Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Beginner's Mind, or Put On That White Belt...

There's a term in the martial arts called "Beginner's Mind", which refers to that initial state of having an "empty cup" when it comes to knowledge.  A true beginner is one who is eager and ready to learn, with no preconceived notions on how to do the skill that they want to learn.  They are like a sponge, ready to soak up as much knowledge as they can.

If you've ever studied the martial arts, you most likely remember your very first lesson.  If you studied karate, then you remember showing up to the dojo, or rec center, clueless on how you would ever go about learning how to do this punching and kicking stuff.  Most likely, if you were at a traditional dojo, your first lesson would be learning the horse stance, and practicing what the sensei called "blocking techniques", not kicking and punching.

But you had "beginner's mind", so you accepted that this was part of the process.  You had no previous knowledge of any other martial arts, so you just stood there in horse stance (with leg muscles burning) and did your best to mimic those strange arm movements that you were being taught.  If you were lucky, your instructor might have shown you how some of these blocks could be applied, and that made things a bit clearer.

If you continued on in your studies, eventually you probably earned your black belt.  It may have taken years of hard work, but you finally made it.  You finally reached that elusive goal that seemed so far out of reach when you were just a white belt.  Now you were an expert!

Except now that you made black belt, you soon realized that this rank really meant that NOW you were ready to embark on your lifelong study of the art.  In essence, it was time to return to "beginner's mind" and be open to learning new things.  Your training hadn't completed -- there was no "graduation".  There was so much more that you didn't know, that it began to sink in that perhaps you might be doing this for the rest of your life! (Hopefully that was an exciting and positive realization!)

The same goes with acting.  Most of us actors began our craft in the hallowed halls of elementary school, performing in various school plays and whatnot.  We began our careers knowing absolutely nothing about Stanislavski, Meisner, Method, Improv, etc.  We only knew how to "pretend", and that was usually through instinct.  We did learn that it was important to know our lines, as the script was our road map for the play we were performing.  But as far as "being in the moment" or "being real", we didn't really care about those things.

Those of us who took this early school experience and parlayed it into a professional career will recall our very first acting class.  How what seemed so natural and easy suddenly became so very complex.  We had to analyze practically every thought and "beat" of our character.   We did these weird exercises that seemed to have nothing to do with the scene.  It all seemed so awkward, but we figured that this was what we needed to do, so like the white belt with "beginner's mind", we embraced it.

Eventually we developed our own "method" and "technique", in essence, becoming a "black belt" actor.  But like a black belt karateka, hopefully it dawned on us that this "acting" could be a life long study.  But in order to do that, we'd have to be willing to put on that "white belt" mentality.  There's an enormous amount of comfort in thinking that we "know it all".  It means that there is no stone left un-turned, no more knowledge that we don't already have.

But that is where stagnation begins.  Stagnant water begins to rot and decay, attracting algae and bacteria that turn this life giving liquid into a deadly poison.  So goes the same with learning.  If we adopt the attitude that "there ain't anything more to learn", our minds begin to decay, we become fixed in our attitudes and grow into the grumpy curmudgeons that we used to make fun of as kids.

Acting as a profession is a lot of fun, but there are elements in the professional pursuit that are not fun, and actually quite tedious.  We never want to get to the point where we shut down as artists and are ever content with "phoning it in" on any job.  Because that's the time where your artistry begins to die.

If you need to put some life support back into your craft, then perhaps it's time to put that white belt back on.  Get your "beginner's mind" back.  After all, learning a new skill is always exciting and interesting.  A lot of industry gurus will tell you "always be taking acting classes".   I don't necessarily agree 100% with that, but I do agree with the sentiment as it relates to "always be training".

Sometimes learning a completely new and seemingly unrelated-to-acting skill can give our minds the jump start we need to bring back our enthusiasm.  But a lot of these skills can be related to our performing careers, whether it becomes a new special skill.

Another way to infuse your artistry is by doing something different.  By changing up your routine, you begin to expand your mind to new ways of thinking.  I spoke about this in my other blog "The Four Scorpio Production Report", mentioning this book titled The Artist's Way, which helped me get through creative plateaus in my career.  If you haven't heard about the book, you should check out my post "Keeping Motivated" here:

The Artist's Way Morning Pages (Google Affiliate Ad)
The Artist's Way at Work: Ridi (Google Affiliate Ad)

I always love to learn something new.  Back when I began martial arts, I was also learning how to drive as well as going to school, so there was that period in my life where I was spending most of my time being a student.  It was comforting to know that I didn't have to "know everything already", that it was OK to be "just learning".  We need to get back to that mentality and let ourselves off the hook.

So, put on that white belt, empty your cup, and enjoy the bliss of "Beginner's Mind"!

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