At the beginning of every great endeavour there is limitless potential. When we take our first steps on a new path, we have no previous experience to temper our beliefs or confine our expectations about where it will lead us, how we will develop along the way or what we will give back to the world as a result. We can only look forward with faith that we have much to learn and excitement about what it will be. This is the value of shoshin, “beginner’s mind”.
A beginner’s mind is in a unique state of receptibility. It is scared but eager to learn; excited for what it will receive but ready to challenge what it does not understand. It may be reckless at times, but it is not without a sense of respect for the unknown. Pride and humility intermingle in a beginner’s mind; passionate fight learns to surrender to the guidance of others to grow, but unabashed instinct keeps it from kneeling to guidance that is itself misguided. This state is rough and wild but open and pliable - a ready student. To maintain a beginner’s mind is to be a constant student, always willing to ask questions, make mistakes and learn from them. It is to be open to learning in any capacity with no preconceived ideas, attitudes or ego.
When attitudes acquired from experience over many years become fixed, they can restrict our progress. In such instances, we need to rediscover the perspective of a beginner to move forward. To do this, we must lay ego aside and acknowledge that what we do not yet know is just as vast as it ever was, that it grows with every new insight we acquire, and that we must renew our sense of possibility if we hope to grow with it. There are many times in our lives that we would benefit from dismantling our expectations and recentering our focus, but rarely do we give ourselves the mental space to do so. Cultivating shoshin entails putting in the effort to declutter our minds of the obstacles and limitations we impose on ourselves so that we can return to a state of receptiveness.
Embracing the receptiveness of shoshin allows us to move forward unencumbered by the bindings of the past. We all have many stories, both good and bad, acquired from our life experiences that shape our self-concept and influence our actions, but they need not define us. We can always write a new story that grants us a different perspective and there are many situations when it would be in our best interest to do so. Like the elemental aspects of taijutsu that cyclically enable and cancel each other in response to situational needs, continuously constructing and deconstructing the narratives that shape our self-concepts allows us to accept and adapt to new circumstances and keeps us learning all the time.
Willingness to learn all the time is a necessity for new students, senior students and instructors alike. It is what allows us to improve not only our martial arts skills, but all aspects of our lives. We progress in life when we have the humility to recognize all that we do not know, the drive to keep learning without limit, and the commitment to do it together. It is not just the lessons we learn but the perspectives from which they can be interpreted that keep us in a perpetual state of progress. In this way, masters learn from beginners as beginners learn from masters, and they have an indelible effect on each other’s path.
The magnitude of all that we do not know will always keep us in possession of a beginner’s mind – we need only recognize this to unlock new potential. Truly advanced practitioners understand that each step on the budo path is a new beginning and appreciate the value of shoshin. To maintain the value of shoshin, we must continue moving forward even as we stumble in our knowledge and abilities, trusting that our progress will refine them in time and embracing every opportunity to begin again.