POSTS & PROMPTS 3: Embracing Beginner's Mind

Gallup Polls asked me recently to fill out a career strength survey. In it, I was asked how many different jobs I've had in my adult working life. I started to count on my fingers. Teaching in Vallejo, teaching in the private school in El Cerrito, teaching in Berkeley, my parent education business, tutoring...1...2...3...4...13. Yeah, 13. I even surprised myself and I was there

Each of those were jobs I chose to begin and end. I've never been fired, but I've definitely left.

Apparently, I'm not afraid of starting anew.  

Being a beginner is exciting. Nerve-wracking. My stomach tightens just imagining it. Everything is in hyper-focus. Every nerve-ending on high alert. I love that newness. The possibilities, fresh opportunities, the unfolding. And yet, it's not easy.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
— Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

I can still feel the excitement of the first day of a school year. I had spent weeks, even months, preparing for it. New name tags for my students, new bulletin board displays. So many new lesson plans written, projects dreamt of, ideas percolating. I also used to get hives every year the day before the first day of school. For 10 years straight, the night before school started: Fine rash of hives all over my body. 

I can recall the euphoria mixed with apprehension that came with first dates. It was hard not to think to the future and the possibilities of connection. New guy, new outfit, potential for a whole new relationship. I used to shake uncontrollably on first dates. "Are you cold?" he'd ask. No, just brand new scared to death again! I had teeth chattering shakes all night. Oh that looks suave!

Being a beginner is required if we're going to have fresh experiences in life. Sometimes we are true beginners. We try something for the very first time. And sometimes we're beginners again at something we know very well, but we choose to step in with fresh eyes.

I think what Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki was getting at was that being expert at something means we stop seeing and feeling the exquisite sharpness of an experience. Once we are accustomed to something we go into autopilot to some degree. Many details are glossed over, assumptions are made. We take the experience for granted and assume...assume we know what to do, what to expect, how it will unfold. Our expectations are our experiences, rather than being open to what might occur at each moment. There's a big difference in those two experiences.

Another aspect to beginner's mind that is important to me as a teacher and expressive arts guide, is that once you consider yourself an expert it's easy to forget how difficult and nerve-wracking it is to be that beginner. So, putting yourself into experiences where you are forced to be a beginner offers you the opportunity to become reacquainted with yourself as a Beginner. That is quite eye-opening.

Last August I began an expressive arts certification program that began with a week-long intensive training at Asilomar. The focus of my cohort's first training was on authentic movement, one of the expressive arts modalities that we are learning about. I've never done much with movement. I've danced at clubs and folk dance classes, I've pranced around my house to music blaring on the stereo. But I've never done modern movement, you know, listen to music and just move your body. 

During my drive down to Pacific Grove every fiber of my being wanted to turn around and run home. "You can just sit it out. You don't have to do it. Watch what everyone else does. Tell them your back hurts." My mind worked hard to devise exit strategies for the movement activities.

Give me an art studio and a classroom full of students. Give me a song to sing in front of 300 people. Give me a part in a play and a stage to act on. Give me a canvas and some paints. Give me a blog and a story to tell. I have absolutely no problem with those expressive experiences. But movement, oh my! Please don't ask that of me!

I didn't turn around and run home. I went through all of the programming at our week's training and I learned so many valuable things: Being a beginner is hard. Being a beginner is anxiety-producing. Being a beginner means feeling awkward and clumsy and self-conscious. Being a beginner means there's nowhere to go but up.

Being a beginner gave me greater empathy for my students, especially the ones who arrive at the studio feeling drawn to a creative experience but full of anxiety about how to use the materials. And it also reminded me that we are all beginners if we want to be. Starting over means opening the door to new awarenesses about ourselves and those around us.

What calls to you about embracing beginner’s mind?

If you'd like to art journal in response to this topic, I invite you to download my art journaling prompt (button below) for some inspiration. I like to think of art journaling prompts as little shovels, helping you to dig deeper into yourself. 

This is part of my weekly series of blog posts and art journal prompts. I hope you'll use these to enrich your art journaling practice. For more ideas about how to art journal, check out my Art Journaling Nuts & Bolts video tutorial series. Or, sign up for an in-person class or onlineecourse with me!