Beginner's Mind in the Technology Age

In Episode 3 of Teach With Your Hands, Bruce Dehnert and I had a lively discussion about whether the Zen concept of beginner’s mind could truly be achieved in a studio art setting.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, beginner’s mind is the practice of intentionally looking at something you’ve done many times as though it’s your first time. In theory, this enables you to avoid falling into a rut of routine, stuck doing the same thing you’ve always done.

That’s because a beginner hasn’t already broken a process down into it’s most important parts, hierarchically organized them, and reinforced this mental model with countless repetitions. A beginner might see tiny and insignificant aspects of The Craft and pay much more attention to them than a master would, theoretically enabling them to make new connections and see from angles that a more experienced artist would never think to.

Bruce didn’t like this idea.

For one thing, he didn’t believe that years of experience could simply be overlooked. There’s no real way to un-experience what you have already experienced.

Plus, the ability to see from new angles and make new connections seems built-in for Bruce. His personal brand of mastery seems to stem directly from his ability to physically realize the new connections his mind is already naturally forming. Maybe that’s why mastery, for him, seemed to have a lot more to do with ideas and a lot less with skill at executing a particular technique. In fact, I don’t think we talked about technical skill at all.

And, despite his comments at the beginning of the conversation, there were other moments later in the interview when the concept of beginner’s mind seemed right up his alley.

For example, when I asked him for advice on how to prepare for teaching a workshop, he essentially said, “Prepare as best you can, and then be prepared to throw everything out the window. When you get here, you’ll be in a new environment, making connections with new students, having conversations with other instructors about what they’re doing, and sometimes the need will arise to take your instruction in an entirely new direction.” In other words, don’t go into a teaching situation assuming you already know everything there is to know about the situation. Go in assuming you know very little, and you’re about to learn more.

And when discussing the work of potter Takeshi Yasuda, he said, Takeshi’s artistic lens “has something to do with seeing or experiencing the obvious, but not being as aware of it as one might be. Takeshi has this uncanny ability to take what we might all take for granted and see it with different eyes.” In other words, Bruce was praising Takeshi’s ability to see with a beginner’s mind.

In the end, I don’t think that Bruce fundamentally disagreed with the value of trying to see things in new ways. Rather, those values are so ingrained in his way of being that discussing them was like talking to a fish about water. Maybe the resistance simply stemmed from the name, “beginner’s mind,” implying that a master’s mind was something else. It was almost as if he was asking, What kind of master is incapable of making new connections? Why would you even need to expend extra effort to explore? Isn’t that what mastery of the arts is?

Contrast this with what I had assumed mastery is: the definition I got from my time in the industrial public school complex, where mastery means getting 100% on a multiple choice test, never missing a step, botching a note, or coloring outside of the lines. This kind of attitude often extends into the modern workforce, where success is measured by your ability to never make a mistake; to always be right.

If exploration and deviation are fundamental to mastery in the arts, then in many other areas of our lives, mastery is the opposite: non-deviation. In other words, our differing opinions about “beginner’s” mind were simply different definitions of mastery.

In the modern world, where the responsibility to be “right” is becoming easier and easier to hand to a computer, I think that Bruce’s definition is much more valuable. As technology continues to grow, our ability to explore, make connections, and be wrong is going to become more and more important. It wouldn’t surprise me if, by the end of the century, we’re all asking: What kind of master is incapable of making new connections? Why would you even need to expend extra effort to explore? Isn’t that what mastery is?

Good City has to be the kind of school that will prepare students for that future.