Exploring the Principles: Beginner’s Mind

Giant sequoia trees are humbling to behold. Standing next to those trees, I thought, how can something living grow so big? How can it be so massive? I had to ask a park ranger what they looked like when they were small. He waved a hand at all the little trees around us, from sprouts to mediocre Christmas trees.

Meeting someone who has a high level of mastery is much like seeing a giant sequoia. How do they know so much? How does a martial artist move with such grace and power? But even O Sensei had a first day. So did Bruce Lee. Beethoven had to learn his scales sometime. Rembrandt didn’t grow up with crayons, but I bet his first sketches were childish and awkward.

I’m currently preparing for my 1st kyu test and while I’m still working on the basic principles, the one most relevant right now has been shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind.

I think we all like to know things. Some like to share what they know, others hoard knowledge as an advantage over others. But everyone finds pleasure in knowing.

Except the beginner.

They don’t know anything.

The first day on the aikido mat, being the only person in sweat pants, it is inescapable that you know nothing. My first day I didn’t know how to stand. I didn’t know how to warm up. I didn’t know how to turn 180 degrees in any number of ways. I didn’t know how to roll safely. I didn’t know how to fall down safely. I sure as heck didn’t know how to throw anyone.

It is a humiliating experience for an adult to be led around like a little kid with someone telling us how to hold our hands and telling us “No, no, the other right foot.” It is humiliating to the ego and I bet it is why many people never have a second night on the mat.

Because no matter how kind the instructor is, even the first day on the mat is a battle against oneself. The ego can see it as humiliating to stand out, look different, feel klutzy. But something different than ego has to win: curiosity and courage.

It takes courage to show up. It takes more courage to show up the second night because the second night, you know what to expect. You know there is a long, arduous process of learning ahead. Weeks or months of wearing sweatpants in a room of hakama. That second night requires humbling your own ego to find your place in the community and accepting it.

I have practiced for four years, pushed through the sweatpant stage, through the first test, second test, through holding a bokken for the first time, performing a kata for the first time, a thousand firsts. I’m starting to know some stuff.

And that is a problem. Because when I know something, I can evaluate, judge, nitpick, get stubborn. Ego gets a bit of knowledge to hold on to. And ego with knowledge is a lot like a beginner with a bokken: not pretty and dangerous to get close to. It needs time and training.

So how do I have shoshin, a beginner’s mind, when I have a growing body of knowledge? How do I stop evaluating against my knowledge and experience and be receptive to whatever I am taught? It has been a good source of reflection as I prepare for my test.

Preparing for a test requires a lot of focus, which naturally tends to be self-focused. My test. My  techniques. My kata. My pass or fail. Ego leads it all back to me. And the joy of practice comes to a screeching halt. Because right now, I need to know all this and I don’t want to be wrong and who the heck are you to tell me to turn my foot that way? I know this stuff.

But I don’t, not deeply. Not yet. I think I do, but then I step away from my self-focus and look at my training partners. I see teachers and instructors still curious and experimenting. Still adjusting. I see the joy on their faces when they learn. I see beginner’s mind in people who have practiced a lot longer than my meager four years and it is a reminder.

Each test is longer and more involved than the last. It requires a lot of work. But not just mine. The whole dojo invests in preparing. Weapons partners sacrifice weekends and evenings so that we can practice. They give the gifts of their knowledge and experience so I can learn a little bit more, test a little bit better. Each test is less about my accomplishment and more about what I receive from my dojo.

Beginner’s mind is a process. It is active humbling of the mind and ego. It is letting go of credentials and accomplishment and ambition so I can see myself in a place within the dojo community.  Beginner’s mind doesn’t mean it is my first night on the mat. It is an attitude of beginning again, each day, each throw, with curiosity about what I know and want to know. It means returning to the well thirsty for more. It means making myself be OK with being a sprout with shallow roots now because I will keep growing. I can’t control the future, but I can shade my eyes, gaze at the treetops and set my intention. And tomorrow, I’ll do it again.

About NateB

Nate has been training in aikido since 2013 and is currently ranked 1st kyu.