Beginner’s Mind

Before I bought my now beloved Canon 60D, I had a Canon Powershot super zoom (this one). Technically, it is considered a point-and-shoot. While it doesn’t have all of the capabilities of a DSLR, you can take control of it to a great degree since it has a Manual setting. I bought it when I first felt the surge of desire to take better photos, but wasn’t sure I would stick with it. I thought it would be a good way to see how far I wanted to take it, and figured I would learn it inside out before I even thought about upgrading. I did indeed learn the camera inside and out, and even ventured into using the Manual settings despite not having a clue what I was really doing.

The day I first put it on Manual, it was out of sheer frustration. I was in Costa Rica trying to get shots of Howler Monkeys. I was out in the bright sunshine; they were up in the trees, shrouded from the light. Auto settings could not result in photos that were even documentary, much less good photos. When I put it on Manual, I flailed and tried random combinations of settings until a reasonable photo resulted. Thank goodness for digital! That was the extent of my knowledge of the exposure triangle: I knew it existed, and so I would try things. Period.

Fast forward to the day I received my brand new Canon 60D. I had finally come to the point where I felt like I was butting up against the limitations of the Power Shot too often. I had all kinds of things I wanted to do. For example, I wanted to do long exposures, and my camera only allowed for up to 30 second exposures. You can do something with 30 seconds or less…depending upon the conditions, and then you bump up against the limitations again. I had been jonesing for an upgrade for a good long while before I finally took the plunge. Because I was at this point, and because I had been doing reasonably okay in my flailing, I thought I knew something about photography.

When I took my new camera out of the box, I was mortified. Nothing was familiar. It seemed like a completely alien thing. I panicked. What had been a source of joy now became a source of anxiety. I had spent all this money, and now I could hardly turn the thing on! I retreated to the comfort of my old Power Shot for a while, but fretted in the back of my mind. I knew I had to push through this, but looking at the manual for the camera had its limitations in terms of learning and retaining anything real. Or perhaps it was only my ability to take it and run with it that was limited. In fits and starts I would try to teach myself things via online tutorials. I realize in retrospect that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was trying to learn things that were beyond fundmental before I had the fundamentals. I thought I did have the fundamentals. Again in retrospect, I realize I didn’t truly want to learn anything. I had spent the money, and now I wanted the camera to do the work. It reminds me of some of my students when I was teaching college. This attitude in them had exasperated me; why didn’t I recognize it in myself?

I did finally acquiesce enough to realize I needed an organized approach to this thing. I decided to take a class. I chose an Intro course at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Virginia Beach even though I didn’t think I’d learn anything in an Intro course. But I thought it would be good to start at the beginning. Oh, thank goodness! Even once I was in the course, I was resistant. I didn’t want to think I was truly a beginner. While trying to do one of the first assignments, I became so frustrated that I literally threw my hands up and cried. When I finally got back around to problem solving mode, I decided to actually read the book chapter that went along with the assignment. Lo and behold! I opened my mind to the possibility that I didn’t know what I didn’t know…and I learned something, and the assignment was easy. And it stuck. What a revelation.

After that, I loved the class, I loved my camera, and I learned a ton in spite of (ahem) not needing an Intro class. In looking back on it, I can relate it to the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind. Even if we truly are somewhat advanced – or very advanced, for that matter – if we approach what we are studying as if we were beginners, we approach it with an open, flexible mind, allowing things to come in that we would not otherwise. According to Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

I thought I had already learned all this about beginner’s mind, but learning something intellectually is completely different than integrating it into your body. The exposure triangle is now the air I breathe. I am so happy I opened myself to the possibility of being a photographer, and I try daily to remember to slip into beginner’s mind before approaching anything of importance. Here we are standing at the threshold of a new year; let us beginners approach it with open, brave, flexible minds so we can learn what we don’t know, do what we think we can’t, and open up limitless possibilities!

One Comment on “Beginner’s Mind

  1. I love the idea of the Beginner’s Mind; I think we could all benefit from seeing things clearer (or anew) with that as a mantra!

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