Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master, would ask his students questions such as “What is love? What is consciousness? Where did your life come from? What is going to happen tomorrow?” Each time, the students would answer, “I don’t know.” “Good,” Seung Sahn would reply. “Keep this ‘don’t know mind.’ It is an open mind, a clear mind.”
What is beginner’s mind? It’s dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. If you’ve ever learned something new, you can remember what that’s like: you’re probably confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning, but you’re also looking at everything as if it’s brand new, perhaps with curiosity and wonder. That’s beginner’s mind.
Part of my process as an abstract painter is to have quite a few different paintings and creative experiments on the go at any one time. These range from small squares of paper to art card, A3 and A2 foamcore board and small and large canvases – all carrying different lines of painterly thought and ideas and at different stages of evolution – a friendly kind of chaos, if you will.
One of the things that appeals to me most about this approach is that it takes the pressure off thinking about the end point; a finished piece of work. As humans working out of our logical mind sets, we seek to have control. We like to know what the end looks like. But with abstract painting, that’s just not the way that it works.
The truth is, I never know what a finished artwork is going to look like. The work evolves as I spend time on it. Each piece may take a hundred different turns before I figure it out. And so I find approaching my painting practice with Beginners’ Mind the perfect mechanism; it gives me permission to begin fresh again each day, without needing to know anything else other that I’ve turned up, I’ve got paint to play with and the time and space to see where the journey takes me.
To me, this is what Beginner’s Mind is about. It’s about being okay with not having the answer. Taking the opportunity to be in the moment without expectation, and see what unfolds.
The mindset required to paint without expectation does require practice. But in fact, it’s also a natural fit with being human. Because as individual human beings, we are different every day.
I love early mornings. I get up at 4am (these days Magic is my alarm clock; he considers it his personal doggie responsibility to not let me sleep in a minute past the painting hour!). But I also know that each morning is different. Sometimes I’ve had a really good sleep, other nights I’ve been restless. And so that informs what I spend time on in the studio. After a lovely deep long sleep I might get stuck straight into a larger work. If I’ve slept lightly, I might turn my attention to some smaller experiments and simply play, doodle and draw. And all of the options are good ones – but each option delivers different things, and each day, my creative output looks different.
One of the additional benefits of having lots of work on the go is that it gives piece time to rest. For example, I currently have about fifty painting experiments underway on A4 and A3 art card – thick, 300gsm matt art paper that can handle a certain amount of paint. But the paper does need to sit under something heavy after it’s dried, so that paper flattens and doesn’t warp from the water in the paint. And as a result, I have lots of places around the studio where artwork is hidden from my sight, as it’s getting flattened under weights of some kind.
Not seeing an artwork for a while is, in fact, hugely helpful. Very often, I completely forget about it. This is another technique that really helps me to keep in the space of Beginner’s Mind – as the artwork comes out from under its weights, it’s like seeing it for the first time. New things jump out at me. I very often find that I know what to do next. So I’ll dabble, add a few splashes of paint, a few lines with markers. And then, it’s quite likely that I’ll hide it way again and pull it out a few weeks later – having once again forgotten about it. Once again, I’ll approach the artwork from a new perspective. I’ll work with whatever inspires me that day. And if nothing jumps out at me, there’s nothing to stop me putting the artwork away for another couple of weeks and forgetting about it all over again!
I think there’s a nice analogy for living here. It’s about taking every day, step by step. Being playful in each moment. Being okay with not having the complete answer. All you really need to have is the desire to take a step; to experiment and have faith that you’ll find you way. Whether it’s finding your way to a finished artwork or finding your way to a destination of life goal, it can be done by playing, exploring and experimenting in each moment. Embracing the chaos. Embracing the ‘not knowing’. And enjoying the freedom of Beginning.