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  • Writer's pictureMaster Ash

Beginners Mind

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

We often talk about the approach being critical to success. This applies in all aspects of martial arts and is closely linked to the Do, or the way of the warrior.

To be able to appreciate its importance requires understanding the beginner's mind. In the beginning of anything, there is no preconception, no idea of the way forward. In school each year our teachers and professors guide us through new concepts and subjects we have only before just heard of.

From the simplest kindergarten lessons of colors and alphabets to the advanced math of set theory and molecular dynamics, we come to it with an open mind, the beginning of learning something new.

Did you ever notice the curiosity and genuine wonder in the eyes of a baby who is given a new toy? The child holds it, looks at it, tastes it and maybe even throws it just to discover more about it.

2006 Black Belt testing: Left to Right Khanh Nguyen, myself, Will Wong, Master Robert Zuczek, Karen Wong, Chris Wong, Sapna Brahmbhatt

The idea of approaching things with a beginner's mind is central to being able to advance in martial arts training. It would be nice if all our past accomplishments would add up and just stay there and we would never have to keep on training. How about if you learned how to break a stack of boards with a jump back kick and never lost that level of skill, power and physical ability?! Wouldn’t that be great!

In reality we need to constantly repeat a form, train our bodies to maintain the neuromuscular coordination and cardiovascular strength. Even a skill like riding a bike takes some getting used to before entering the Tour de France.

We have to constantly adjust ourselves to the variables in our training. Moreover, as we get older, we need to adjust our recovery and expectations.

2017 NJMP track day

Here’s an example from sport, like racing. Each day a driver shows up at the track even the same track, there are three variables: the car (the tuning, the setup, the tires), the track (temperature, weather, rubber from the last race, condition of the corners) and the driver (health, tensions, focus, weight, mental preparedness). The first few laps anytime out are a discovery of those different variables and adjusting to the conditions. Then the driver starts to pick a turn, usually the high-speed turn entering the front straight, and trying to gain time by the way the car enters the turn and exits. With each lap the driver discovers anew the joy of speed, the launch of the suspension coming out of the turn and the firm knowledge that he has got it. Physics is a strict teacher, it strips away all the bravado, all the past victories. It rewards the beginners mind discovering again the way to balance the car and make it move faster than the sum of its parts.

2021 Xavier Sanchez miss hit combo

In taekwondo we train through repetition; the kicks we learn as a white belt are still the ones we learn as advanced Dan. We get into stance, moving and not moving, trigger the body into the chamber, draw power through the ground, channeling it through the hips, core and let lose the strike with our breath and kiyap. Physics still teaches us when a kick is good, rewarding us with broken boards, strong balance and energy into our next move. There is no denying when a kick hits us in sparring. There is no denying the blow that drives our partner back.

2006 South River

In the same way we approach most tasks. Through repetition, we train our responses to be without thought. It is as if we just do it instead of thinking of doing it.

This is the fundamental concept of how we approach something new. As we meet the new challenge, we open ourselves to the possible answers. Instead of being forced by fear or primal instinct for self-preservation (fight or flight), we choose which way we will move. Just as we decide to shake someone's hand, we choose to engage in sparring, fighting, breaking or just not doing anything to answer.

The beginners mind allows us to spar without fear, without worry, and with joy. If we are always concerned about getting hit, looking bad or feeling pain then we do not engage well. The mind gets in the way of performance, and we move too slow or too fast.

one step sparring
2005 Dan test

Thoughts to Consider

We often identify ourselves by what we do. What are we? If you ask yourself to describe yourself, what will you say? Ask also, what is your goal?

A healthy sense of perspective is important. If we apply too much pressure on ourselves, if we have just one goal, one single ambition and everything is pointed to that goal, then that is a huge amount of pressure.

It is important to look beyond the identity of being a black belt, doctor, professional, student and recognize that we are not what we do. We are something more than the things we do. We are more than what others call us: father, mother, son, daughter, master, student, athlete, or any other relationship. When we see that we are greater than the sum of what we do then the burden of being that is lifted. The body relaxes, the mind calms down and we can move beyond expectation of what should happen. Instead, we see the moment as the opportunity to drive forward towards our goal.

This is something that we will be constantly working on or achieving. The mind will think, distract us. We may feel overwhelmed and adrift and unable to focus. Life sends many challenges in each of our paths. This is expected but not always welcome. We will fail many times. Boards won't break. We will get knocked down. We will get hurt. We will want to stop, to give up.

But this does not mean that we cannot meet those challenges. It is in the beginner's mind that we find the way to approach and meet these challenges. We can rise to meet them. Then we see the board break. We get back up off the floor. We overcome our pain and injury. We wanted to stop and give up, but we did not. Defeat does not mean we cannot win.

Here is a poem that illustrates how moving past defeat gives us a way to move forward and become stronger. Use the beginner's mind to move past defeats to triumphs of the soul.

From "Defeat" by Kahil Gibran

Defeat, my Defeat, my solitude and my aloofness;

You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs,

And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory.

Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,

Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot

And not to be trapped by withering laurels.

And in you I have found aloneness

And the joy of being shunned and scorned.

Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,

In your eyes I have read

That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,

And to be understood is to be leveled down,

And to be grasped is but to reach one's fullness

And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.

Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,

You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,

And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,

And urging of seas,

And of mountains that burn in the night,

And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.

Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,

You and I shall laugh together with the storm,

And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,

And we shall stand in the sun with a will,

And we shall be dangerous.

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