I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of beginner’s mind, and its importance in life and art. It can be frustrating, especially as an adult, to learn a new skill or change patterns of behaviour that have become second nature.
I’m teaching myself to weave right now and as soon as things take a wrong turn, which they invariably do, I hear the negative self-talk starting. Why am I trying this? I’m too old to learn something new. I can’t do this technique I admire, so I’m no good at weaving. You get the picture.
Learning something new is even more difficult when you are accountable to no one but yourself. When we create, this is often the case. No one is looking over my shoulder when I weave. I’m not in a class. And, quite frankly, my family has zero interest in the techniques. Just the finished products.
It’s up to me to push myself into new territory, despite the negative self-talk. When we were kids, if we were lucky, we had a parent, teacher, or coach cheer us on, talk us through disappoint and failure, and make us keep going even on the days when we didn’t want to. If you are a parent, you likely do the same with your own kids. You know it’s okay for them to make mistakes and try things out.
But, how forgiving are we when it comes to ourselves? We need to apply that same compassion and understanding when learning something new. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Let mistakes happen and learn from them. Beginner’s mind helps us remember that learning something new is a journey. We need to give ourselves a break when things are taking longer to learn then we think they should.
Learning something new takes a lot of energy – mental, emotional, and sometimes physical. But, the better we get at something, the less energy it takes us to do. So, it helps to remember to fail upwards. That is, when we do make mistakes, we learn from them. We avoid doing the same thing again, and make it easier for us next time.
A good analogy is the unalome. It is a symbol from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions that represents the path to enlightenment. That path is never straight, but twists and turns, and goes in unexpected directions.
The path continues this way for some time before straightening out, and finally, to enlightenment. There are points along the path where you even go backwards. Reminding ourselves of this, helps us remember that when learning something new it will be some time before that path starts to straighten out. And, some time before what we are learning becomes second nature. Practicing beginner’s mind along these winding paths helps us stay curious, instead of frustrated.
When things don’t go they way we want, look at it like a scientist would. Just observe the results. Keep what worked, discard what didn’t, and learn from it. In life and art, commit to try new things, see what happens. Beginner’s mind allows everything to become an experiment. There are no failures, only discoveries.
Beginner’s mind can help relieve the enormous pressure we often put on ourselves. Pressure to do something perfectly the first time we try it. Pressure to not make a mistake, or embarrass ourselves. Except if we aren’t willing to be a beginner, there will be no new discoveries. So, embrace beginner’s mind and see where it takes you. Your life and your art will all the richer when you do.