Beginner’s mind

Overheard at the “faces” fountain:

Girl (about four years old): “What are they?”

Nana: “Faces. What happened to them?”

Girl: “They’re old.”

face in water

Natalie Goldberg talks in Writing Down the Bones about “beginner’s mind.” What is beginner’s mind exactly? That brief conversation I overheard was an unfiltered moment that, like poetry, held a lot of condensed meaning. What happened to the faces? The girl’s assessment was, “They’re old.” Old happened to them. Not old like Nana, as she clarified a moment later, but a different kind of old that she reacted to viscerally. I have many times sat by the faces fountain and thought about their peacefulness, their aura of kindness-in-death. There is something soothing about them, and also something final. I think that both the four-year-old and I were reacting to that quality. Her interpretation was rather more concise though.


It reminded me of when a co-worker of mine said, “My kid says the weirdest things. He calls Center City ‘the New City.’ ” I thought, well, yeah, it is the new city. Layers of shiny skyscrapers hide the older brick and stone buildings like City Hall. “The New City” sounds hopeful and superficial both, spangled with lights and the reflections of all those mirrors. My co-worker’s son was conveying his impression very concisely. He wasn’t asking, “Does anyone else call it ‘the New City?’ ” He wasn’t filtering or censoring. He was saying what he saw. It can be very instructive to listen to the ways that children assess the world, because theirs is the “beginner’s mind” that all artists need.


We must unlearn the way we see things as adults. We must peel back the layers of assumption and cynicism. We must hold off on the moment of judgment. Judgment closes things down, it shuts down perception. We make judgments and assumptions as a kind of shortcut, to cope with the complexity of life, but the downside is that we then see only what we expect to see.


To get at those “first thoughts” we must become enthusiastic, vulnerable, open to our senses and to our reactions. This can be disconcerting. We may potentially be embarrassed. We may be thought eccentric or labeled “weird.” But as we practice this quality of attention, we find we can hold our senses open for longer. That “first thought” leads to another first thought. Something original sneaks though the cliches we’ve learned to apply to everything. Opening up our perception is how we begin to create original art.



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