Beginner’s Mind

When we are born, we have unlimited possibilities and have no thoughts, ideas, expectations, or other mental constructs that limit and affect our decisions. Gradually, as we grow up and learn about life, we start being affected by the mental and social frameworks that we construct for ourselves (or have imposed upon us). A small child sees the world with pure curiosity and openness; as we get older, we think we know things and this curiosity begins to fade. This childlike openness and curiosity is called beginner’s mind in Zen.

I can’t tell you how many times I have limited myself with my own thinking; I remember times when I was very lonely living by myself in Taiwan, but I didn’t even try to go out and meet new people because I reasoned, “I live in the countryside so it’s not that easy to meet people, plus people are not going out as much because of covid.” While this reasoning may contain a grain of truth, it’s just dumb to stay at home lamenting my lack of social life instead of at least trying to go out and enjoy myself, while increasing the possibility of meeting new people. You don’t know until you try, and thinking often does more harm than good.

This same self-limiting process happens as we learn a new skill. For many of us, when we started experimenting with photography, we were uninhibited and free, and could take photos of anything we wanted and in any way we wanted. However, gradually we start to learn about things like the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing, depth, balance/symmetry, filling the frame, lighting, etc. After learning these rules and concepts, we may start to limit the types of photos we take because we think these ‘rules’ dictate what a good photograph is. While I think it is definitely useful to learn these concepts, they can have a crippling effect on our creativity. Pablo Picasso is quoted as having said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Many of us become obsessed with photographic rules and concepts and completely stop experimenting, but this is a clinical approach to photography. This is where beginner’s mind comes in. By forgetting everything we have learned and re-embracing our original curiosity, we re-open many doors we have closed for ourselves by focusing on the rules or our preconceptions.

Daido Moriyama is one of the most well known photographers in Japan (and maybe the world?), and he is known for disregarding the rules, not only in photography, but in life in general. He suggests taking a photo of anything that catches your eye, without pausing to think. I know mentioning what some famous person does or says and saying that is justification for doing it yourself is not really a valid argument; telling you not to follow the rules is just me creating another rule. Having said that, I think everything is worth a try. Who says we can’t take high contrast portraits in bright sunlight? Who says we can’t take photos of people with their heads chopped off by the frame? Who says a photo with unconventional composition won’t be good? After all, this is a creative field – get out there and be creative.

Besides all this, after several months or years of studying and practice, we may start to feel that we are ‘getting good’ and our skills are becoming more intermediate or advanced. More likely than not, this is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is essentially when someone with low ability does not possess the ability or knowledge to recognize their own incompetence. This is a very common phenomenon and I have also found myself overestimating my ability at times. Once we move past this phase and start to become more knowledgeable, we often realize that we still have so much to learn and may never reach a point where we consider ourselves highly skilled. It’s likely that if we were able to not get caught up in our own arrogance, we would be able to grow much more quickly because we constantly feel we have much to learn. Don’t even worry about getting good, just stay curious and keep learning!

In my opinion, acknowledging the huge amount we don’t know, embracing openness and curiosity, and returning to the mindset of a beginner is likely to make things more fun, keep us humble, and help us to reach new levels that were otherwise unattainable in our skill. Enjoy the process and don’t forget why you started.

If you have any comments or want to discuss this further, feel free to contact me!

2 replies to “Beginner’s Mind

  1. It’s also important to keep that beginner mindset to think that you actually can become highly skilled at something. When we reach the level where we recognize that there is a very, very long ways to go, it can become daunting and overwhelming. It’s like going on a supposedly very challenging hike, hiking for an hour and thinking that it’s easy. Just as you think that you must actually be good at hiking because the hike is easier than everyone said, you turn a corner and see the huge mountain ahead of you and realize that what you had hiked so far was only the part to get to the actual hike itself. It’s at such moments that we have to keep that beginner mindset which gave us the motivation to keep moving forward. Sometimes we can lose motivation to continue when we get to the level just beyond beginner: the mountain around the corner. When I first started studying Japanese I just thought “I’ll be really good if I can master this textbook!” then after that “Okay, this level 2 beginner textbook… Imagine how good I’ll be if I can memorize all the words and grammar in this!” That ignorance is what kept me moving forward. If I had actually known how big that mountain was going to be, I may have been to afraid to even start. So, when we do actually see that mountain, or realize just how far we have to go, we need to keep that naive beginner’s mindset to not get overwhelmed by what we eventually realize to be a very daunting task ahead of us.

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