The Beginner’s Mind for a teacher

Watercolor of laughing baby
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”—Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A friend (and fabulous painter/film maker) George Durkee recently introduced me to the concept of beginner’s mind. It’s the idea that you need to keep a child’s mind—open, curious, and free of expectations—when studying. The attitude that you should attack your studies as if you are not an expert, even if you are studying at an advanced level.

I’ve only recently begun to teach life drawing, transmitting the knowledge of figure and form I received from my teacher, Rob Anderson (you can see his work here, but sadly, he has left us for that studio beyond this world), and I sometimes struggle to explain my methods.

So when George mentioned the beginner’s-mind attitude, and I thought about it a little, I realized that it doesn’t apply only to student, but to teacher as well.

When I’m talking to a student, sometimes my brain descends into a mental tunnel, where the concept I’m trying to explain becomes a mere whisper of what I want to teach. That faint echo is only slightly audible over the noise of my own pedantically droning voice and blathering insecurities.  Over all that racket, of course I have trouble hearing the student.

But the students are my real focus, are they not? And if they ask a question, or encounter difficulty in figuring out overlapping forms, proportions, or lines of action, then I need to figure out how to answer them with my own beginner’s mind. To find a different way to explain, or give them another tool for translating the human form to a 2-dimensional drawing. And to do that, I need to stop and open my mind up to other possibilities.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a sharp left turn when I’ve been so focused on trudging through a tunnel, but I’m learning (slowly) that it’s best to surrender to the dog-leg and play on lit like a child so that it leads me to the open air.