Remember what it was like as a beginner? I don’t mean just in martial arts, but think about your first days of classes in school, your first day with a new car, first days at a new job, etc…
You paid attention. You were enthusiastic. You were open to new learning and new ideas, new capabilities. You were likely paying attention to details in a way that faded as you grew comfortable with the subject matter.
This is heightened learning is beginners mind, ‘shoshin’.
Shoshin is a concept extensively discussed in writings by Dogen Zenji,(1200-1252) the founder of Soto Zen. In Zen, the concept is practiced to promote improved perception and to reduce bias. Shoshin has since come into worldwide use as people have found the concept valuable in business, art, sports, and, of course, martial arts.
With this mindset we are to observe things just as we did when we began, to look at everyday things with fresh eyes. It is useful because as we gain experience and become familiar with things we can develop the habit of thinking we know what is going on. We become closed-minded without even realizing it. This is a natural function of our brain, but it can interfere with our ability to deeply study things we are already familiar with.
When I am teaching, I sometimes demonstrate and explain a technique that the more experienced people in the room may already ‘know’. Yet often, the more experienced people miss changes that I am explaining and demonstrating. Sometimes the things that are missed are quite dramatic and seem impossible to miss. Even though they are in the same room as the beginners, seeing and hearing the same thing, and with the supposed benefit of experience, the more experienced people often fail to see or hear key points. We all do this, and there are many explanations for this phenomenon, but it can be an obstacle to growth.
Our way of performing techniques evolves. After all, you can’t have improvement without having some change. As we gain experience our techniques receive subtle modifications. But sometimes, this is not the case. People can have a Groundhog Day approach to practice where they repeat things the same way class after class. After months, or even years, the technique remains unchanged, unimproved. In these cases the person doesn’t have the benefit of, let’s say, three years of practice, but has simply repeated the same year three times. (I am pretty sure this is why I am so bad at playing my guitar!)
In our training we seek deep understanding of our technique, We know that a shallow understanding is only a mimic and is unreliable. But the challenge of ‘deep looking’ is that we often believe we know more than we actually do. We may feel that because we have performed a technique effectively over and over again that we know the technique. But we are practicing in an artificial environment, with partners who aren’t really trying to harm us. We can become lulled into thinking we know all we need to know about a specific technique.
The importance of repeating a technique, literally thousands times, is not simply to develop muscle memory, it is also to master nuances and subtitles that don’t easily meet the eye. Practice isn’t about continuous repetition, it is about continuous learning. If we aren’t careful we can go on autopilot and go through the motions of our practice without actually doing anything to correct or improve our technique. Our minds must be open, curious and constantly seeking.
We don’t always want to use the shoshin mindset, but there are times when it can be very useful. Try to train yourself to kick into shoshin when you are receiving instruction or a review, when you are observing or practicing something that you are very familiar with, or when you are watching or experiencing someone else’s technique. You may see things you didn’t expect. If you get the privilege of working with people who are brand new to martial arts, try to notice all you can about how they process, question, accept, reject, imitate, and so on. Try to understand where they are coming from and learn as much as you can from them. After all, you can only see or experience something as truly ‘new’, only once. It can take some work to rediscover your beginners mind but it might help you in meaningful ways.