Blank Canvas ~ Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few.” —
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen teacher

When making art, beginning can often feel like the most vulnerable part. The beginning is the space of unlimited possibilities…and total emptiness. There can be fear and anxieties present in our minds. How do we respond to the fear of not knowing how to begin? Is there a right or wrong way to start? Do we force something based on the mind’s predetermined plan of action? Do we copy something we like? Do we move quickly without thinking and fill the space fast? Do we follow a formula, so as not to have to feel fear and uncertainty?

There is a term “shoshin” which is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind”. Shoshin refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when approaching a subject, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would do.

A beginner’s mind is a valuable tool on the creative and spiritual path. It sees things fresh, blank and boundless without prejudgement. Rather than thinking it already knows the answers, it takes things in patiently and then asks with a curious nature, “What is mine to do?” Curiosity is a hallmark of a beginner’s mind and an important quality to cultivate because it counteracts fear and resistance and simply says, “What if…” and “I wonder…”

When we dip our feet into this curiosity and begin to move in creative action–being fully with the experience and not reverting to controlling or planning, but really listening and being open to internal direction–something incredible can happen. After a while, we might begin to “know” what the experience needs next, from the inside out. We can tell what is being asked for in our art piece and which direction to take. The creative experience takes a life of its own and we become the midwives of something new to be born.

As a painter in my studio, it’s not uncommon for me to take a completely new direction mid-painting. Upon returning to the studio I might see a painting in progress that I previously didn’t like suddenly with fresh eyes– and start a new layer or begin to paint over parts of it so that it takes on a new life. Layer by layer, a work will morph and transform as we remain open to possibilities and let go of the idea that we think we know exactly where it’s going.

I invite you to play with it…The next time you begin something new–whether it’s making a painting, or writing a poem or song, or creating a sculpture, or choreographing a dance–see if you can remain open and curious without letting the ego knock you down with prejudgments. Cultivate the beginner’s mind and move with compassion and curiosity. And see if you can remain open with fresh eyes throughout the life cycle of the work. It might surprise you. This is an opportunity to create courageously from the heart and, in the process, discover something new.


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