Beginner’s Mind


In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki

How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup? – Zen Proverb

During last year’s photography retreat in France, one afternoon was devoted to visual journaling. I call it the Arts and Crafts day. I love travel photography, but have never been a fan of saving my tickets, maps and other scraps to piece together a creative travel journal. I’d much rather be out walking around with my camera. I can’t draw, and all that cutting and gluing and folding seems a rather tedious process, particularly when you have the south of France just outside you door.

Our wonderful instructor, Catherine Anderson, brought these beautiful little antique books to serve as the base for the journal. There were paints and stencils to use to customize the cover and inner pages.

i decided to give it a shot, since the van wasn’t going anywhere on this particular afternoon. I took my little beautiful book and attempted to paint and stencil the front cover. It was a disaster. I hated it. In my eyes, my cover looked like crap compared to the others’. I never got to the cutting and gluing and folding. I took my now ruined and ‘ugly’ book, walked out of the common work room, and tossed it (forcefully) into the trash can in my room. So ended my creative visual journaling career.

Or so I thought.

Over the past few weeks, as I settled into my personal ‘summer sabbatical’, I began to think about trying visual journalling. I had no idea at the time why this activity was calling to me so strongly. I was pretty convinced that I had no innate skill in this area. But something pushed me to head to Michael’s and buy a sketchbook, paints and brushes. Now I had the tools, but wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them. Visions of that little antique book cover disaster in France kept replaying in my head.

A photographer friend’s blog raved about a course called Dreaming On Paper, offered by Lisa Sonora. It was delivered online, and, by chance (or maybe not), it was going to be offered live, in June in Catherine’s studio in Charlotte.

When I finally got up the gumption to register for the class, it was sold out. But another of Lisa’s offerings, a companion course, called The Wisdom Journal, had space open. I took the leap, and booked a space. It was scheduled for a Thursday, so I had to take a day of vacation to attend. I don’t often take a personal play-day during the week.

HA! Who am I kidding?? I actually NEVER do that.

I arrived at Catherine’s studio at 10am. I turned off both my phones (work and personal), and donned an apron. A big piece of brown craft paper was in front of me, with a row of craft paints lined up across the length of the table.

Lisa Sonora has a rather interesting teaching style. The first 10-15 minutes was spent going over the rules of the class. They included:

Comment-Free Zone: NO comments – positive or negative – about anyone else’s work.

Mindful Speaking: No sharing your personal experiences until asked at the end; no talking just to talk during the sketchbook practices. No yakking with your neighbor. Quiet is needed so that you can listen to your own still, small voice. (You mean the one that tells me how much I suck at drawing and painting??)

No Side Conversations – See #1 rule above.

Cross Talk – No giving advice or getting into any discussion. See #1 rule above.

No Humming, Whistling or Singing – These are distractions that take away from students being able to hear their own still, small voice.

Confidentiality: The Las Vegas rule: what happens here, stays here.

This was going to be a very interesting vacation day.

But here’s the thing. It truly was an extraordinary personal experience.


Lisa’s process builds on itself, step by step, and you have to trust her guidance. She does not display a finished product at the beginning of the class, and say “THIS is where we’re going.” The whole thing is a complete leap of faith. Sometimes the steps don’t even connect to each other. There was absolutely no roadmap provided. No syllabus, plan, or set of objectives.

In the past, this would have bugged the hell out of me.

But on this day, it worked.

Even though I came to that table with some pretty powerful preconceived opinions about my ‘arts and crafts’ skill set (or lack thereof…), the process allowed me to release them.

I was able to experience the day steeped in curiosity, not judging my own or anyone else’s work. I didn’t even really look at my neighbor’s canvases. There was no ‘Show and Tell’ at the end.


Lisa’s process was a key driver of the outcome, but I think there was something more. My decision to take a summer sabbatical from all things planning, organizing and executing allowed me to take the risk and enter that room with a true Beginner’s Mind.

At the end of the day, when we were instructed to break our single canvas into the pages that would make the journal, I was flabbergasted. I LOVED what was coming out if it. And I had no idea before then what I was creating or what it would turn out to be.


It was a very zen-like experience.

There’s a great story that captures the essence of the Zen mindset.

A well known professor went to visit a Zen master. As the master gracefully served tea, the professor described the ideas of Zen. The master remained quiet as the professor spoke, continuing to pour.

When the tea reached the brim of the cup, the zen master kept pouring. The tea overflowed, spilling onto the tray, the table and the carpet, until the professor could no longer stand it.

“Stop!”, he said, “Can’t you see the cup is full?”

“This is you”, said the master, positing to the cup. “How can I show you Zen, until you first empty your cup?

How do you empty your cup?

You take one step at a time.

You use “don’t know’ mind. Like a zen warrior in combat, don’t prejudge, but respond according to circumstances, not according to how you assume things will be.

Let go of being the expert.

Discard fear of failure.

Use the spirit of inquiry.

To have a zen experience, you must bring nothing to the table except openness and possibility.

If you are not focused at the outset on producing a perfect product, not constantly judging the interim output, and don’t really have a fixed vision of the end-state, you are FREE. Blessedly FREE to experience what can be created, when you are channeling just pure intuition.

It’s doubtful that I will ever use my ‘Wisdom Journal’ as my regular journal. I already have two daily journals that I cart around each day to capture my thoughts.

But that really isn’t the point. The process taught me the true value of bringing a Beginner’s Mind to the blank canvas of my life each day. I learned how good it can feel to enter an experience, any experience, using a “don’t know mind.”

Emptying one’s cup of judgement and expectations is hard. Damn hard. But if you want to learn something new, it might just be the first prerequisite.


8 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind

  1. You get the gold star for posting your journal pages! I am so glad that you enjoyed the day and the process. Smearing paint around and cutting up s**t and gluing it down is a great way to play. I really liked you beginner’s mind description and how that interfaced with how Lisa presented the day.

  2. I love those rules and your work is gorgeous. I have kept a visual journal in the past and want to get back to it. It is so satisfying and opens me up so that any other project I take on overflows with light.

  3. Welcome to visual journaling! I discovered it after I retired, assuming I had absolutely no artistic talent, and found a whole new world out there and a whole new set of interests and skills to explore within myself (plus the chance to use that other side of the brain). You hit so many great things (rules/process insights) to make it possible. Think you would really enjoy a book by Danny Gregory called “The Creative License”. Keep learning dear friend.

  4. Plus I love your pages — though an additional guideline in all the many in person and online courses (often paired with a closed FB group or other way of sharing your work) is that you NEVER have to share your work with anyone — like any journal it can just be for your eyes only.

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