Embracing the beginner's mind 

Making space to do things wrong, to mess up, and to make “bad” things

February 26, 2023

The following text was originally published as part my newsletter “Field Notes on Flourishing” which was on Substack from 2022-2023. Embedded images and links have been removed.

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The theme of February has been embracing a beginner’s mindset.

This month, I took a three-week screenprinting course and was thrust into that all-too-familiar feeling of “Okay wow, how do I do this?!”

I had screen printed before but I hadn’t gotten a solid enough foundation so when my last course ended I was too scared to step foot back in the workshop.

This time, I vowed to give myself the space to do things wrong, to mess up, to make “bad” things—whatever it took for me to feel more comfortable and build up that skill. And I stuck with it—over the course of those three weeks I made a lot of mistakes but I also tried a lot of new things and made some prints that I actually liked. Now, I just have to keep the momentum going ꩜

I know I can’t be the only one who struggles with perfectionism, but it’s a hurdle I’ve had to jump so many times and continue running up against in my creative practice (and my life in general, if we’re being honest).

It shouldn’t be completely surprising that so many of these ideas are rooted in [Western] capitalism and our fixation on productivity, output, and value. It’s so easy—so engrained—this compulsion to immediately want to excel at something, this desire to want to skip over being mediocre (or even objectively bad) at something for a while as if that’s a sign of moral failure or lack of personal skill or artistry. This not only prevents us from exploring and making interesting things, but it also can steal the joy out of the whole experience.

I’ve often felt this strong impulse to be “good” at something right away, and it’s taken me years of practice to get better at resisting this feeling. I’ve realized how closely tied my spiritual and creative practices are and that my studies in Buddhism and my meditation practice inform my creative work in so many ways. When I accidentally push out too much ink through the mesh of the screen and color floods the paper, it’s easy to get frustrated, chastise myself for the mistake, and wish my work had come out more perfectly. But I’ve gotten better and better at acknowledging that the pursuit of perfection is not the point. (An aside: something I really adore about printmaking is that there is space for small errors, misprints, and imperfections—there is magic to seeing small signs and evidence that something has been made by a human hand).

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki, Suzuki shares precious insights on the beginner’s mind—or Shoshin 初心 —and its role in Zen Buddhism. “As long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something,” says Suzuki. I have often held such ideas of creating something good or special, and in many cases, this restricted and even limited my creativity.

In the coming weeks, I plan to continue experimenting with screen printing and do some exploratory prints on textiles. As part of my exhibition, I intend to have some images printed on textiles and hung in the space so that people can interact with the narrative in a more tactile way. I also have booked a few sessions on a riso printer where I’ll be doing the first test prints of my graphic novel prototype (I’ll share some of the results with you all in next month’s newsletter!) and also plan to try my hand at book-binding. Hopefully, I will be able to saddle-stitch my way to a hand-bound art book prototype come May.

It’s really starting to sink in that my exhibition is right around the corner. In just shy of three months, the doors will be opening and friends, family, and visitors from all over will be coming into contact with the things I’ve been making for the past two years (and, I’ll be an MFA graduate—how wild). But that time hasn’t come yet. Right now my task is to give my whole self to the work in front of me. To keep embracing the beginner’s mind and find meaning in the making, not just the final result. To feel what is right now: feet on the earth, hands making, mind fully open to the ever-present promise of growth and possibility.

I’m wishing you a beautiful Sunday and a smooth start to the month of March. We’re less than one month away from the start of spring now, can you believe it?

“We must have beginner's mind, free from possessing anything, a mind that knows everything is in flowing change. Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow, we see snowdrops and some new growth. In the East, I saw rhubarb already. In Japan, in the spring we eat cucumbers.”

― Shunryu Suzuki

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