In my first year of uni, one of the O-Week carnival attractions was an “oracle”. Students could enter a large tent made of shiny material and ask this oracle for guidance on any question they cared to ask. I couldn’t resist.
I queued for a few minutes in the February sun, and when it was my turn, I was led into the tent and positioned about five metres in front of a silver podium. Standing at that podium was the oracle. She was a mysterious-looking woman with a futurist aesthetic: short-cropped hair, skin-tight, steel-coloured jumpsuit and make-up that made her face seem harshly angular. She looked as if the Oracle of Delphi was actually an android from outer space.
Her soft, melodious voice snaked out from hidden speakers, creating a haunting, disembodied effect.
“What question do you bring to the Divine Oracle?” she asked.
Being a brash 18 year old with a propensity to try too hard, I replied with over-the-top theatricality: “O Divine Oracle, what is the source of your great and powerful wisdom?”
She paused for a long time, narrowed her eyes, then finally answered.
“Remember… you cannot learn what you think you already know.”
I was shocked that my lame question had elicited genuine wisdom in response. Her answer managed to penetrate the ludicrousness of the scene, as well as the fog of beer that surrounded my brain. The oracle’s words have stuck with me ever since.
The idea behind her answer resonates with the Zen concept of Shoshin (初心), or ‘Beginner’s Mind’. This teaching prompts us to let go of preconceptions we may have about certain things, and cultivate the open and eager attitude of a beginner. This is especially important when approaching things that we are already very experienced in. Perhaps musicians have a greater sensitivity to this, as the nature of our work means we must remain students our entire lives. We are continuously seeking to develop and challenge ourselves technically, musically and dramatically. That energy of openness and eagerness is so important in staying fresh and motivated in this work.
But for me, another key element of maintaining a Beginner’s Mind is bravery. It takes a lot of courage to start something new as an absolute beginner. It’s a humbling experience, particularly for an adult who has worked hard to feel competent in other areas. But bravery is a muscle that needs to be exercised, like any other. If you don’t use it, or you lose it!
When working with Cailin at The Performer’s Edge, she asked me to keep a ‘Bravery Diary’, so I could bring these daily acts of courage into my consciousness. I have found this to be incredibly valuable. In addition to the daily ephemera that require mini acts of courage, my recent entries include starting my training as a Reiki practitioner and joining a touch rugby league team. Two completely new activities I have little or no background in. It’s a really good feeling to see the borders of my life expand a little further.
Likewise, the interviews and articles I have been producing for Forest Collective have been a step into a new realm of writing for me. It was fascinating to interview Cat Hope and Dan Thorpe about their journeys in composition, creativity and life.
But one of the clearest ways one can discovery a Beginner’s Mind is by teaching music to children. I recently got a job teaching singing at Richmond High School. Teaching private lessons and conducting the junior choir got me thinking about the amazing work of Mirka YemenDzakis - the former director of the Berliner Konzertchor. In her wonderful book Jedes Kind Kann Singen (‘Every Child Can Sing’) she writes about the experience of “ekpaidevo”, a Greek word that means ‘learning from children’. To witness a young person’s natural creativity, honesty and connection is such a life-affirming joy. To engage with the energy of their budding intellects is inspiring, and the act of explaining things to students crystallises those ideas in my own mind. I have already learned a lot from my students.
I recently spent some time with my Dad in Sydney and was prompted to write a couple of poems. The first poem - a set of linked haikus called At Sydney Heads - is partly about my Great-Grandfather Charles Alfred Todd, who, in October 1930, captained a ship called Northern Firth that sailed from England to Sydney and eventually docked at Darling Harbour. On my recent trip, Dad and I went out on his boat Guwara (the Dharug word for ‘High Wind’, used with consultation and permission of traditional owners) and sailed through the harbour and out of the heads. Apart from a bout of seasickness, I was struck by the sense of timelessness one feels out on the water, and how my Great-Grandfather’s eyes were greeted by those ancient cliffs nearly a century ago. The Northern Firth sank off the coast of Ulladulla in 1932 and is now a diving wreck.
The second poem is called Uncle Phillip Afraid of the Moon, and is about my Dad’s brother. My Uncle Phillip is a unique and rather romantic soul, who feels things very intensely and has amazing adventures, mostly by accident. When chatting to him on his birthday this year, he was full of reflections, particularly about his childhood in Carlisle, England, and the pets he’d owned over the years.
While I was in Sydney, Dad and I went walking through the valley below Echo Point on Gundungurra country. It was a rainy, misty day and the low cloud in the valley boiled like a witch’s cauldron. Occasionally a streak of white would leap up the cliff sides and stretch out onto the plateau above. It was utterly extraordinary. My preconception that bushwalking is better on sunny days was entirely exploded.