Beginners' Mind by Gordon Shumaker

     I was talking with an aikidoka from another style of Aikido and the concept of shoshin, or beginner’s mind, came up.  He told me that he was a brown belt and was preparing to take his shodan (1st-degree black belt) test in a couple of months.  He said that even though his instructor talks a lot about beginner’s mind, he could not see how the idea applied much to someone other than a true beginner, a white belt. 

     The aikidoka was not arrogant, but rather he was sincerely trying to figure out how he could practice shoshin at his level.  He asked, “Am I supposed to pretend that I don’t know anything about Aikido?  Should I make believe that I am just starting my training?  And how can I do that anyway?”  These were good and legitimate questions, and they reminded me that teachers sometimes incorporate various concepts and ideas into their teaching but then do not explore what they mean in actual practice, that is, how they can be translated from thought into action.  I will attempt a small translation of beginner’s mind.

     For someone who has never set foot on an Aikido mat, beginner’s mind is in its purest form.  The person is a blank slate and he or she has no choice but to simply absorb as much as possible.

     But then the absolute beginner passes her first kyu examination and is transformed into an aikidoka with some knowledge of Aikido.  As time goes on, she takes exam after exam, each time building on her previous knowledge.  By the time she reaches 4th kyu, for example, she surely is no longer a beginner, and her teachers and fellow students expect that she has much more Aikido in her mind than she had as a white belt. Yet her teachers continue to advise: “Keep a beginner’s mind.”

     I think there are two forms of beginner’s mind.  The first is that of the pure beginner.  That person is asked to accept this proposition about Aikido: “I don’t know anything.”  The second form is that of the aikidoka with some, or much, experience.  This person is not a beginner and cannot possibly have the first form of beginner’s mind.  But this more experienced aikidoka is asked to accept a different proposition about Aikido: “I don’t know everything.”

     This second form of beginner’s mind does not mean, “I know all the basics and now I’m working on the advanced techniques.”  That’s not beginner’s mind at all.  Rather, it means, in reference to Aikido, that “I don’t know everything about anything.  More specifically, “I don’t know everything about kamae, or tai no henko ni, or shomen uchi ikkajo osae ichi.” An experienced aikidoka can say, “I know something [or even many things] about those basics,” but, if he is to operate with beginner’s mind, he can never say, “I know everything there is to know about those basics.”

    Beginner’s mind in its second form is a mind that is sincerely open to continual investigation and refinement of postures, movements and techniques.  This includes all of the basics of the art.  A professional soccer coach once told me that, “We are always looking again and again at the fundamentals that these players think they know so well, and they keep finding things about them that they didn’t know.”  That’s the second form of beginner’s mind in operation.

     Not only is the second form of beginner’s mind open to continual discovery, even with the basics, but it is also, more critically, open to letting go of previously held beliefs and opinions if, during the beginner’s mind exploration, they are found  no longer valid or useful.  This is the hardest part of the second form of beginner’s mind because all of us tend to get very comfortable with the way we do things and how we proceed through Aikido (and life).  It is not necessarily that we have been proceeding incorrectly, but rather, it is a matter of seeing how much more we can put into a movement or technique and how much more we can get from that movement or technique.  There perhaps is nothing better to illustrate this point than the Zen saying, “Everything is perfect just as it is—but there’s room for improvement.”

     So, if you hold at least the rank of 8th kyu, you don’t have to pretend that you know nothing about Aikido.  In your training, just commit to the proposition that you do not know everything about anything in Aikido.  You will then truly be practicing shoshin, beginner’s mind.

James Nolan