The Beginner’s Mind

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”
― Shunryu Suzuki

For those if you who don’t know, I trained intensively in the martial art of Aikido for four straight years, just after graduating from college. I earned my brown belt and was an assistant instructor. I had a deep passion for the martial arts which I continue to have today. However, these days, running my own business makes it difficult to participate in all the activities I enjoy. As I furthered my study in Martial Arts, I also investigated Eastern religion and philosophy. The opening quote is from Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and was a respected teacher in the Soto Zen lineage. The beginning of every year marked a return to this belief of the beginner’s mind at the Aikido school. It didn’t matter what belt you were, even if you were a high level black belt, everyone returned to their white belts. We were making the following statements by donning our white belts. There is always more to learn, always ways to improve our technique, and it’s wise to return to the basics from time to time.  As we gain experience in any activity, we can often close ourselves off to new possibilities. We can actually become narrow in our thinking. The beginner’s mind concept also helps to put our ego in check and keeps us humble.  I had trained with a few teachers in the past that didn’t fully participate in class, as if they were beyond being thrown or going to the mat, yet they were very willing to deal out physical punishment with their own techniques.Their ego had gotten in the way of their training.  I believe the beginner’s mind is an important concept for the dojo, weight room, and many other areas in life. Here are a three ways we can cultivate the concept of the beginner’s mind.

  • Return to the basics. I have mentioned this before, in the fitness world, there is a push towards high intensity exercise programs. Often times, these programs contain very advanced exercises. I see people who can’t perform body weight exercises with good technique, and yet they want to be doing the most advanced exercises. Not a good idea. Everyone can benefit from returning to the basics, whether it is exercise, martial arts techniques, or sports skills. The basics are usually the foundation that every other exercise or technique is built from. If you can nail the basics, it will improve everything else. So why not return there from time to time, to make sure that your technique is up to par. The basics can also be a great barometer to identify any possible gaps in your strength.

Basic Strength Training Program:

1a) Goblet Squats  3 x 10 reps

1b) Pull-Ups or Inverted Rows  3 x 10 reps

2a) KB Romanian Deadlift  3 x 10 reps

2b) Push-Ups  3 x 10 reps

3a) Front Plank  3 x 30 sec

3b) Side Planks 3 x 20 sec ea side

3c) Bird Dog 3 x 10 reps ea side

4) Farmer’s Walk  3 x 10 to 20 yards

  • Try something new.  It’s always tough to start a new activity, hobby, sport, or career. There is a good chance we are going to struggle at the beginning. When I started training in Aikido, it was like I had two left feet. I had problems with the footwork and the distribution of weight in a defensive stance (The stance was opposite of what I had learned in Karate). It was difficult and a little bit embarrassing, but I always told myself that mistakes are part of the natural process in becoming an expert. It’s the only path to getting better. This often comes up with weight lifting for beginners. People don’t want to look silly when they are exercising. Sometimes they are intimidated by a certain area in the gym (usually the free weights area), and they avoid it all together. I think it can be a road block to fitness for some people. That’s why it can be helpful to work with a fitness professional in the beginning, or at least obtain good fitness information from a book or the internet (watch out for the bad stuff, and there is a lot). Starting something new forces us to accept mistakes as part of the process, and learning from failure is the golden path to success. Sometimes people will not even try something new because they are too scared to fail, which unfortunately, guarantees failure. Then the person justifies it by saying, “I failed because I didn’t feel like doing it, not because I wasn’t capable.” I wish I would have figured this out sooner, but being okay with failure and learning from it is the key to success.
  • Keep an open mind. There are some fitness professionals that I follow on Facebook and I don’t always agree with their information (as I know there are those that don’t agree with me). They appear to have massive egos and a “know it all” mentality that just rubs me the wrong way. One day, I was finally fed up and ready to unfriend them, when I was overcome with a thought. Do I really want to surround myself with only the people that share the same opinions as me? I figured it’s not the best way to grow as a person or learn new things. I reminded myself to keep an open mind. While I don’t agree with a majority of things they say, and at times get downright irritated with their opinions, I have took home some valuable information from their perspective. These professionals have seemingly lost their beginner’s mind, and in doing so, narrowed their thinking. I have my own opinions, but I know they might not always be 100% right, and I am willing to change or say I was wrong if new information compels me to. So I challenge you to keep an open mind, you might be surprised by some of the valuable things you may learn. Although, if someone is overly negative, I’m not going to waste time sifting through their information. There is enough negativity already in this world. I have to draw the line somewhere. Here is a great quote from Bruce Lee, “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Aikido at the park

I hope you find those tips helpful. I am grateful for my training as a martial artist and I would have missed out on many important life lessons if I had been too scared to try. The greatest masters know that learning is a life long process, and there will always be more to learn. Don’t fall into the trap of complacency and be limited by an oversized ego. Revisit the basics from time to time, they are your foundation. Try new things, be uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid to fail. Look at mistakes and failures as a chance to improve. Keep your mind open and be flexible. Don’t limit your possibilities. There is a lot to learn, even from those you may not always agree with.  This is how to look upon the world through the eyes of the beginner, the possibilities are limitless!

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