The Art of Beginner’s Mind

May 13, 2023

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“The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.” (Shunryu Suzuki)


To Be Bored or Not To Be?

You’re not going to believe me. But I don’t recall being bored for a single moment in my life. My husband tells me that I’m the only person he’s ever met who has never been bored. He says it’s a superpower. I happily take the compliment. And then I pause to ponder, how could anyone ever be bored in this life?

Waiting at the DMV for 3 hours, I can’t help but people-watch. I love trying to figure out what each person might be thinking or feeling. Where did they come from and where are they headed? In traffic, I catch glimpses of cloud formations in addition to interesting facial expressions on the drivers crawling along at a snail’s pace beside me. Walking in the woods with my children, I am delighted at the textures, smells, and colors surrounding me as the children scamper in and out of the path. An art therapy client is telling me the same story again and expressing frustration over their failed relationship. Although it’s the same story, I’m noticing slight variations on the theme, a slight sparkle in their eye, a new pacing in their telling of the story. 

If I’m alone, my mind keeps me very entertained. I notice when I slide into an internal story about the past or future. I tune into sensations in my body. I observe the subtle changing of the light across the wall as the day progresses. If anything, sometimes I become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things that life keeps offering to the senses!

Perhaps I’m never bored because I’m wired for “beginner’s mind.” It didn’t occur to me that people could become bored, but friends and family assure me that it’s possible and at times my children complain they are bored. When my children are bored I play the waiting game. I listen, rather than supply an immediate idea. When the boredom grows big enough – they tend to get very inventive! A cardboard box becomes a temporary fort, they revisit a tub of forgotten Legos, or they head into the woods to check on their favorite stream. 

Beginner’s Mind

It’s hard to be bored when you see everything with fresh child-like eyes.  So what does my monologue about non-boredom have to do with life and art therapy work? Well, my first intention is usually to help client’s cultivate “beginner’s mind” or shoshin in Japanese. Beginner’s mind is a phrase often heard in Zen Buddhism teaching. It describes a quality of mind that is open, eager, and ready to meet life as it is, rather than filtered through preconceived notions. It’s the opposite of being bored!  Shoshin can also help us meet difficult feelings with a sense of curiosity, rather than judgment.  You can observe this non-judgmental and open-hearted way of living with most young children. They naturally live in the beginner’s mind realm. They run around the yard in wonder as they point out different bugs, flowers, and rocks. They greet the elements of the yard with beginner’s mind and a lack of pretense. If you go on a walk with a child, the walk will take you twice as long. However they will help you notice things you have always missed before.

Art therapy clients come to my groups with many preconceived ideas. Their heads are often spilling over with concerns, self-judgements , and resistance. In many ways it is the opposite of a beginner’s mind. They often say things like “I’m no good at art” or “I’ve tried before and it’s not my thing.” They have defined themselves and their lives in a certain way over time. I do this too! Most of us do. The stories have wrapped around them like an overstuffed snowsuit, which leaves no room for free movement. With so many ideas taking up mind real estate, it’s hard to have space for new ones! 

Brush Painting, Sara Roizen

Empty Surface, Empty Mind

An empty canvas or paper is a striking metaphor for beginner’s mind. There are endless possibilities. An empty surface is exciting for me as an artist, however part of being an art therapist is honoring the anxiety or other feelings that an empty surface can bring up for clients. There are many ways to hold space for these feelings. 

I encourage the beginner’s mind approach in art therapy work by reminding clients that they have permission to explore and play with the materials. I am there as a secure base and supportive person to accompany them. I remind them that the focus is on the process right now, and that the product will take care of itself. I notice which materials they might be eyeing, or if there is a specific color they are reaching for – and I encourage them to follow through with that instinct. Over and over I have seen how the first marks on the surface are hesitant, but become increasingly playful and confident as the person and the piece evolves. 

Since most of my clients have not used these art materials, or have not in years – the materials and process naturally help them shift into a beginner’s mindset.  They don’t have a preconceived idea of what the material will do if they’ve never used it before! Again, this can initially lead to some worry. However in all of my years as an art therapist, I’ve never worked with a client who didn’t eventually find their way into the exploration process.

Soap to Sculpture

I’ve worked with men and women after being released from prison. They are some of the most creative and resilient individuals I’ve ever known. With almost every one of these clients, I’ve noticed a pattern in creativity. Most prisons don’t offer anything in the way of art, art therapy groups, or other visual outlets (although some do and hopefully more will too). 

The lack of access to traditional art supplies never seems to have stopped these clients from creating. Years ago at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, I had a new client join me who had just transitioned from the prison system. I had a large table overflowing with art supplies in all mediums for my open studio group. He looked somewhat uncomfortable as he sat down. When everyone else was beginning to make art, he held back. I asked him if there was a material he was looking for or if he wanted a little direction. He smiled and said,“If you had a plain bar of soap, I could show you how to carve a sculpture.” He went on to describe his time in prison and the alternative materials that he found to create art with during this time. His stories inspired the other group members and me. 

This vignette is a beautiful example of beginner’s mind. Most adults would look at a bar of soap as something that we used to clean ourselves and leave it at that – however this client saw the sculptural and creative potential in a bar of soap. He didn’t have the same limited view of the soap as many of us do on a daily basis. Next time you look at a common household object, practice beginner’s mind by asking yourself “what else could this become?” 

Blind contour drawing of a flower.

Beginner’s Mind Inspiration

Here are some playful ways you might invite “beginner’s mind” into your own life or work with clients. 

  • Create art with your non-dominant hand. This requires a certain amount of letting go. It can feel strange at the beginning, but often becomes strangely liberating over time. 
  • Take a slow walk around your neighborhood. Photograph 10 things you see that you’ve never noticed before. If you feel inspired, use one of those photos as inspiration for more artwork at home. 
  • Blind contour drawing. Draw an object without looking down at your paper. (It’s helpful to tape the paper down)! Go slowly and try not to peek until you’re done. If you’re looking for inspiration, Elizabeth Layton was an incredible artist who began doing contour drawings in her 60’s as a way to heal from severe depression. Also a great example of “beginner’s mind” at any age! 
  • Try an art material you’ve never used before and just experiment. Or, if you usually prefer two dimensional work, try three dimensional work or vice versa. 
  • Squiggle art. This is one of my children’s favorite games and we often do it at restaurants while waiting for the food. One person makes a scribble on the paper and the second person makes something out of the scribble. It’s a drawing version of finding images in the clouds! 
  • Choose a color you would normally avoid on the palette. Perhaps you’ve never tried that neon orange tube of paint? Then create a painting only using that color with white, to see how many hues and layers you can make. 
  • Choose a piece genre of music you don’t normally listen to and then pick a song. Create art while listening to the song and see where it takes you. 
  • If you normally make art on smaller surfaces, challenge yourself to work large! And vice versa. 
  • Work in a series. Choose one object from your house (such as a mug, piece of fruit, etc). Then create 20 or more small pieces about that object. Each one will be different. It helps you to see the same object with beginner’s eyes each time. 
Squiggle art game with one of my sons!

I’ll leave you with a quote from Byron Katie, one of my favorite spiritual teachers. 

“The gentlest thing in the world is an open mind. Since it doesn’t believe what it thinks, it is flexible, porous, without opposition, without defense. Nothing has power over it, nothing can resist it. Even the hardest thing in the world – a closed mind- can’t resist the power of openness. Ultimately the truth flows into it and through it, like water through rock.”


Let your mind move like water my friends. And see if you can cultivate a form of beginner’s mind every day. 


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