Beginner’s Mind

Hard to believe that it’s March already.

February really passed by in such a wink of an eye. But what an amazingly fun month it has been. One of the most fun and enriching months I’ve had in ages. And I loved absolutely so much of it.

Looking back, it’s really been a month of learning. And for me, it’s probably the state that I love the most. One thing I’ve found to be of such help in pretty much all areas of life is the idea of 初心 (Shoshin) or Beginner’s Mind (or Heart, as the Japanese would point out that the word for Heart and Mind is in essence the same), which I first came across when reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (still in a half-read state but I’m working on it! ^^;). The author talks about keeping in mind the Beginner’s Mind, for “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”. And in a way, thinking about myself trying my best to embody the Beginner’s Mind is a way of showing compassion for myself in the face of so much in life that I don’t yet know. In any aspect of life, be it relationships, learning about Tea or ceramics or anything… whenever I make a ‘mistake’ or when uncertainty emerges, the kindest thing I could probably do for myself is to revert back to the Beginner’s Mind. The mind that is open to acknowledging imperfections and ignorance. The mind that is open to new possibilities and ways of being. The mind that knows that no matter how much it thought it had attained, actually it’s still just a Beginner’s Mind.

This month was when I really began coming to terms with my limitations with learning ceramics. It’s been hard for sure, trying to improve but not really being able to make steady progress with the lack of a constant ceramics teacher especially at my very beginner’s level. I do think back to those days in SG last year before coming over to Berlin when I tried my best before shifts or over weekend mornings to go to the ceramics class for guidance and instruction. Of course, my first attempt at learning to throw on the wheel was pretty disastrous because by the end of 10 lessons I still hadn’t quite grasped the technique of centering the clay. But the teachers were the sort who anticipated their students learning ceramics for the long run. You can’t rush these things, they would say. Some days are good, some days are bad. And if you try to rush, you end up not being in the correct frame of mind to create something. Don’t give yourself the mental stress of deadlines. Perhaps that had been my problem at the time. Thinking that I could ‘get’ centering in such a short span of time and then continue on to a smooth transition to my ceramics learning journey in Berlin. Not quite the case though. ;p So far there still isn’t any place that I could find which offers long term lessons (except for community schools which were all fully booked out for months when I tried to apply) so what I’ve done over the past few months is take a number of 4-lesson courses. One teacher appeared pretty surprised when I signed up for the second course soon after the first one ended but in my mind, if I didn’t do that, how else would I improve?

It’s interesting to see that the culture here based on the classes that I’ve attended, is that the idea is more of just having a go at working with clay. Perhaps due to the short term nature of the classes, that’s about all that the teachers can provide students with and for students dabbling with ceramics for the first time, enjoying the process and learning a little something new is the main aim, rather than long term competency. Of course there are always going to be pros and cons to learning in this manner. What I found refreshing and comforting, was how the teachers were always calm whenever mishaps occurs and focused more on salvaging the clay and making it workable, rather than say well it’s not amounting to much so try to make a new, more standard shape. There’s was lots of room for experimentation… lots of trial and error and trying to figure it out. As one teacher said, in the end you just have to learn by making mistakes. It’s the hard but necessary truth. That said, I do miss the more guided instruction from my teachers in SG. They were strict but I can understand completely their point of view and expectations for their students’ learning process. At that time, one of the teachers, Mr C, had mentioned that ‘you really need to get the centering of the clay down to pat, otherwise if you go on and try to make something, it’s always going to be asymmetrical and you’ll have tons of problems later dealing with the clay and trying to form your intended object’. (Of course he said so in a much cooler and wiser way in Mandarin. ;p) Only after attending the classes in Berlin did I realise how much wisdom was contained in that statement. For the wheel, centering is everything. And it surprised me initially when I saw how the teachers didn’t particularly focus much on getting it perfectly centred at the start, but that’s probably because they knew it would not be possible for a student to grasp it in the short term class. When my fellow students and I looked at our somewhat wobbly pieces with uneven thicknesses and some of them asked the teachers why it always seemed to turn out that way, I was reminded of Mr C’s statement again. It takes experiences like these away from the comforts of home though, to really have that message hit home. And perhaps that’s the important point.

February though, was when I really started trying to get into a routine of attending a class a week along with an open studio session for about 2 hours each time. This idea of open studio is really pretty unique in a way. It’s not something I’d come across in SG. But it seems to be rather popular in Berlin perhaps because it’s also a way that artists can keep costs low by using a shared space and equipment. Open studio is certainly not the cheapest way of doing things because every hour that you’re at the studio it costs money, but it’s at least 1/2 the price of a 4 session class and for someone like me, I must say I’ve definitely learnt a lot during those sessions. Not just about working with the clay and throwing of course, but also with my attitude towards learning. I’m still struggling with it all the time. As someone who’s always been the sort to look for the ‘easiest/most efficient’ way of doing things, whenever my throwing doesn’t go as planned, it gets frustrating. But as with everything creative, and everything in life, I think it does get easier. I remember initially feeling the most frustrated the one time I attempted to trim the 3 bowls I had churned out the previous week. The first one for some reason, started off with a thick base that I had to try to reduce drastically. Before I knew it though, I could feel the base sinking in and it was precariously thin. Fortunately, that one bowl survived because I stopped and was able to somehow leave it to contort itself back to shape. But the next two, I ended up trimming the bases off ^^;;; I look back and laugh at myself now, because it literally felt that I was whittling off my hard-thrown pieces one by one and pretty much negating any discernible output that I had achieved (plus having to pay the open studio fee at the end of the night lol). That was not a great night because when I asked the teacher who runs the open studio space for some advice on that, she shrugged and said she couldn’t really comment because anything was possible and open studio was just a time meant for me to figure most things out myself. That was hard for me to hear. And I remember walking to the station on the way home in the cold rather dejectedly, burying my face as much as possible in the depths of my scarf to ward off the chill in the night air. Of course I was peeved, thinking that I wish I could just have the answers…RIGHT AWAY. So that I could, as far as possible, avoid making such mistakes in the future.

But the more I thought about it, the more that open studio session did indeed become a pivotal learning point for me. Because then I was forced to really reflect and think about why my trimming had ended so badly. I ended up searching online for some resources and found some great advice with diagrams on trimming of bases of bowls… and the next session, I was extra careful when I got to the middle of the base. So far the same accident hasn’t happened again. And perhaps I can say I’ve managed to improve in that aspect.

It’s a reminder for me of the natural hastiness in my temperament to want things to materialise asap. It’s something that I’ve been working on for awhile now and surprisingly enough, the one thing that has made learning of ceramics easier has been learning Tea. There are so many complexities in 茶道 that I haven’t even begun to learn or appreciate and have probably only viewed the tip of this endless iceberg that is the Way of Tea but possibly the best gift it has given me is the attitude towards learning everything else. If I want to learn the Way of Tea well, I need to have the Beginner’s Mind. Otherwise I would not be able to progress. I need to know that instead of looking at a super advanced technique that is beautiful but way too complex and beyond my current capabilities, I need to focus on learning the steps of the Temae or ceremony that is right in front of me. That is suitable for me, right this moment. Right now.

There have been many times when I look at ceramic items online (Pinterest is of course, the number one enemy of focus because once you start…it’s so damn hard to stop the clicking) and wonder how on earth I could ever achieve something so gorgeous. What technique does the artist employ here? Could I ever achieve something like that with a regular electric kiln or would I need a reduction one? If that’s the case, how could I ever set up something like that back in SG? And the questions cascade toward me, layer after layer, an unending tsunami pouring over and threatening to drown me… until I take a deep breath and remind myself -> the important thing is to recognise the work that is in front of me RIGHT NOW. No point bothering with things too far away in the future when I haven’t even managed to master or grasp basic techniques that are needed as a beginner RIGHT NOW. There is no point in getting ahead of myself. Ceramics too, is a lifelong endeavour and journey, as is tea. And no matter how much I want to reach the stage when I can predictably create something I hope to create, there will also always be beauty present in whatever stage of learning I am at right now. For now, as a real noob beginner, even something as simple as not trimming of the base of my own bowls or being able to lift the clay up evenly or the moment when ahh! my clay feels centered. Those are all moments now that bring me such pleasant surprise and joy. When (hopefully) I get to the next level of skill in ceramics, there will be new problems to face and new areas of joy to be derived from.

Before I myself forget, the other thing thing that has been of inspiration to me in my ceramics learning process, is T-Sensei’s perseverance in learning Tea. Despite so many obstacles in learning Tea all those years ago, he persisted and developed lots of his own ways of learning – through videos, Japanese instruction books even though he could only try to figure the steps out by looking at the photos as he couldn’t understand the text, research online… and it’s been about 10 years according to him. 10 years. But that’s the amount of time and investment one needs to put in to anything in order to become better. Having a real-life role model for learning something of this magnitude has been incredibly helpful.

There are times when I feel scared of course, thinking that perhaps my goals for myself in ceramics while in taking the time off from life in SG to be with D in Berlin may not work out. There are many things that I’m not sure of at this point. But the words of Elizabeth Gilbert (who I feel is the foremost authority on Creativity and just couldn’t be more grateful to her and her book Big Magic) often come to mind now as I grapple with these challenges in ceramics and learning. In this interview (which I must have gone back to revisit a million times for her very comforting advice),she talked about how when creating something, it’s so important that while in the process of creating, you treat it like it’s the most precious thing in the world and toil and drip sweat blood and tears for it. But then once it’s made and done, it’s time to release it into the world and move on. Because it’s time to make the next one. Or if you made something and realise mehhh not that great, time to scrap it and move on to the next one without too much judging of yourself. Because so often, it’s the creative process that’s creating you. Rather than you creating it.

At the end of the day, focusing on my Beginner’s Mind and what is right in front of me right now, is all there is to it.



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