Learning From Kids: Part One: Beginner’s Mind

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki

 

The zen master Shunryu Suzuki deftly summarizes the concept of beginner’s mind in the above quote. The concept is familiar to many who have studied zen and is recognizable in many Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Kung-Fu.

However, in the West the idea that “knowledge itself is power,” a quote from Francis Bacon, has had more influence. This exaltation of the accumulation of bits of knowledge has become the dominant perspective in the modern world. People confuse this finding, memorizing, and reciting of information with learning, understanding, and wisdom. We marvel at computers’ ability to store countless bits of information and we apply a digital memory metaphor to the workings or failures of our own minds. This is a mistake.

The ancient philosophers of the East recognized that the accumulation of knowledge and expertise can lead to the fossilization of the cognitive processes. Humility, flexibility, and openness to observation are often hampered by knowledge. Thus, the concept of beginner’s mind was expressed as an antidote, an ideal, a teaching metaphor.

When a child is learning language for the first time their mind is not cluttered with preconceptions, social anxiety, or prejudices. They are sponges, sucking up learning in the most efficient and flexible way. Adults can emulate this, we can use the metaphor of beginner’s mind to help us refine our expertise and learn more while being careful to avoid the pitfalls of the over-cluttered and fossilized “expert mind” where possibilities are few and learning is stagnant.

Have you ever done really well the first time you tried a sport or art form only to lag and flounder later on? Beginner’s luck? Perhaps, but luck is over-rated; I think this effect is a result of beginner’s mind.

If you really want powerful cognitive abilities focus on learning not knowledge, observe children, enjoy the day to day wonders, practice humility and restrain your inner expert. For more on this idea, see my post on knowledge as an obstacle to learning.

Why am I obsessed with learning? See my post on learning how to learn.

shoshin

Save

What is Nature Journaling?

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

E. O. Wilson

Sometimes, after I casually throw the term around, someone will ask me, “What is Nature Journaling? My spell check doesn’t even think that journaling is a correct verb!”

Nature journaling is a process or substrate for externalizing and recording the dynamic interaction between human curiosity and the natural environment. By making sketches, writing notes, and jotting down other information, the journaler engages with the observed surroundings. This process can be highly focused with a planned subject or it can be spontaneous and based on the unpredictable environment.

Nature journaling can be a solitary pursuit or it can be a communally-shared activity. It is a relatively new movement but clubs are being formed around the world, providing a support group, motivation, and sharing for people in the same locality who want to nature journal together. Nature Journal Clubs

A typical nature journaling club expedition might go like this:

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at the entrance to a California park full of mixed oak woodlands, rolling hills, and blackberry covered creeks. A handful of people are milling about near the entrance with sketchbooks, binoculars, and hiking shoes. More people arrive; some know each other and some are totally new, some are seasoned artists and naturalists, others are just getting started with watercolors. The mixture of skill levels, backgrounds, and experiences benefits the entire group.

After a short round of introductions and maybe a motivational talk, the group heads off down the trail like a pack of curious kids. Occasionally, the group will slow down and someone will point out an osprey flying by or a snakeskin on the trail. Some people will capture a few quick sketches of the bird in flight and jot down some notes about the shed snakeskin. Then, the group will stop for longer, people will do a mini landscape painting or try to capture the details of a wildflower.

IMG_3001
IMG_3002

Once everybody has filled a few pages there is usually a chance for everyone to lay out journals on the ground. Now is the chance to see what others have been up to, share ideas, and borrow methods form each other.                                                                           There is always something to learn from others.

After a few hours of journaling, most people have developed an appetite and there will be a break for a potluck lunch. Fun and educational conversations continue during the potluck and sometimes someone will read a poem or a quote or give a technique demonstration. If there is a facilitator or main organizer of the club they might ask for donations to help keep the group going.

After lunch, the group will continue their exploration; observing, sketching, recording. There might be another round of journal sharing before the group returns to the entrance of the park and everyone heads their separate ways.

I believe that nature journaling is the most powerful toolkit for learning about nature. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. The process is also encouragingly cumulative; the more you do it, the more you will notice, the more you learn, and the more beautiful and meaningful your journal pages become.

For many useful videos on nature drawing and journaling, check out John Muir Law’s youtube channel: John Muir Laws
He is one of the main champions of nature journaling and is a storehouse of good information on drawing and natural history. He also has the most comprehensive book on the subject: Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Rigidity vs Fluidity

 

Bruce Lee’s philosophy on the rigidity of style and dogma is equally applicable to the visual arts, gardening, land management, and all other realms of human endeavor. Instead of subscribing to one school of thought blindly one should try learning from many masters, weaving together one’s own synthesis. Do not become crystallized. Crystals are beautiful but they are dead, static, inflexible, and unlearning. Be fluid; adapt and incorporate diverse elements into a liquid whole.

Born to Track

So what if you don’t live near a nature preserve with elk, mountain lions, or other big charismatic mammals? Maybe you don’t even have a suburban park nearby with coyotes or raccoons. Never fear, you can still practice tracking.

Paradoxically, tracking is not about animals or footprints in the sand, tracking is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of observing patterns and thinking about cause and effect. It is a system of connecting the dots that is so fundamental to the way our human brain works that it is impossible to separate ourselves from it. All humans are born trackers but it is up to each of us as individuals to either ignore this fact or embrace it.

Sherlock Holmes embraced the fact that he was born to track and he practiced his skills with assiduity. He used deep observation, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses; the same techniques used by the hunter gatherers that all of us descend from. Today’s forensic scientists and detectives continue in this tradition.

Modern archaeologists embrace the fact that they were born to track. Despite their use of high tech imaging and chemical analyses, archaeologists are asking the same big questions that every tracker asks: who, when, why, and in what order? They look at clues, signs, and remains left behind and piece together stories of what happened in the past.

So, if you are not tracking elk, coyotes, ancient mummies, modern criminals, or Professor Moriarty, then what are you tracking?