Monday, December 28, 2009

Reconciling Beginner's and Expert's Mind

How do you reconcile the awareness that you don't want to spend any more time repeating kindergarten-level lessons with the truth that beginner's mind is necessary to be open, both in art-making and in life? How do you solve the paradox of wanting to work on the graduate level, rather than the freshmen level, in future spiritual and personal growth studies, with the truth that "you must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"?

It's interesting when you find you no longer want to repeat the basic lessons over and over again. Not because there isn't anything more to learn from them, but because the repetition keeps you from moving forward. Recycling the known will never lead you to the unknown.

Sometimes you have to stand away from the fray and realize that most people don't want to go beyond repeating the known lessons. The unknown is truly more terrifying to them.

How much of the refusal to take the leap is based in fear? Fear of the unknown; fear of possible dangers or consequences; fear of failure; occasionally, fear of success.

I know that I prefer beginner's mind to expert's mind; although in truth making a negative value judgment about expert's mind is a symptom of expert's mind. Judgmentalism comes pretty much always from expert's mind. Beginner's mind is more likely to, literally, keep an open mind, and wait and see what happens. What happens if we do this? Cool!

Perhaps it's possible to enfold expert's mind within beginner's mind by acknowledging, without puffing oneself up, where one's strengths do in fact lie. That there are some lessons you really don't need to repeat anymore, because you really have learned what you needed to from them. And that there are still other lessons that you're still learning from, and needing to repeat. And that there are some skills you really do have under your belt, now; you will continue to practice them, although you don't need to keep rebuilding them from the foundation up, because you've now done that.

Perhaps, then, it's possible to say, over here, lesson learned and can move on to graduate level rather than freshman level; and over there, it might be good to take intermediate level one more time. It's not as if there's a test required to matriculate.

A couple of years ago, I remember sitting on my porch having a conversation with an old friend. Both of us have studied many kinds of spiritual and healing and artistic pursuits; between us we've been certified in numerous bodywork and energywork modalities; we've taken a long road together, done many of the same seminars and study groups, walked many of the same paths, met many of the same teachers. Even so, we're not always in congruence: individual needs make for individual emphases, here and there, and relatively greater or lesser individual strengths.

We sat on the porch that evening, after dinner, discussing a lot of the self-development work we'd experienced. All of the above. We came to say, each separately but at about the same time, that we were tired of repeating beginning-level workshops anymore, and wanted to pursue something more advanced. Not there was nothing to learn anymore from the beginning-level workshops—although in some instances this was rather more true than for others—but that we both sense time is growing shorter.

When you reach the point in your life when you realize that, barring accidental death or sudden fatal illness, you have passed the probably midway point of your alloted span, it becomes a matter of wanting to be efficient with one's time. There's less to be idle, less time to waste. Sometimes late-life illnesses enforce unplanned idleness. Then what do you do with your enforced free time? If there isn't some kind of hit on your ability to think clearly, caused by either your illness or your meds, it gives you time to think, time to create. Every wasted day seems lost, when you find yourself unable to do much. But even these can be used, for something.

So perhaps one way to encompass expert's mind within beginner's mind is to admit that maybe you do not need to keep repeating the same lessons, purely on the grounds of wanting to maximize your time and effort. Can one be efficient with one's spiritual and creative practice? I think so. You do it by removing clutter, minimizing distractions, maximizing focus, "working smarter rather than harder," and similar attitudes. You stop wasting time on things that you don't need to waste time on; things that are not essential and required for whatever form your practice takes. You shift that freed up time over towards activities that enhance your process rather than take away from it.

These can be really simple, small, pragmatic things, like finding a time-saving way to work. Or they can be turning otherwise unfocused time into focused time. So, an artist might find a time-saving way to wash her brushes; or she might turn washing her brushes into a meditative practice. Both are valid shifts of attention and consciousness towards something more fulfilling and useful.

Another way to reconcile beginner's and expert's mind is to think from up a level, from the symbolic rather than the literal level. When you start to look at your life from the symbolic level, it becomes possible to spot patterns and habits, and then consciously choose which to keep, and which to winnow out. Thinking from the symbolic level requires the ability to step back and be relatively objective about your own life and practice, and to take things less personally. Thinking symbolically means being honest enough with ourselves to both acknowledge limiting faults and acknowledge effective strengths. Mostly we only focus on our past failures; that's a habit worth winnowing. Thinking symbolically means looking at the transpersonal story, not just the personal drama; it means letting go of what's right in front of your nose so that you can see what's down at the end of the street. it's a shift of attention. And it can be a path towards finding the universal within the particular.

I've said more or less the same thing from several difficult angles, now. I've tried to rephrase it several times. I've repeated this lesson a few times, now, with slightly different words each time. It's way of spiraling around the topic till we can find a place to land.

The point is, once you get a skillset down, you need to keep practicing it, to keep it well-honed, but you don't need to be keep repeating the introductory class about it. It doesn't mean you have become an expert; it does mean you're no longer a neophyte. You're somewhere between.

So one final way to reconcile beginner's mind with expert's mind is to realize that expert's mind is a forever-retreating goal that you will never achieve. It's something we keep practicing, to keep those skills honed, all the while knowing there is always more to learn, more to discover, and more to practice.

Beginner's mind is an attitude towards learning: the open and absorbing mind, that sees what's really there, rather than what we assume or think is there. The idea that we think we don't need to learn anymore is expert's mind. So, we can find a middle point, between total ignorance and total expertise, and know that's where we spend most of our time, anyway. So just do it.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

A great post to begin my post-Christmas reading, for which I thank you, Art. This subject has probably come up more often in our exchanges than any other.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Glad you liked it, John. It's an important aspect of creativity. I can't help but bring it up, when it seems relevant.

5:29 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Crucial, even.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I shy away from being called an expert on anything. It’s a relative term. People in my last job considered me a computer expert but my skill level was intermediate at best and only really in one area, Access, the one I had worked in constantly for ten years; you would expect a certain level of competence after that long. Three years on it’s almost all gone. I would struggle to design a simple form now whereas, when I was at my peak, I had written a suite of databases that the entire company relied on to do everything bar the actual invoicing. So I must have seemed very clever.

The thing I’ve learned about people’s perception of cleverness is that they always assume that they’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. My readers do that with my blog all the time. The fact is that when I write a post most of the time you’re getting my entire knowledge on a particular subject distilled into 3000-odd words – there is no more. I often mention the three Greek words for love and I remember one old lady saying, in that old lady way, “Oh, he knows Greek!” Rubbish. I know three words and that’s my lot. Since then I’ve learned that there’s a fourth word in modern Greek but I’ve forgotten what it is.

I’ve never been bothered about having to go to the bottom of the hill and start again. I’ve had to do it many times. A year before I started teaching computing I’d never even used a PC before. I had an Atari-something-or-other (see I’ve forgotten that too) and before that a Spectrum. The day I got the job in the dry cleaners I’d never worked a day behind a till in my life. Within a few weeks I was the manager purely because I happened to be there and could clearly think on my feet.

I’ve been a writer for close to forty years now but am actually mortified by how little I know about the subject. At this stage I should be able to lecture but I’d struggle to answer basic questions. Every time I write anything I have to go back to my research notes. I don’t trust what’s in my head. So I feel like I’m always beginning and I do get a bit tired with it. If I wasn’t intelligent I couldn’t be able to fake it like I do and that is how I feel most of the time, that I’m a pretender to the throne.

I am wary too of one being considered an expert purely because they’re knowledgeable. Knowledge is only the first stepping stone. If you don’t apply that knowledge then you’ll never attain understanding and wisdom. Wise I am not; experienced, perhaps. I’ve experienced enough to know that as soon as anyone presents himself as an expert on anything out of the shadows will come some bloke who knows more than him and will cut him down to size. I constantly feel that I’m running to keep up with you and half the time I haven’t a clue what you’re on about so I pick the bit I do understand and comment on it. And I feel much the same about John Ettorre although he’s generally less loquacious. Don’t feel bad about this – you can’t help being who you are, having had the life you’ve had and being able to remember it all – and do keep prattling on because you’re very interesting and occasionally actually inspiring. As to whether you’re an expert . . . what the hell do I know? I don’t think I’d recognise one if he clobbered me over the head with the OED.

As regards the scripture at the start I’ve always taken that to be saying one should be open to new things not necessarily childlike. Children are willing to accept things with very little evidence. To many who display this attitude simply looking at the natural world is all the proof they need that God exists. For others the internal harmony of the Bible does exactly the same. And there are people like me who were old when they were a kid who knew it was the school ‘janny’ [jantor] dressed up as Santa Claus and always demanded to peek behind the masks life insisted on wearing. Even though I continue to hide much of who am I still go to great lengths not to present myself as something I am not and one thing I am not is an expert on anything.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lots of good thoughts to respond to there, Jim, and I'm not sure I can follow up on all of them.

I agree that expert's mind is a relative thing. When I was studying Aikido, our sensei had us advanced students teach the beginner's class regularly, on the grounds that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it; and he was right about that. Lots of people think I'm an expert in whatever, although I never claim to be.

For example, my knowledge of computers is very unsystematic. I've never taken a single class in computing; I've just learned to fix things when they break down. By the same kind of learning, I can replace my truck's battery, but I wouldn't have a clue how to change the fuel filter. LOL What I do know how to do well, like Photoshop, is completely self-taught, and like you said regarding Access, completely based on practice and experience.

So I agree about applied knowledge: we learn by doing, and we learn by having to pass on what we know. Organizing one's thoughts to present what one knows to another person has taught me, also, what I still don't know. I don't have a clue how to program an operating system; and truthfully, I don't care to spend the time on it.

My whole thing about "expert mind" is that what we HAVE learned can be incorporated into the open childlike attitude of beginner's mind, rather than discarded in willful ignorance.

As for my being loquacious, guilty as charged. LOL one of my mentors in college, Judith Becker, every time she revised a paper or article, it got shorter, more precise, more pithy. This is the opposite of most academic writing, of course. So I hold up Judith's example for myself as a goal, which I often fail to meet. And I'm in a period of my life where I have been needing to write a lot, to get things out. I find myself currently moving into a period when I trust words less and less, as I've said a few times lately, and in some ways that makes me write things out more thoroughly, because I'm trying to figure things out, and talk AROUND a topic, to get at it. I have no idea if that works, or is the most boring thing to read that there is. It's thinking out loud, in PL Travers' sense of "thinking is linking." I don't know if it works, or if it will endure.

The Kingdom of Heaven quote: what you wrote in terms of your understanding of that reference is essentially what I meant by it, yes. The mind of the child that is open and accepting of what is right there in front of them, not blocked or filtered by ideologies or ideas ABOUT what's there.

1:49 PM  

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