Be Brave, Be a Beginner

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

~ Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

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.

A long time ago I was a classroom teacher. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first day of a new school year. I’d spent months preparing for it. New name tags for my students, new bulletin board displays. So many 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 ten years straight, the night before school started: a fine rash of hives all over my body.

I can also 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 and scared to death again! I had teeth chattering shakes all night. Oh, that looked 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.

The other day in my studio, I was teaching a group of people how to carve their own rubber stamps. I guided them to start with a very simple pattern, my intention being that if we start with something simple we learn the technique without fear and can focus on just the carving, not being invested in the design. Then, once we have the technique down, we can attempt something confidently that’s more complex and detailed.

But one student struggled with simplifying. Her designs, one after another, were complicated—and beautiful—and I noticed that she was beginning to feel defeated. Her confidence and pride around drawing elaborate shapes and patterns wasn’t allowing her to back up and create a beginner’s design.

This experience pushed her to the edge of her comfort zone.

When, finally, I laid out the steps for her one at a time, and guided her to complete her first stamp, she happily “dug in,” carving many lovely stamps and had a satisfying afternoon of art making.

We get comfortable in what we know how to do. Being competent lends itself to confidence. Being a beginner means putting aside that confidence and control and letting in the possibility of making mistakes, making a fool of oneself, and possibly even failing. Why would you want to go through that if you could be competent, confident and comfortable doing something else?

But, being expert at something means we may 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.

What are you thinking about trying out as a beginner? A new painting technique, a new foreign language, a new instrument? Have you noticed what’s holding you back?

If we’re not willing to be a beginner now and then, we miss out on new opportunities and experiences. It can be difficult and nerve-wracking to be a beginner, no question. But, becoming reacquainted with yourself as a beginner is quite eye-opening. Starting with something new means opening the door to seeing the world with new eyes.


This piece originally appeared in Sebastopol Living Magazine’s September 2018 issue.

Susie MillerComment