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How to become expert at beginner’s mind

Researcher at the CDC

Last year, I switched from saying “I can’t do art” to “I am a beginner.”

I’m in that lovely stage of discovery, in which I’m not expected to know anything. I have room to play, make mistakes, be curious, and ask questions (even “dumb” ones).

This honeymoon period, however, won’t last forever. At some point, I’ll know a few things and no longer be a card-carrying beginner. That’s when I’ll need to deliberately navigate between my expertise (knowing) and beginner’s mind (unknowing).

Let’s not bash experts

The world of late has not been kind to experts. Social media blurs the distinction between experts and the grossly opinionated. Sorry, but not all voices are created equal when it comes to understanding the risks and benefits of a third round of the Covid vaccine. I’m voting for expert immunologists and public health officials, with their training and evidence, rather than Uncle Bob on my Facebook feed.

The experts whom I admire most, however, are those, like Einstein, who can periodically step out of their years of training to reenter the land of unknowing. In this new land, they are free again to ask questions, experiment, make mistakes, and play. Whenever they choose, they can return to the world of the known, carrying back fresh perspectives and more enthusiasm for the mysteries behind their science or craft.

Jumping into the land of play

I recently started a three-week online class with Art2Life instructor Nicholas Wilton. He helps both beginning and experienced artists use play and curioisty to spark or re-spark their creative processes. We’re invited to step away from the world of output and results (which have deadened the joy in some of our experienced members) and discover what we love about the process of creating.

Learning to play with art when I work on an assignment feels like going to an inner spa. I leave feeling brighter, rejuvenated, and more curious about the world outside the studio. Just thirty minutes of play changes my day.

I admit, though, I’m in “remedial play.” Like the words “creative” and “artist,” the word “play” was corrupted for some of us by adults who told us,  “Don’t bother us, go play,” or the dread Mrs. Silverstein who said, “OK children, it’s playtime,” as if play was something teachers got to legislate. Plus, the playground was the site of many high-risk social encounters.

What I gain from playing with a beginner’s mind

Yes, I am a beginner. But I’m hoping that I’ll also learn how to purposefully step into beginner’s mind whenever I want to reclaim the aliveness in creating or working on any project about which I’m knowledgeable. The benefits are countless, including:

  • More wonder.
  • Delight in what can be seen in the ordinary world.
  • Fresh ideas, new ways to use things, new patterns, and possibilities.
  • The formation of new neural pathways in my brain as a result of using new parts of it. (Possible, if not proven.)
  • Freedom to be more of who I am and find out more of what I love.  

After I play with an art assignment, life seems to become more interesting. Even my writing improves. Go figure.

An expert (ha!) guide to beginner’s mind

There’s an art to stepping into beginner’s mind. When we’re young or true beginners, it may come naturally. But as we grow, it’s a practice that can be developed.

Here are steps you can take when you want to step into the magic of beginner’s mind.

  • Create a judgment-free zone around some piece of your life where it’s ok to experiment.
  • Create a little ritual, perhaps taking a deep breath and pausing to recognize that you are giving yourself a special gift. 
  • Don’t banish your self-judgments or opinions, just put them on the coat rack outside your playroom where you can pick them up when you leave.
  • Let go of knowing, even if you know a lot. Challenge yourself to see the world differently.
  • Let go of OPS (other people’s standards). You can learn from others without making them the judges of your work.
  • Focus on play and process, not output or results.
  • Become curious about the small.
  • Ask LOTS of questions of yourself and others.
  • Bask in your senses in the present moment.
  • Leave “outcomes” at the door.
  • Enjoy and learn from other people’s creations without comparing yourself. (For me, never easy.)
  • Discover what you love that feels unique and cool to you.

Creating garbage

Thus far, my favorite creations in Nick’s class have been my “garbage projects” (my name not his).

(The featured pictures on this post are from my “garbage art” collection.)

After I work on an assigned project, such as painting color swatches, there’s usually some paint remaining on my brushes or on the parchment sheet I use as a palette. Rather than waste these last dregs, I play with them. I clean up my dirty brushes by running them across a sheet of blank paper to clear off paint. I smear the paint that is left on the parchment.

Because I’m goofing around with these throw-away projects, I have nothing to lose. I can explore what happens. What emerges can delight, surprise me, teach me, or immediately get wadded up and discarded. But, maybe not into the trash until I explore unusual uses for papers that I might have otherwise declared to be garbage.

Then, as I leave the studio, I notice the world differently. A “Boursin” cheese wrapper is a perfect shiny silver circle I could use for a collage after I wash it. A plastic container could be a temporary palette. A piece of rotten wood looks like a sculpture, its colors magnificent as it falls apart. A stump has personality.

Tapping into this magic doesn’t require making art per se. It’s about giving ourselves permission to be the experts we are and, periodically, taking a break where we can shed our heavy coats of knowing.

We learn to step back into the world of wonder and let life once again delight us.

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