Fan's Mind, Beginner's Mind Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-01-27 15:00:00 No comments

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Astute readers will know the title of this post as an allusion to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, a work most every aspiring student of Zen comes across at some point in their practice. Like most who are confronted with the concept of "original mind" or "beginner's mind", I had my own struggles with it. How is it not, say, a celebration of naïveté over wisdom? In what way is it possibly good for us to treasure ignorance?

It took some time, and more than a few stubbed spiritual toes, before I realized my questions themselves betrayed a misinterpretation of what was being said. To keep "beginner's mind" is not to value naïveté over wisdom, or to treasure ignorance. Rather, it is about having those things always within ready reach, even despite our wisdom or experience. We should be prepared at any time, on a moment's notice, to put aside the things we know so that something new can reach us.

There is far more to this than just talking about it, or engaging in the occasional token expression of it. This is something that has to be internalized consistently and made habitual, which is why even the wisest of people and most experienced and venerated of masters also blow it. They become encrusted by habit -- not just their own habits, but the habits layered onto them by their students or peers -- and soon they find it impossible to move or breathe.

Some of this falls under the heading of social roles: we mutually anoint someone with a given role (leader, guru, master, King of Pop) because they meet certain prejudicial expectations on our part. Then when they actually behave like a human being with all of the attendant anarchy, we get angry -- not because someone is doing something "wrong", but because the labels we placed on them have been forcibly shed. Someone who refuses to relax completely into the labels that have been prepared for her is keeping an open mind, about both themselves and their world. (This is as opposed to being at equinamity with yourself-as-you-are, which is something done in a moment-to-moment way rather than as an arbitrary target to be met.)

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I worry a lot about the way authors, or any artists, can become prisoners within the cage of the expectations built by their audiences. We're used to a certain amount of this by now, I suppose: we don't really want someone like James Cameron to come up out of his deep-sea diving bell and make intimate Merchant-Ivory chamber dramas. We don't think he would be very good at it, but it's an open question how much of that is us and how much of that is him. Nor, I suspect, does Mr. Cameron want to do something like that himself, in big part because he has a very specific idea of what he wants to do with his time and energy. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it becomes a problem when it prevents you from repeating mistakes or puts you at the mercy of unwanted expectations.

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The opposite of this is when people throw everything to the winds and build an entirely new label for themselves: that of being a flake. Paul Gauguin comes to mind: the art, we love now, but the man was in his time quite insufferable and self-mythologizing. Was it worth it? But even he was still able to ask -- through the title of one of his most famous paintings -- "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Would that he had been able to apply the question to himself.

That brings me -- in, sorry to say, a roundabout fashion -- to the actual topic of the post. Fans have an attitude about things that is, for all of its other faults, perpetually self-renewing. They're able to see things in a way that both creators and casual consumers don't have -- a way that allows them to see the possibilities of something, even if it's possibilities we might cringe from. Do we really need an all-pony version of Glee staging Avenue Q? No, probably not, but take whoever thought up such a thing and see what else they can come up with. They have at the very least an adventurousness that they can tap into uninhibitedly, without fear of looking foolish or wondering about commercial viability.

Note that I'm not advocating a replacement of other kinds of creativity with the fan's-eyes-wide-open approach -- more an augmentation of one with the other. We have a lot to learn from this stuff, even if we wrinkle our nose at it. The single biggest thing we have to learn, from what I see, is how to see all the more without prejudice the very things we claim to love.

Tags: Zen creativity creators fandom fantasy science fiction