Beginner’s Mind, Creative Mind¹ is an exploration of what it takes to apply a beginner’s mind to photography.
Creativity has no form or shape. Being formless is beyond experience, knowledge and defies any attempts to describe it. What can be known, described and analyzed are the experiences that are associated with it, often referred to as Flow. They are, however, not responsible for creativity.
If words and experiences are of little use in telling us what creativity is, how then can we talk about it?
It was the genius of Chinese Zen masters to talk about that that can’t be talked about. They showed the way and used radical methods to train their students. Koan-practice was one of them. Koans themselves, are considered works of art. They confront students with paradoxes which exhaust all efforts to solve them logically. To see into a Koan, one has to turn inwards, and be “one with it” –letting go of one’s “self” that habitually dictates what we think and do.
A discerning meditation practice targets and erodes our sense of self. As a consequence, awareness expands and we no longer identify with our thoughts, ideas and emotions. We become more open and receptive to different points of view. If we no longer identify with something, “what are we then ?” you might ask. We are neither “something”, nor are we “nothing.” No longer self-centered, our mind is receptive and free to explore alternative ways of knowing or seeing.
It is a process that goes from achievement to where there is no non-achievement, from outcome to where there is no no-outcome, from knowing to no not-knowing. Free from the duality of opposites, the clarity of the all-inclusive mind of the beginner shines through.
How does this approach apply to photography?
In order to be able to have new perceptions it is necessary to be genuinely interested and actively involved in what one is doing. Dissatisfaction is a strong motivator. It urges us on to find solutions to impossible situations we care about deeply. Defying logic and knowledge, we are convinced there must be a way out. We feel stuck but are determined to go on. To learn or discover something new, we leave behind what we know. There has to be an eagerness or hunger to overcome any barrier — even if it means abandoning cherished assumptions, beliefs and ideas. Without this commitment there is no fertile soil from which anything new can grow.
When we go out to photograph we have to be up to this challenge. To clear and quiet the mind it helps to meditate before we go out. The challenge is to keep your mind quiet, to keep it free from any distraction like thoughts, past experiences, imagination, judgements, emotions, ideas and so forth. You refrain from grabbing what your greedy eyes direct you to see. If the urge to click away with your camera comes up, and it will, let it pass and return to unfocused awareness. We do not focus on anything in particular. Instead, we are visually aware of everything that our gaze touches.
When this process is operational, we are at one with seeing. To be all-eyes and ears, one is fully aware and attentive. Now, the beginner’s is mind is activated and clear, receptive to new and direct perceptions.
After you have had first-hand experiences with this kind of seeing, you’ll develop trust in this process. You’ll be able to see that these perceptions are qualitatively different from the habitual and mechanical ones.
The viewer of an image has no idea what the author has gone through to produce it. However, the quality of an image can trigger in him/her a selfless moment and establish a direct connection that resonates. The viewer will then know first hand what it means to see with the fresh eyes of a beginner.
¹ The idea for the title of this article comes form Suzuki Shunryu’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.