Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Importance of Having a Beginner's Mind

As a karate instructor or high-level practitioner of the martial arts it is often useful to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are.  Our journeys were not always easy and our students deserve to hear about our own mistakes and experiences to show that we too are human and that we went through many of the same struggles that they are faced with.  Here is one such story from my own development as a martial artist.
One hot and humid summer evening’s lesson during my stay in Japan, Ichihara-sensei (one of my instructors) was teaching us oizuki (front punch) when it suddenly hit me like a sledgehammer.  No, not the punch thankfully, but a realization - I guess you could call it a moment of inspiration.  I had been training in Karate for about 14 years at the time and I suddenly realized that I had been making a basic error in the execution of the front punch.
It doesn’t really matter anymore what the mistake was as I have since corrected it, but the real lesson I learned that night was something much more than a minor technical adjustment.  That night under the watchful eye of Ichihara-sensei I was reminded of the importance of having a “Beginner’s Mind.”
It happens to all of us periodically and usually when we least expect it.  I’m talking about those moments when our confidence along with our egos takes over and suddenly we feel like we’re invincible.  We have mastered a particular skill and now, knowing everything there is to know, (or so we think) we become self-proclaimed experts, willfully demonstrating the infallibility of our technique to others.  Right at that moment something happens to bring us back down to Earth.  For example you’re a good golfer and suddenly and inexplicably you hit an “air shot” or you’re playing soccer, and faced with an open goal just six yards out you completely miss the ball and fall flat on your behind with the grace and poise of a one-year-old just learning how to walk.
Back in the dojo, a senior ranked student performs a front kick and slips and falls over for no reason.  He gets up really quickly hoping nobody saw and mutters about some undulation in the perfectly flat wooden floor.  Trust me, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen again and again and it always reminds me of the importance of having a “Beginner’s Mind.”
If you watch any serious beginner in any activity you usually see great concentration, heightened awareness and a real drive to succeed.  Although they know their techniques aren’t perfect, their mistakes are usually due to a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of focus.  We “experienced” practitioners of Karate should learn from this and should try to think back to that special feeling that we also had as beginners.  That exciting feeling of learning something new, of learning the next sequence in a kata, of successfully blocking an opponent’s attack, and of ending a fight against a black belt and being able to say you were on the floor just five times instead of the usual ten, or better still that you actually put the black belt on the floor too!
A “beginner’s mind” means that you still realize you have a lot to learn, it means that you’re open to criticism, but maybe more importantly the next time you fall flat on your face, you’ll get up with a smile rather than an attitude!

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