A True Beginner’s Mindset: The Path to Advancement

By Sensei Rachel Matheney

It’s funny how when students first begin training in Kokondo they can’t wait to be an advanced student, which each student at some point in time learns is a relative matter. Nonetheless it seems like forever until the moment when one can finally feel relieved at the fact that he or she has learned quite a lot about Kokondo and can finally start feeling comfortable, at least I did. I seemed forever a rookie and always desiring to know more.

Wanting to know more was the good thing but thinking that there would ever be a point when I would know it all or know most of it, or even know enough to feel comfortable was the issue. As I began to grow in my training the desire to become an advanced practitioner was replaced with the desire to learn more and more about each and every aspect that Kokondo had to offer. I no longer viewed advancement as a means of eventually ending the learning process but more as a gateway to deeper and deeper understanding, which quickly lead to the realization of the error in my original thought process. This inevitably lead to an analysis of what it truly means to learn and to know and what is the best way to develop my advancement and knowledge in Kokondo, without hindering my success through the wrong understanding of these topics.

What I eventually concluded was that to be successful in learning one must obtain and flourish in the beginner’s mind. I viewed and picked out some of the most positive aspects of being a beginner by observing others and myself, as I still consider myself a beginner. What I came up with was a few desirable traits that I believe a true beginner has and what a true Kokondo Ka strives to consistently grasp. These attributes are as follows; having a thirst and hunger for information, never being satisfied, striving to exceed one’s comfort zone, never thinking you know it all, and always assuming there’s more to learn.

Thirsting for more is definitely a trait that all Kokondo Ka should have. By thirsting I mean having that feeling that without more information or training that one is figuratively thirsty and that thirst cannot be quenched but through new understanding or progression, which can be done through simply the repetition of a technique to discovering a nuance that was previously unknown, and obviously through many other methods. The point is that students with the beginner’s mind feel the need to always be actively participating in their training. Going through the motions simply won’t cut it for a person of this sort. A person with the beginner’s mind is always trying to overflow an ever-growing cup with more knowledge. It’s never enough or too much. If a beginner is not constantly feeding the brain with more knowledge, whether through physical repetition or mental understanding, then the student feels that this begins to starve his or her progress and as a result hungers for more. Without this feeling of thirst and hunger there is no compulsory driving force to achieve higher levels of understanding and development. However this quest and desire for more does not mean learning more and more techniques. This is what can separate a raw beginner, those who’ve been in the system for a limited amount of time and do not yet have the right mindset, from a student who truly has the beginner’s mindset, which is called shoshin (beginners mind). Many raw beginners often desire more and more techniques and sometimes do so above all else. They equate quantity of technique with knowledge and advancement. For those practicing beginners mind or shoshin it is not about quantity but rather quality, really getting to know more about what they already have learned so far. Getting another technique is the furthest from their minds. They leave that up to their Sensei to worry about. They trust the Sensei to know when to give them new techniques and they don’t stress over what comes next on a list of rank requirements. They would much rather spend their efforts on learning to become great at what they have already been given rather than trying to spread their efforts thin on a whole bunch of techniques that they aren’t even ready for. So instead of trying to obtain that next technique or next level they try to feed their brains and bodies with more understanding of what they have already been taught. In effect, the belts and attainment of new techniques are the summation of this described equation of shoshin. It is the result of advancement, not the means.

Being satisfied with one’s progress is never what a practitioner of shoshin feels. It’s not that one cannot have an appreciation (or even happiness and pride) for the progress that is made but to be satisfied with it is another story. Satisfaction implies contentment and if one is content there is not much of a motivating impulse to improve and strive for higher levels. This means advancement will be stagnant. Therefore the way to advance is never to be satisfied. Instead to always find something to work on. One should never become content with the knowledge or skill gained, but rather to acknowledge hard work and success and after each success to set further goals to deeper understanding and progression. By always establishing and updating goals it is fairly impossible to become satisfied since there is still something to work on. There is still something to tackle and to overcome.

A beginner, from the very first class, is pushed pass his or her comfort zone; everything from falling to learning how to kiai for the first time. Pretty much everything that is taught and expected of a beginner is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for the first few classes and so forth. This causes an explosion of new information and stimulus that one has never experienced but the student learns and develops at a steady and increasing rate as a result. If a student always stays within his or her own comfort zone then the student will never push him or herself to do new things and explore new aspects and levels of learning and understanding, which applies directly to physical and mental aspects. Think about it, if one never makes the effort to go through the mental exhaustion of trying to figure out Jushin (which is a continual process in and of itself) and instead just accepts it at it’s face value, as simply the line that splits the body in half then would that person truly ever understand what Kokondo techniques are all about and why they work? Or would a student really know what a good zenkutsu dachi is if the student never pushes that stance past the comfort of his or her own muscles? Sitting in the stance and pushing it past the comfort level allows a student to know what a good zenkutsu feels like but also it teaches the body to recognize a good stance. This all boils down to pushing past that comfort zone, getting comfortable with that push, and then pushing even further, then repeating the cycle over and over again.

One should never think that he or she knows everything or that there will ever come a point in time when that will happen. This is one of the most dangerous and threatening thoughts that can hinder growth. The minute one starts believing that he or she knows everything there is to know about something, that’s when one stops learning about it. Learning requires active participation on the part of the student. The student has to recognize there is something to learn and then endeavor to discover it, and finally desire to understand it to deeper levels. That process cannot take place if the original recognition of ignorance to the topic does not exist. If you think there’s nothing left to learn then that’s what will be left for you. Nothing! I’m still learning new things about front double wrist grab and I look forward to having that same feeling in twenty, thirty years from now. The ongoing process of discovery and learning is one of things that make Kokondo and having the beginner’s mindset so much fun. For example, it’s been my experience that when students finally understand how to get both legs up in the air in Osoto gari and then are able to actually do it, their faces just light up and I can see the excitement that they feel. If one can understand that feeling or understand how it may feel one day to be able to do that, then imagine having that feeling the rest of one’s life. This is a start to understanding one of the reasons why Kokondo is so great.

Never thinking one knows everything goes hand in hand with assuming there is always something else to learn. One thing that can frequently happen with students is when they feel they have “gotten a technique” they assume the intellectual part of a technique is over or limited and now it’s just a matter of physical repetition and familiarity with a technique that leads to advancement. Although these are two important components to furthering one’s skills, it is not the end of intellectual understandings and discovery. There are so many different angles of analyzation through which to pick apart each technique. The discovery of these different angles can be an exciting and everlasting process through which advancement and higher understanding can take place. It’s what eventually allows a student to start and continue to understand the “cracks and crevices, nooks and crannies” of a technique or any aspect of Kokondo.

These are just a few features of having the beginner’s mindset, features that are everlastingly important to the development of any good Kokondo Ka. It took me a little bit to understand that it was not about knowing everything but more about the journey one takes in learning that really counts, and making sure that journey never ends. That’s what is truly important and what makes a student considered advanced. In fact an advanced student is really just a beginner at heart, one who is not happy until each technique and aspect of Kokondo is looked at and experienced through an infinite number of perspectives and angles.