Beginner’s Mind by Mark Peckett

111These two words translate from the Japanese word Shoshin. “Sho” means first or beginning and “Shin” means mind, spirit or attitude. It is generally taken to mean having an open-ness and not bringing any preconceptions to what is being studied.
It was popularised in the West by Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. He wrote:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
This seems a fairly simple concept. It is advice against thinking you know it all. And yet, as I say to my students, if a technique I am demonstrating looks easy, it’s probably quite difficult, and if it looks difficult, it will probably prove to be quite easy.
I think this concept is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. Within the Martial Arts it is generally assumed to be the attitude required to practise and encompasses the determination to remain sincere, open and prepared to sacrifice and endure with faith in the teaching.
It is then assumed that that same state of mind should be held onto with determination throughout every stage of training as one progresses from being a beginner to an advanced student or an instructor oneself .
However, this is another of those Zen koan situations. Lost innocence cannot be regained by trying to regain it. Knowledge has got in the way, and the harder one tries to find one’s way back to it, the further one moves away from it. This is the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve – once we have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we cannot return to Eden.
The same applies to Beginner’s Mind. The moment you begin to practise, you lose it. You begin to interpret and compare. The possibilities we have to learn are reduced every day we step into the dojo. This is something that Eckhart Tolle addresses in his book “The Power of Now”:
… virtually everyone hears a voice, or several voices, in their head all the time … Even if the voice is relevant to the situation in hand, it will interpret it in terms of the past … so you see and judge the present through the eyes of the past and get a totally distorted view of it.
This is how we lose our Beginner’s Mind. But can we regain it?
Obviously there are ways. The title of Tolle’s book clearly indicates one: The Power of Now. Paying attention to the moment, our breathing, the way we are moving, the sounds and smells of the dojo as we practise.
As I’ve said before, I am fond of saying to students who have just done a good technique (and they usually register it with a look of utter surprise on their face), “You might as well go home now – you’re not going to do another technique as good as that all night!”
I know because I’ve experienced it myself. For whatever reason, without thought, everything came together perfectly and astonished both myself and my uke. And then I ruined the rest of the evening trying to recapture what I’d just done: “Did I put my foot there?” “Can I do it again with a different uke?”
This is, if you like, The Power of Not Now. And the harder you try to get it back, the more it slips from your grasp.
This sense of awareness of something lost is seems to be universal as is the yearning to return to it. Hermann Hesse said:
… we are scarcely conscious of all we could do, all that we might make of our freedom … if we ever think of the freedom we possessed and have lost … we may well feel the greatest yearning for those days and imagine that if we ever had such freedom again we would fully enjoy its pleasures and potentialities.
I found this story by Mary Jaksch on her website “Goodlife Zen”, which illustrated what it feels like to get another chance at Beginner’s Mind.
She is a karate 4th dan and had decided to return training after a gap of five years. With the agreement of her instructor she came back as a lowly white belt. She says that what she found was this was an opportunity to reconnect with her practice in a new way – she no longer had to be a senior black belt on the outside – only on the inside.
Starting back down at the bottom end of the mat everything became very simple: just this punch, just this kick, just this block. All the other stuff, climbing up the ranks, being better than the people beneath you and not making a fool of yourself, aspiring to be as good as the people above you or thinking you already are better than some of the people above you, was all let go.
She goes on to say that starting again with Beginner’s Mind meant that she dropped all thoughts about what she should be. The voice that provides a near enough continuous commentary in our heads was stopped for her.
Of course now she is beginning to face the difficulty of maintaining that silence as her teacher pressures her to take gradings and rise up the ranks again!
I hope she resisted the temptation of telling the white belts she practised with that she had been a black belt before. Her techniques should have demonstrated that very well for her .
I certainly find when I go to a seminar or a new club that I tend to drop into the conversation somewhere how long I’ve been practising, and who I’ve practised with. This is not Beginner’s Mind. This is shoring up my ego, and as a result trying to give someone else’s ego a knock.
So maybe that’s what we can try to move towards in achieving Beginner’s Mind. Trying to treat each technique we practise wherever we practise as something new that doesn’t need a commentary or comparison. It just is, and it just is now.
And if we can achieve it occasionally in the dojo, maybe we can achieve it occasionally in real life!