about how intelligent and sharp he was and how he had showed up so many other teachers with his knowledge. The master teacher just sat and listened and went about making some tea.  As the monk was speaking, the teacher began pouring the tea into their cups. He kept pouring tea into the monk’s cup until it began to spill over the brim and onto the monk’s lap, burning him. The young monk jumped up and exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” The teacher simply smiled and replied, “Your mind is like this cup. It’s spilling over with ignorance and already too full to receive any new teaching. You are wasting your time here.” And he sent the young monk on his way.

The parable demonstrates that when we think we know everything there is to know—about a person, a thing, an idea or a place—then we lose the ability to receive new information and experiences. When we close ourselves off from the world by judging it and then dismissing it, we actually shrink our lives.

In reference to hiking, there may have been times in the past when you looked at an area or viewed a photo of a particular hiking trail and thought, “I don’t like that kind of landscape. That looks like a boring place to hike. I don’t want to go there.” Or, how many times have you met a person and decided you knew everything you needed to know about them within the first hour or even the first five minutes of saying, “Hello”?

The common term for this in the Western world is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or, “There’s more to that than meets the eye.” In Eastern teachings, beginner’s mind means there’s more to the world than you can ever know. Therefore, when you approach the world with an attitude of “not knowing,” you can be constantly, and sometimes pleasantly, delighted by what you experience.

When you make quick judgments about the world and close yourself off from truly experiencing life with beginner’s mind, you’re channel surfing. You are not fully engaged, not present, and unable to experience the joy of getting to know someone or something with the full breadth and depth of your soul. You sit in your car in rush hour, feeling aggravated and bored, not bothering to look around at the cars next to you or see the trees and plants that are growing on the side of the road, or the way the clouds look as they pass over the sky, not expecting to see anything new or interesting or worth your attention. But there is always something to new to see, experience and feel.

The Activity

Think about how long you’d like to hike on this trail and split your hike up into two halves. This activity is best when it’s done in the middle, at the turnaround point of an out-and-back walk. Find a place to sit comfortably for about 15 minutes with your journal and a pen.

Look around where you’re sitting and find an object to hold in your hand. This could be a rock, twig, plant, or pinecone. Whatever you’re drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a natural object, but it’s better if it’s something you don’t look at every day.

While you hold the object in your hand, pretend that you’re an alien that’s just landed on Earth. You know nothing about this planet or its inhabitants. Your planet is nothing like this planet. Therefore, you have no idea about this object is. You don’t know what it’s used for. You don’t know if it’s dangerous or benign, alive or dead, young or old.

Look at your object in this way, with “beginner’s mind” for a few minutes, until you feel ready to write something down about it. Spend time noting its texture, its weight, its smell, its integrity, its taste.

What do you notice about this object that surprises you?

Now, after a few minutes, you may reach a point of boredom. You may think you already know everything there is to know about this object. You’ve been looking at it for a couple of minutes and there’s nothing else to figure out. Or is there? This is the point at which we usually shut ourselves off from the world. Our minds are at first curious, then quickly become bored after reaching a conclusion after some analysis (sometimes this analysis takes microseconds).

Go back to your object and look at it deeper.  Ask it what its name is. Where did it come from? What does it do? Who are its friends?

What else comes up at this point for you when observing and experiencing this object with beginner’s mind?

When you’re ready to hike back to the trailhead, think about the way you’ve looked at this common, perhaps “mundane” object with beginner’s mind. Can you look at the land surrounding the trail, where you just hiked, with the same sort of beginner’s mind? You’ll be going in a different direction, so things will look a little different than they did in the last hour or two, but what else will you notice that’s different?

When I facilitated a hike with a small group and engaged in this activity, the participants reported that they noticed a keener, more heightened sense of presence and awareness on the return. Some noticed more color. Some noticed flowers and plants along the trail they couldn’t believe they didn’t see before. Some actually found themselves curious about textures, and touched many objects while walking. In general, most of the hikers said they felt more at peace on the hike back because their minds were not as filled with chatter.

Cultivating beginner’s mind is a practice—it’s something you need to do often to really get a sense of its power and potential. It’s not something you can do once and then expect to live your life differently. But fortunately, this activity can be done anywhere, on any trail, any time of year.