Beginner’s Mind

This is supposed to be a funky cowl...

This is supposed to be a funky cowl…

I’m learning how to knit.

Last weekend, I went to the first of two classes. Sitting on a slouchy sofa, I awkwardly gripped my bamboo needles and attempted to follow along with the instructor.

It felt really, really weird. Halfway through, I sighed, leaned back and said, I need a drink.

Not really my intention for starting knitting: to get stressed out, to feel like I’d been holding my breath for a whole hour.

But this is what it is to learn something new.

The day before, I’d taught a five-hour workshop on creating character, which includes looking intensely at how character desires and motivations lead directly to plot. Some of my students were getting frustrated. One felt she “couldn’t write men” and then read the most gorgeous passage about a grieving father fly-fishing.

To be honest, I wanted to tell her she was full of shit. Instead I advised her to sink inside that character and write despite that niggling voice, that cruel editor, and then see what she’s got.

My instructor has been knitting since she was five. Her mother made extra money by knitting sweaters on commission after working a job all day, and S. would cast on for her, finish projects, help out.

I’ve been writing seriously for about the same length of time, so I know the drill. How it’s ridiculous to say, after trying to do something absolutely new for twenty minutes, I’m an idiot. I can’t do this.

That’s when you need beginner’s mind: the Buddhist concept referring to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject” (thanks, Wikipedia).

This definition goes on, though, to say, “even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

Like, how you look at your writing. Dispel bitterness and self-accusations. Put it aside. Take your brain for a walk. (I know, I know, sometimes easier said than done).

Another way I’ve been thinking about this, as I stitch a few rows and find I’ve mysteriously added three extra stitches and have to tear out a bunch of work, is ‘go slow.’

At the class on Sunday, I couldn’t handle learning the knit stitch AND learning to purl, so I stuck with the basics.

After a few days (as of yesterday, actually) I felt confident enough to look into purling, fired up a video on YouTube and now I’m doing that too (although what’s the deal with the wrong side and the right side? Still flummoxed by that).

There are holes in my work. It angles up like a triangle. It has purling on one side AND the other (see WS and RS, above). But, you know what? It’s rough, it’s a beginning, and when I look at it, I feel proud. I’ve done some every day, and I also have plans: when I’m finished, I’m going to do this project all over again.

Because that’s the other part of all this, isn’t it? Practice.

The truth is, I’ve been at a bit of a loss lately with my writing practice.

The view from my new "home" in Calgary

The view from my new “home” in Calgary

My novel has been feeling like a big mess, and I was unhappy in the place I was staying. So I found a new spot, carved out what I needed in Calgary (trees, birds, more light, more room, more silence), and this morning I sprang out of bed and worked for four hours straight. This isn’t to say that tomorrow morning I won’t want to get away from the table, the weight of the novel (with its own holes and messy garter stitch), but that’s part of the effort, isn’t it? As my husband says, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s newest book, and here’s what she says:

Practice awakens the force in us. But not without being challenged, and we have to do it in spite of logic, the quirks in our mind, our heavy opposition. What practice builds in us is a true confidence that can’t be derived from outward signs of success – fame, money, beauty. This confidence comes from the fact that you show up over and over again. That you do what you say you are going to do. That you commit to a practice, one that is possible given your life… And even the times you don’t show up are part of the practice if you pay attention to them, do not get rigid, can develop a soft heart/mind and don’t punish yourself or quit altogether because of one – or two – times you didn’t sit, or run, or write, or eat perfectly.

So, that’s my thinking these days, as I also return to meditation, which I used to do a long, long time ago.

There is a new energy in me, a new intention, a new dedication, and I think it comes from understanding that it’s okay, when you’re lost, when you don’t know what you’re doing, to go slow, to look without judgement, to sit, write, knit anyway, to love the blank and flummoxing page, the tangled thread of deep orange yarn.

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10 Responses to Beginner’s Mind

  1. Avatar
    Alexis April 27, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Thanks for this, Lauren. I look forward to meeting you on Saturday. We have many friends in common.

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 27, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

      Looking forward to it as well! See you then!

  2. Avatar
    Sarah April 25, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    A pleasure to read this snowy Saturday. Expressing the self doubt and anxiety we creatives face no matter how “successful” is truly helpful – because learning to handle this self doubt is key to keeping the faith that the painting will come together, the novel will morph into a gem one brush stroke, one word at a time.

    May you thrive in your new space.

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 25, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks, Sarah! I love that phrase: keeping the faith.

  3. Avatar
    Hallyhook April 23, 2015 at 8:42 pm #

    Why are your posts always so timely and relevant to my life? Today at my piano lesson I said to my teacher “Maybe I just can’t do this.” I’ve got an exam looming and my fingers were in knots. She said, “Maybe not.” Then you come along later in the day and say “practise” and that its okay to have an off day, observe it, embrace it, and keep going. Of course I can do it. I just needed a stranger (you) to tell me so. Once again, thanks for the insight. I am NOT giving up.

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 23, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

      I love that! Yes, don’t give up! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Kalany April 23, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    So, each stitch has a knit side and a purl side. We call it a knit stitch when you make it from the knit side, and a purl when you make it from the other side, but at the end of the day you always end up with the same stitch—it’s the orientation with respect to the fabric that gives it its name.

    See, when you pull a loop through an existing stitch to make a new one, you have to choose which side of the loop to pull from. If you pull the yarn from the back to the front, you have a knit stitch. If you pull it from the front to the back, you have a purl. But of course if you flip the knitting over and look at the other side, front and back reverse!

    So most patterns define one side to be the “wrong side”. Usually this is the “ugly” side, but sometimes it’s pretty arbitrary. This lets you be clear about which side you’re looking at so you know what to do. A lot of knitters will thread a bit of contrasting yarn around a stitch on the right side so they can tell them apart.

    I hope that helps! 🙂

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

      Um, I think it will help eventually… :\ Thank you for taking the time to explain!

  5. Avatar
    P April 23, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    lovely post dearest. glad you moved! xoxo

    • Lauren
      Lauren April 23, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

      Thank you! Me too! xo

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