This past spring, my son Adam, fifteen, had to take a mandatory PE class. Now, Adam will tell you that by and large, organized sports are not his thing. He is a terrific artist, musician and thinker, and an active kid who has ridden his bike to school since he was in pre-school. Nevertheless, when his dad coached T-ball, seven-year old Adam would invariably be inspecting a ladybug on a dandelion or watching the clouds form interesting patterns in the sky when that ball whizzed past him. Yet this spring, as the class sampled various sports, Adam amazed his class and even more himself by hitting not one, not two, but three home runs, two of them out of the park.
How to account for it? Here is my hypothesis: Adam had no expectations of himself. He wasn’t thinking of how he would make his mark in baseball. He had no ideas about it. If anything, he might have expected to not do well. But at any rate, I think he was simply in the moment. A ball was thrown at him, he hit it, he ran. He had beginner’s mind; he was in the flow, not obstructed by how things should be, but simply letting them unfold as they are.
How enviable. Could it be repeated? Will he be a star if he tries out for fall ball? I wonder. I suspect that if he takes up baseball, he will begin to accrue expectations and fears about performance, as we all do. And then he will have to practice arduously in the hopes of once again finding that sweet spot, that place of being in the moment, that simplicity.
We practice our sport, our craft, our art, in order to return to simplicity.
Recently, I was lucky enough to catch the Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” series at the Corchoran in Washington D C. As I gazed at the huge canvases filled with blocks of color, I was struck both by how simple and also how complex they were. Yes, one might say, a child could have done those, and yet it was because the artist had studied and executed more realistic works–figures, interiors, landscapes–that the paintings were so resonant. The viewer enters into a complex conversation the painter was having with himself and with Matisse, with Bonnard, and with all his influences. Yet also, and maybe more importantly, a canvas opens up an expected door in the viewer, a moment of freshness, a new way of seeing, echoing the unique encounter the painter had with media and moment.
Frederick Franck in his book Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, encourages his reader to draw as a way to encounter the actual, not the projections of the mind. Drawing becomes not product, but investigation. It is a way to return to the simplicity of what is, rather than a way of fancying-up reality. It takes practice and it is hard. Why do it? Because in the middle of the struggle to render, there are those moments–where your pencil and the tree you are rendering and the hand holding the pencil and the eyes seeing the tree are all one and everything else falls away.
Isak Dinesen said “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.” To get to beginner’s mind, that is what we have to do.