“Beginner’s Mind” or “Mindfulness for People Who Hate Meditation”

I stopped making almost any art for about 10 years. When I enrolled in community college, I took Drawing I my first semester. My teacher had the patient and attentive attitude of a blue-ribbon rose gardener. She encouraged us to adopt a growth-oriented mindset. She wanted us to view challenges and failures as opportunities to grow.

Getting back into art was hard for me. I wanted to be good again immediately. I once became so frustrated by a linear perspective assignment in class, I walked out and cried in the bathroom. When I had calmed down, I looked at the piece with fresh eyes: It wasn’t salvageable. I flipped over my paper and found a path forward. The new piece wasn’t great. But it was better.

I had previously felt like someone who slipped through the cracks, but this artist was devoted to her students. When I told her I was struggling to cope with a school environment after previously burning out, she personally walked me over to the Office of Accessibility Services. Much of what success I have achieved, I owe to my art teachers (including my own mother).

One of the best things about studio art classes is that you learn about one established artist’s worldview and strategies. You are free to take with you only what serves you. Over the summer, I took a photography class with an irreverent eccentric who peppered his philosophical opining with profanity. The sort of unabashed paradox who studied ballet for 15 years and maintained his own motorcycle.

I don’t know if he got this idea from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but his lesson plan started with a concept called “Beginner’s Mind”. Beginner’s mind, or shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts. The beginner’s mind is open, eager, humble, and lacking preconceptions. The openness of the beginner’s mind allows for many possibilities, whereas the expert’s mind is often locked into one way of seeing things.

When I go out into the world with only a camera and this framework in mind, something remarkable happens: I become intensely present. I frame details in the square of my thumbs and index fingers: Lichen-dappled concrete. Poetic roadsnakes. Labyrinthine termite tracks in the stumps of trees I’d known as a kid. I am both a participant and an observer.

Mindfulness exercises are generally meant to make us less reactive by slowing down and observing in this fashion. Given this, “try meditation” seems like sensible advice. But many of us feel unable to clear our minds and let our thoughts drift by non-judgmentally. We might get stuck in loops—thinking about thinking, about not thinking, about how we should not be thinking, how we don’t want to think about some things, about how our nose itches, is it over yet—WHY can’t we meditate!? Maybe that particular form of mindfulness isn’t salvageable for some of us, so we’ve even walked away from the whole concept.

This is an invitation to flip the paper over and find another path forward. If you dislike meditation, using a grounding activity may be a better fit. I want to encourage you to practice something. Maybe even photography. You can go out into the world with the camera on your phone and view the details that have faded into the background of your life through fresh eyes. This sort of mental flexibility eventually translates into an ability to entertain new possibilities in your life. This is crucial to moving forward.

Of course, photography isn’t the only option. Beginner’s mind applies to the practice of any art, craft, or skill. Maybe you’ll be more into crochet or martial arts. Maybe ballet or weightlifting is more your speed. Approach this part of your life with a Beginner’s Mindset. Allow yourself to become simultaneously a participant and observer in your own life. Slowly, surely, you will adapt.

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