Think of when you first started driving. The emotions were fresh. Whether you felt freedom, fear or exhilaration, there was a sense that the world was changing in a very special way for you. The sensations of driving were stronger and you (hopefully) put a great deal of energy and focus into the different aspects of operating a car. Keeping inside your lane, braking smoothly, not driving too fast or too slow. If you’re like me, you give cars a very wide berth when you see a “student driver” sign on it. You know how much that person is trying to keep track of, and it’s not a good idea to be nearby if they make a mistake.
Now that you have more experience behind the wheel, things are different. You intend to “stop” and your foot presses the brake. You intend to “go” and your foot presses the gas. Previously, you had to be conscious of everything just to get the car moving. Now all you need is intention and the car does what you want. It requires no thought. In fact, you can be thinking of anything but driving and still get around just fine.
In the practice of Zen, the Beginner’s Mind (“Shoshin” in Japanese) takes a close look at this change. When something is new and unfamiliar, we are inclined to approach it with openness and a sense of being present in the moment. Over time, though, we feel that we know the thing. The newness is gone and our approach becomes more mechanical. Our actions no longer need our participation and we begin to feel bored, distracted or just simply not there.
Beginner’s Mind comes from a willingness to put aside the perspective that something is old and familiar, and engage it with fresh eyes as if for the first time. This strategy permits openness and eagerness to return to our experience. We find that joy is possible where before there was only stagnation.
Periodically, we experience a surge in enrollment at Traditional Martial Arts Academy. When this happens, new people joining the Dojang raises the available energy for training. But more importantly, our classes become flooded with the eagerness of beginners. For me personally, it is inspiring to be reminded of the excitement and fun of martial arts and to see my own exhilaration reflected in students’ faces.
Another benefit of cultivating Beginner’s Mind is how it can transform awareness and understanding. In martial arts, we are learning skills and developing our bodies in ways that require much practice with many repetitions. Over time, this may become old and tedious. As you take on this perspective, you begin to limit what you see and experience. But, if you approach everything as if it is your first time, you will begin to see things that you never saw before. After twenty-three years, I’m still uncovering hidden jewels in the same material that I learned in my first month of training.
I often tell my students that they should approach every movement as if it were their last. This mindset is powerful for committing every ounce of effort to your training. If you feel you will never have another chance, you don’t hold anything back. Now, as you approach your technique as if it were the last time, also explore what it is like to approach it as if it were also the first time.
This approach can have a significant impact on your awareness and there are ways to practice the beginner’s mindset so that you specifically improve your awareness. This is important because in self-defense, awareness is your most valuable attribute. In fight or flight situations, our brains tend to shut down and we go into reaction mode; however, maintaining a clear awareness of what is going on will keep you safe better than any technique you could learn. Awareness will show you openings for defense and escape, and will help you get out of a dangerous situation.
But even more important to self-defense is the application of awareness before a situation gets dangerous. If you are attacked in a dark alley, awareness will give you the mental clarity to see your assailant’s weaknesses and see your escape routes– but even better to have had the awareness not to go into the alley in the first place! Many assaults can be prevented by simply paying attention to your environment and applying your better judgment to avoid dangerous situations.
One way that we lose awareness is through what is called “Monkey Mind”. Monkeys are playful and energetic, and they don’t sit still very well. The Monkey Mind is the inclination for our minds to drift from our present circumstances and go play. As I described above, when we first start driving, we are very present in the process because everything is very new. But once driving becomes familiar, the Monkey Mind kicks in and our awareness is everywhere but in our car.
In terms of self-defense, Monkey Mind can cause us to stumble into dangerous situations (like a dark alley) because we are not paying attention to what is going on around us. One exercise that is helpful when commuting (by car, bus, foot, etc.) is to look for something new the entire trip. See if you can find something on your route that you’ve never seen before. Look at the trees, buildings, signs and even the people and see what you can find that you have never seen before. This exercise forces your awareness outside of yourself (and away from the Monkey) and projects it into your environment.
This is an excellent exercise to teach children, especially if they travel to and from school without you. By teaching them to look for new things, and even making a game of it, you teach them to pay attention to their environment without having to motivate them through fear.
This is a powerful exercise that moves us from the Monkey Mind and returns us to the Beginner’s Mind, a state of present awareness and openness. It can also be applied in areas other than self-defense. One of the areas in our lives that we lose Beginner’s Mind is in our relationships, especially with those whom we love the most. We get to a place where we feel we know them and who they are. We create an image in our mind of this person as our child, parent, spouse or friend. Eventually, we only see the image and no longer see them. Much of the conflict that we create in our relationships are dark alleys that we never see coming because we were not present enough in our awareness to see the other person for who they actually are. Instead, we paid attention to who we thought they were or who we wanted them to be.
The attachment to this image can be a very powerful, especially when we fixate onto who we want the other person to be. We can again look to monkeys for an illustration of how this works. In parts of Africa and the Indian Subcontinent, people catch monkeys for food. The trap is a simple one. Simply put a tasty piece of fruit inside a jug with a narrow opening and then chain that jug to a stake in the ground. Eventually, a monkey will come by and reach his hand into the jug for the tasty piece of fruit. Once his hand grabs it though, it is too big to be pulled back out. He will pull and pull, his hand remaining in the jug. His mind is attached to having the tasty piece of fruit, it never occurs to him that simply letting go will free him. Even when the hunters return to take him, he never loses his attachment to the tasty piece of fruit.
For us, these images of people are our tasty pieces of fruit. The perfect child, the dream spouse or partner, the loving parents, the best friend – these all represent labels that we impose onto unique individuals as if they were idealized portraits. Often, when they don’t meet our expectations, we get upset with them rather than recognize that our expectations are our own creations. Our expectations are the attachment to a tasty piece of fruit that prevents us from seeing reality.
So, you can practice Beginner’s Mind in your relationships. In each interaction, see what you can find that you’ve never seen before. See what happens when you open yourself to the possibility of surprise. How will you experience others if you approach them as if you are an explorer and they are mysterious and unknown to you?
This is not to say you can’t enjoy a tasty piece of fruit. Just be cautious of jugs chained to the ground!