Beginner’s Mind Revisited
Friday, May 12, 2017
Looking back, I chose a beginner’s way with clay when I had multiple small children at home and worked a couple of nights a week. Unusual for me, because I mostly opt for classes, conferences, instructional books, and informal teachers when I want to learn something new, I decided to let the clay teach me. Almost every day, sitting at, or standing by the clay table, I discovered the differences in clay’s malleability based on its water content and the temperature in the room. The clay showed me how thinly or thickly it could bend or support, what details might impress it, and what shapes emerged from my contact with it. I learned that by extending my hand with ceramic tools I could develop more details in the skin of the clay, giving its texture a more tooled look. I hand sculpted fan bowls, fountains with figures embedded in them that emerged and submerged, as if from the bedrock of life. I made free form bowls and urns, and other shapes that had utility or just played.
Lots of things didn’t work: would tear or break apart completely, collapse or crack, shrink too much, or even explode while firing. Some pieces simply looked awful or I abandoned. But in the longer run, I began to acquire some facility which I had not possessed at the beginning of my acquaintance with clays. Each type had its own personality as well as its optimal expressions as hand built objects. As a complete novice, I would greet the clay that awaited me in its moist plastic bag with interest and curiosity, never knowing what the process of discovery would yield—a masterpiece in the making or a total disaster, or something in between. But I recall the way in which, seamlessly, one idea, interacting with the clay, would yield another and another, as if carrying me along on an exciting journey.
During the hours that I moved my hands in clay, I felt refreshed, honed, concentrated, joyful, excited. The rest of my responsibilities, worries, and schedule receded. At the end of each session I felt strangely accomplished. In discovering an aesthetic object “hiding” in a lump of clay, I also discovered and fabricated myself. It did not matter if anyone else saw or admired these pieces, because the process itself provided so many rewards.
Perhaps those couple of years of clay-making provided me with pure self-indulgence. Although I sold a few pieces and exhibited a couple of them, I certainly didn’t make the kind of money one would have to make to legitimize such an enterprise. I did not become either a sculptor or a potter. But a curiosity and fearlessness when engaging with something new stayed with me. And a trust in the abilities of all things, living and inorganic, to reveal something about themselves to those who remain open and curious.
In a Psychology Today online article from November 8, 2008, Jay Winner, MD, considers the popular notion of ‘beginner’s mind.’ He writes, “Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning beginner’s mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. . .It’s an old Zen term made popular by Shunryu Suzuki. In his book he says, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’”
Both my experience, long ago, with clay, and my contemporary experiences, watching my two year old granddaughter explore piano keys and tricycle pedals for the first time, or play outside with a small square bucket of water, extended my thoughts about beginner’s mind.
With a larger bucket of water, Lili played with two differently shaped plastic cups and small rocks that fill my driveway. Every way in which a cup can turn—upside down, right side up, side angled—and enter water, with and without rocks, and for water to be poured from cup to cup to bucket to step to driveway, and to be recaptured or emptied (“More wahwer Gwama!”) enthralled her for a long time.
Over and over she repeated the variety of obtainable results, with slight alterations in how she manipulated water, cups, bucket, rocks. More amazingly, she had been sick with a cold and very cranky all morning, but her beginner’s fascination virtually eliminated her symptoms. Her eyes no longer hurt and her nose stopped running as fluently.
Lili opened my eyes to the realization that, as beginners, we don’t know what we don’t know, which removes a huge barrier to operating on an ambition or problem. We don’t see failure as an option. By persisting in our exploration, we often achieve some alternative results to just plain failure. I realized that the qualities of beginners go way beyond open and engaged awareness. Novices share an openness to new experience, awakened minds and senses, curiosity, fully operationalized capabilities unhampered by anticipatory worries, an experimental outlook, and potential which is activated. Beginners are pioneers and discoverers, connecting proactively with interpersonal, natural, material and other environments or contexts. As beginners, we make connections between ourselves and our world that enjoin us, creating new entities. Beginners are not only open and curious. Beginners act. Beginners operate on the world, and the connection between actor and that which is acted upon, co-creates new possibilities and new results.
How might we recreate the exciting experiences of beginner’s mind?
Thinking about a baby, whose mind is still pre-verbal, we see the desire to ‘speak’ of an object with hands and mouth. The first discovery of every baby’s world: Is it edible? Babies’ first naming involves discerning in what way an object may be taken into the body. The stomach? The eyes, the ears? Babies activate themselves to connect with ‘objects’ in the environment, both people and things, because forming relationships is fundamental to survival.
Around two years old, the intimate pleasure of knowing someone or something, of making it familiar (making it part of the family) announces itself verbally. ‘This is mama,’ ‘this is an apple,’ this is an owl, hoo, hoo!’ So beginner minds not only possess traits of openness and non-judgment, but are also powerfully potentiated. It is efficient for a mind gathering more and more information about the world to relegate what already has a name to a less active corner of consciousness.
The difficulty for us, later in our lives, if we do not want to sit saturated in boredom, glued to the TV, requires us to re-pleasure or to newly savor the familiar. Neither the novel nor the familiar are good or bad. We love both, the coziness of those people and places we know so well, and the stimulation of our senses with fresh vistas and new conversations.
As young children, our curiosity and ambition propelled our lips and tongues to tap or slither along our palettes and little teeth to taste the power of language; of words that bridged our eyes and noses to the rose in the garden, to the ocean, to the orange hat.
Try, now, to say a common word one hundred times. Watch it dance back into sounds. Taste it again as music, those consonants and vowels that bonded for the first time when we learned the word. To see and hear and experience things in their namelessness, to get lost in them and find our way out again. . . that is the dance the child, the poet, the artist does. To re-experience without presumption.
We are shape makers, translating whatever essences things have into identifiable or stranger sounds, sights, words, concepts. We make shapes with our mouths, our hands, and our imaginations. As beginners, we do not stand idly by in passivity. The leafing trees flirt with our senses and sensibilities and we flirt back with a refreshed mood, a line for a poem, a desire to share our delight with another person.
Our beginner’s minds are open, activated and operational, at work on the world in a second moment of brilliance. The first moment of brilliance, like an eye opening, receives the rose, the breeze, the wave, the roar. In this moment, a relationship is forged. The essences of a rose or a breeze can never be known as they really are, but we can be with them. Even nonverbal apprehension by sight or scent filters the essence of the as-yet-unnamed rose through our humanness, and more specifically through human embodiment. Whether we name, define, or classify a rose, or mindfully enliven our senses with its perfume and softness—leaving monkey chatter to its quiet corner in the back of the mind—our bodies—senses, feelings, conceptual minds—have consumed it. We have eaten and breathed in and touched to our hearts its gifts. We feel moved, awakened, aware, inspired, refreshed.
A phrase much quoted, by French novelist Marcel Proust, aptly describes this phenomenon of beginner’s mind: “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”
As beginners we tend to feel optimistic because we don’t know how much work is involved, we don’t have familiarity with the barriers to success; our expectations and standards may remain high for a while. New teachers expect a lot of their students and sometimes impact their classes by getting better results. New therapists bring zest and enthusiasm to their work with clients, young engineers believe their inventiveness can overcome knotty problems.
As we progress from eager and naïve beginnings to greater and greater mastery, we may take some things for granted, seeing with old eyes instead of with new eyes. But there exist ever new-within-the-old possibilities, which only a master’s eye can detect. These “new” elements constitute the nuances or variations on a theme that only those who know the theme intimately can detect as slight differences, unexpected outcomes, exceptions to rules, all the delicate filigree that only a master hand or mind can generate.
Camel Saddle: What are the most refreshing, fresh-eyed experiences you count on when everything seems stale or stressful? What can you challenge yourself to view from an open perspective, as if for the first time—your significant other? Your work? Your surroundings?