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.

Throw It All Away

A koan is an insoluble puzzle that gives deeper and deeper insights but is never resolved.

Koan #4 byAlex Pishtar


Recently Mark Sensei slipped us a dual koan to ponder:
Uke is irrelevant/Throw it all away



Uke is irrelevant” originated from a video produced by Warren W., 6th dan, from New York Shin Budo Kai.

After Mark Sensei’s koan challenge, the emails flew concerning the irrelevancy of the uke. A great deal of insight, poetry, and even a Monty Python video came down the email thread. I was impressed with the wisdom, cleverness, and humor of my dojo mates.

The comments followed two contrasting, even contradictory, interpretations of the phrase “uke is irrelevant,” along the lines of:

1) If your aikido is done well, it doesn’t matter what your attacker does, so uke is irrelevant.
2) The core of aikido is blending and becoming one with your attacker, so uke is extremely relevant.

A perfect koan.

I chose to stay out of the irrelevancy fray and take “Throw it all away” as the object for meditation.

“Throw it all away” comes from the second principle of four formulated by Koichi Tohei Sensei, usually translated into English as “Relax completely.” What he said in Japanese is “Zenshin no chikara o kanzen ni nuku”

Zenshin – whole self
Chikara – power
Kanzen ni nuku – throw it all away

Roughly translated, this means to take the power of everything that you are and have ever been, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and throw it all away.

(Tohei’s rule condensed into “Relax completely” may have lost a little in translation).

But what does this actually mean? How are you supposed to “throw it all away?”

I contend that “throwing it all away” is not something to begin with, but a state to experience once you are down the road a little way in your journey.
In other words, you can’t throw it all away until you have an “it” to let go of.

In Austin, I practiced aikido with a sax player who called himself a “jazz Nazi”. One night after class, he invited me to come hear his band, which was playing at a local hipster coffee shop. “We play free jazz,” he informed me.

I love many kinds of music, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Bob Dylan’s surreal poetic diatribes. (I do draw the line at polkas, however). I have listened to a bit of free jazz, but I must confess it’s not my favorite form of music.

Lastplak Jazz Band byPeter Vilierius

After class, I headed over to the coffee shop where I was greeted with an outrageous cacophony of sound. As I listened, I was somewhat perplexed. This was different from the free jazz I had heard before. Slowly it dawned on me that “throwing it all away”–throwing away the rules of melody and harmony and rhythm—means one thing when you just do it out of ignorance, and something totally different after you’ve spent years studying music theory, playing scales, learning chord progressions…

You can just “move freely” and dance like a Deadhead, or you can spend years studying the subtleties of dance and then “throw it all away” and move spontaneously. The results are quite different.

I’ve encountered students in aikido who just want to “flow with the ki” and resist learning the finer points of each technique. For me, the constant refinement of technique is the door into moving freely. Only after you have subliminally learned, after hours and hours of practice, the subtle way that ki moves, are you ready to throw it all away and move freely.

Discipline is freedom. Another koan.


Featured image Dance by Mark Strozier