Saturday, June 18, 2011

Embracing Beginner's Mind

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
This is the time of year when my schedule slows down and I get to be a dilettante again. Being a dilettante used to be a good thing. It meant that you were trying something new and being open to exploration. In today’s common usage, it is mostly derogatory, referring to someone who is an amateurish dabbler.
dil-et-tante (n): somebody who is interested in an art or a specialized field of knowledge who has only a superficial understanding of it
When it comes to photography and poetry, I am a dilettante (feel free to reference my prior blogs as proof). I admit my understanding of those subjects is superficial. And I embrace that. I embrace that purposefully.

That was not always easy for me to do. When I first moved to New York City in 1993, I was so concerned with not looking like I stepped straight out of the cornfields of Ohio that I wouldn't stop and ask for directions. It appeared to me that everyone else knew what to do, where to go, and how to behave, and that if I openly acknowledge that I didn’t, I’d look like a fool.

So when I walked into Steps on Broadway to take dance classes for the first time, I just went with the flow—lined up behind others that had their wallets out to pay for class, followed a guy who just arrived to see where the dressing rooms were, and imitated the actions of others as they prepared for class. Last thing I wanted to look like was some dilettante.

It took some time for me to realize that if I simply asked someone, I would get help and learn faster. I was full of pride and did not want to be embarrassed. I came to understand that the Zen concept of beginner’s mind means working from a place of openness and freshness. It requires emptying oneself of feeling full. Eventually, I discovered there was an even more sinister version of this full (perhaps fool) feeling at work.

For years I swore I would never get my masters degree in a dance related field. After all (I thought to myself), I was a professional dancer in New York City--what was some professor perched in an ivory-covered dance studio going to teach me? Once again, I was feeling full, like the student who misses the specific lesson of a combination in class because they think they already know it. After all (they think to themselves), they have done pirouettes 10,000 times already so what new information could you possibly introduce.

Luckily for me, I was able to recognize the foolishness of this thinking. I went on to get my master of fine arts degree in contemporary dance choreography and performance and it was one of the most gratifying and growing experiences of my life.

I often find myself trying to turn life lessons into dance lessons. I ask my students, “If you have a pitcher full of water and I pour a gallon of water into it what happens?”

“Simple,” they reply. “It spills.”

Our minds are like that pitcher, in order to hold what is being offered (from a teacher or from life experiences) we have to empty our minds from the concept of being full.

Two obstacles to overcome:
  1. The feeling that we already know.
  2. The insecurity of admitting we do not know.

So, while I appreciate and admire the depth and breadth of knowledge it takes to reach a level of expertise in an art, a subject, or a field of knowledge, I also appreciate that we all have to continue to get back in touch with our beginner’s mind.

If I didn’t embrace beginner’s mind, I would only share my photography and poetry after I achieved some level of accomplishment. And if I am being honest with myself, I would most likely never feel like I achieved that mystical level of accomplishment and, therefore, never share a photo or a poem or a story or a dance or a blog.