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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Beginner's Mind

In Zen practice, beginner's mind is a child's mind, unclogged by assumptions and preconceptions, but full of curiosity and marvel at the world. It's a mind that doesn't categorize and pigeonhole bit takes in the whole of a thing. It's a mind that doesn't know but simply experiences. It's a state I aspire to: openness and freedom and the courage to play as hard as I can, and to make mistakes.

It's been a long time since I've tried to learn something -- like drawing the human head -- about which I knew absolutely nothing at the start. I'd forgotten what it's like to be a raw beginner, to face a task you know you will fail at but that you have to complete anyway because in the failure there's a lesson for you to learn. I'm having a hard time coming to terms with this. I'm not used to being bad at something; I'm not used to not learning quickly what I need to know to succeed.

So here is the dark side of the beginner's mind: frustration and confusion and disorientation. There are so many rules to learn, about the curves of a line, angles, the play of light and shadow on the planes of the head, the proportions of the features. Then you have to teach the muscles of your hand to execute what your brain has understood. It's a messy business. It leads to pictures of deformed heads on your sketch pad, to chaotic smudges of charcoal in place of eyes and noses and chins. And the only way to get past this, the only way to get better, is to draw more deformed heads, hundreds of them, until you wear the akwardness and ignorance down and out of your fingers.

I struggle to find joy and pleasure in this kind of relentless, dogged practice. I remind myself that just keeping my head above water, showing up for class and filling the sheets of my sketch pad, are meaningful accomplishments. Perhaps that's the true secret of the beginner's mind: not openness and freedom, not fearlessness -- these great blurry generalities -- but the ability to see and appreciate small victories. Just practicing for ten minutes today -- drawing, writing, meditating -- no matter how badly, is good.


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