TAoN No. 105: Cultivating everyday curiosity, and more.
Before we begin: Dear friend of TAoN Marianna Mezhibovskaya has a Google Doc in progress collecting ways people can help out with the awful situation in Ukraine. Check it out here. (And if you have more resources to add, get in touch with her via contact info on the doc.)
Those of you who read the Thursday edition of TAoN know that I made some observations there related to the invasion and its ongoing tragic consequences, but today I’m basically sticking with standard programming. If you’re not in the mood for that, I totally get it. But if you’d like a break from the news, here goes.
This is unrelated to anything specific in today’s issue. It’s just a recent snapshot.
The idea of embracing the “beginner’s mind” has come up here before — and indeed it comes up elsewhere, quite a bit. It’s a useful idea! A few weeks ago, for instance, it popped up in Ezra Klein’s interview with Ruth Ozeki, a novelist and a Zen Buddhist priest. I’ll quote her at some length:
That just makes me think of teachings about not knowing. There’s a phrase in Zen Buddhism that comes from a koan, which is, not knowing is most intimate.
It’s when we don’t know something and when we can sit in that state of not knowing is when there’s a kind of an intimacy with the world around us. And this is something that Shunryu Suzuki, who is the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center — he talks about beginner’s mind. This is another iteration of beginner’s mind.
And what he says about beginner’s mind is that in the beginner’s mind, possibilities are endless, and in the expert’s mind, they’re few. And so this idea that in this state of not knowing, curiosity and engagement with the world arises, for lack of a better word. And that engagement, that curiosity is intimate and very, very alive.
And this really pertains, I think, to the process of any kind of creation, music, art, certainly literature, is the ability to sit in that state of not knowing and somehow find some way to rest there, somehow find some way to be comfortable there. …
(Many of you are readers of friend of TAoN Austin Kleon’s newsletter and books, and may recognize the name Shunryu Suzuki, and the famous quote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Austin is very good on how this relates to awareness of ignorance, the power of playing the fool, and more.)
What I’ve been mulling lately is the more workaday question of how to actually encourage or cultivate “beginner’s mind” in everyday life. The most common suggestion is something like “try to forget everything you know about X, and approach it with fresh eyes.” Be childlike!
This makes sense in the abstract, but it’s really hard in practice. Often we do know a lot about X, and as much as we might try we can’t really make our eyes fresh.
Presumably the best way to get into beginner’s mind is to, you know, begin something truly new — learn to surf or play the piano or something else you’ve never done. We covered this in an earlier post about Tom Vanderbilt’s terrific book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.
But short of taking on such an endeavor, how can we cultivate beginner’s mind in the day-to-day? Here are some tentative thoughts:
Start taking note of things you don’t actually understand. Something you never really noticed until you started this exercise. Something wonderful. Some problem that could be fixed. A problem that can’t be fixed. Something that’s missing. Take a walk and come back with a list of 10 things you just realized that you don’t know.
Get an opinion about your work from someone who doesn’t know anything about it. (For example, if you’re an artist, get an opinion from someone who doesn’t know anything about art.)
Reconsider something that you take for granted.
Take someone seriously who you would normally ignore.
Think about a route your normally walk, or even drive. Think about describing it to someone in detail. Now take that route, and be alert to everything you left out of your description, or even got wrong.
Take a familiar walk and identify five boring things that are of no interest whatsoever. In the days ahead, revisit each of those things, and consider them carefully.
Again, these are just tentative thoughts — small ways to try to get beyond the abstractions and really stay curious, by habit.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on cultivating beginner’s mind. What do you recommend?
The Dictionary of Missing Words will return next time.
Thursday’s post for paid subscribers will be a peek at a new (small) noticing project I’ve been noodling with. Last Thursday’s post was about Design During Wartime.
TAoN depends on reader support. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber for full access to all posts. Or, tell someone about TAoN. Your help in spreading the word is really important. Thanks!
If you desperately want access to paid subscriber posts but you just can’t afford it, write to me at email@example.com and I’ll see what I can do. Give a gift subscription here. Underwrite a subscription for someone who doesn’t have the budget right now, here.
In Other News
I have a piece on the Fast Company site about why the memes mocking Putin’s absurd meeting tables are actually meaningful.
“Ememem, aka ‘the pavement surgeon,’ examines the streets of European cities and checks for splintered pavement and sidewalks fractured in pieces. Using tiles and stones, he patches the gouged wounds with vibrant mosaics.” More here. I gotta do some more research on this person, I love this work!
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments.
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
To unsubscribe see the grey box at the bottom of the email, or go here.