Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki

It’s easy, in the beginning stages of learning any new craft or skill, for our development to ride on a wave of enthusiam as every new piece of information reveals hitherto undreamt of worlds. Opportunities seem endless, it’s exciting, and we can’t wait to progress further. To see what lies around the next corner, and the next, to be able to perform with ease the very things our instructor so casually tempts us with in their playing.

Unfortunately, it is easier still, once we have reached a certain level of compentency or even mastery in one or more areas of our craft, to become complacent or, even worse, conceited. To fall intop well worn grooves and established patterns; if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

This is the death of true progress on your instrument. So may times a player will attain a certain level of proficiency on their instrument, enough to allow them to play with and impress others perhaps, and then plant their feet firmly in place, believing there is no more they need to learn. The moment you believe you know everything there is to know, is the moment you stop progressing as a musician. The greatest students, and the greatest players, are those who understand the value of setting aside all knowledge and preconceptions, no matter the level of their experience, and opening their mind to learning as if for the first time. It is only in becoming an empty cup that you can hope to receive the flow of new wisdom.

“Whenever I start working on a song, I immediately try to forget everything, to empty my hands and head of anything […] I try to approach it like, this is the first time I’ve ever played guitar. What am I going to do?”

The Edge

In adopting the beginner’s mind (called shoshin in Zen) we open ourselves up to the vastness of possibilities once again. We ignite the flame of ardour anew and discover new patterns and modalities. We pick up our guitar with intent once again, as we did in the beginning, knowing what we are going to practise specifically, or that we are going to really search for answers with our instrument today or, even, that we are simply going to play for the joy of playing without attachment to the results.

Frustration and limitation is all part of the beginner’s journey, but can be roadblocks in the mind of a more experience player. ‘I already know how to play that chord‘, or ‘I don’t get the point of using modes‘, or ‘‘thats just yet another 12 bar blues progression’, are all platitudes the more experience player may feed themselves to avoid bruising their ego. We fell like once we have travelled a significant way down the path of knowledge that perhaps others will judge us if we still have questions or gaps in our knowledge, and so we dismiss anything we find challenging or threatening and stick to what we know. Where we are safe.

“When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can truly learn something.”

Shunryu Suzuki

Yet safety so often comes at the expense of stagnation. Because patience, concentration and acceptance of our weaknesses are so much harder than the instant gratification of what we already know. It is a challenge of spirit, between what is easy and what will inspire growth.

The beginner’s mind is the understanding and acceptance that there will never come a point where practising ends. Even the greatest players in the world are complete novices in certain aspects of their craft. There is so much to know that it is impossible for it to all be known by any one of us. But there is joy and beauty in this struggle, and much to be learned, and to be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are, which is after all the only place you’ll ever be.

“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”

John Coltrane

Cultivate the beginner’s mind and you will approach your instrument to be rewarded each and every day with new revelations and a fresh perspective. There are no shortcuts, and no faster way to mastery; in fact mastery itself is really an illusory conceit and the sooner we realise it the sooner we transcend this fact and become the players we are meant to be.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest post and are inspired to look at your instrument, and practise, with fresh eyes. If you’ve enjoyed this article please take a look at our other blog posts, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re looking for guitar lessons in Leeds then please get in touch, and I look forward to helping you begin on the path, no matter your expertise, soon.