Straight (and Curved) Lines to Trust and Beginner’s Mind

I am learning how to draw because I want to become a better visual communicator when I teach workshops. I’ve been drawing for about seven weeks now, and I’ve noticed a paradox: I’m getting better at it because I forgot why I wanted to draw in the first place.

I credit three authors and their works for this paradox: Patañjali, who penned the Yoga Sutras; Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; and Dr. Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Edwards’ innovative teaching methods, combined with Suzuki and Patañjali’s perspective on starting something new and staying fresh, has made my time spent sketching worthwhile and fun.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patañjali lists five stages of practice. The first is shraddha (trust), the necessary first step to starting down a new path. Shraddha is the initial motivation that gets us going.

The more I work with it, the less I think shraddha is about results. For example, there are plenty of studies that outline the benefits of a yoga practice. There is proof that practicing drawing will make you a better sketcher. The more you focus on your career, the further you will go in your career.

These results are factual and don’t really require trust or belief. Patañjali is speaking about something prior to results. Perhaps we can think of shraddha as trusting that we could actually enjoy what we’re doing. I could be embarrassed by my drawing attempts, because they objectively aren’t good compared to seasoned visual artists. Fortunately I’m not embarrassed at all; for me, drawing is fresh and new, which feels great.

Shunryu Suzuki focuses on basics as a way to keep everything fresh and new in our practice. While I try to express this everytime I step onto my mat or walk into a yoga studio, there is an element of having done this before. For me, sometimes it feels like Beginner’s Mind is in the gaps of the practice or the teaching, rather than at the foundation, because I know my practice and teachings well.

But drawing is all new to me. I don’t think I’ve drawn since high school, when I made moose-animal hybrid drawings in a class one afternoon:

Picture of half-shark, half-moose on the back of a notepad.
Circa 1995. My Latin also left something to be desired.

There’s a 20-year gap between now and the last time I attempted drawing. It’s a new sensation to feel my nervous system wrap itself around my drawing assignments. I watch my arm in astonishment as it first refuses to draw a straight line, only to somewhat succeed 240 attempts later. I practice drawing in the morning and manage to keep this freshness with me for a large part of the day. Things I’ve done thousands of times before feel fresh as a result.

The first assignment from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is to draw somebody from memory. I chose my wife, because of course I know what my wife looks like! Should be pretty easy, yes?

The drawing quickly spiralled into ridiculousness. I drew nobody I’d recognize. The game of “whisper down the alley” from my memory to my arm and eyes ended the way most “whisper down the alley” games end: hilariously.

Drawing of my wife in pencil in a sketchpad that doesn't look like her.
My arm thinks my wife looks like this. My eyes disagree.

For several pages after the assignment, Dr. Edwards takes her reader through the self-doubt that inevitably arises and points out that most people are going to feel the same way about their work:

“I’m sure that drawing a person from memory was very difficult for you, and rightfully so. Even a trained artist would find it difficult, because visual memory is never as rich, complicated, and clear as is actual seeing.”

It is this insight into overcoming self-doubt that has made her technique so legendary: she points out that our feelings are a normal part of the process. If my approach to the assignment was to nail it at all costs, it would have felt boring, pointless and disheartening. With shraddha and Beginner’s Mind, I can ignore the doubt and turn all of this learning into play.

The last assignment I completed was drawing a knight on a horse. The reference picture was upside-down, and I drew it upside-down. This technique puts the focus on the shapes, rather than what the shapes represent. Shraddha and Beginner’s Mind were in full swing as I worked my sketch.

Drawing of a knight with a lance, riding on a horse. Drawn in a sketchpad.
My horse ate way too many oats, but is nevertheless a noble steed.

The elements of shraddha, Beginner’s Mind, and well-formed learning techniques have helped me realize my initial intention. More importantly, they have allowed me to see the world in a new way and to experience (yet again) the joy that education can provide.

Always new, always learning.

Featured photo: “bw sunrise” by Vladimer Shioshvili. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.