Friday, December 15, 2006

Beginner's Mind

Recently I started looking around for a new physical discipline. My body is very accustomed to the rhythms and flow of yoga, and although I am far from any mastery of yoga I was feeling the loss of my "Beginner's Mind."
"Beginner's Mind" is a really important phrase in both my and Gwen's life. Like most people, we came across it from Shunryu Suzuki's book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.""Beginner's Mind" on the surface has a simple meaning. Try to do things with the spirit of an absolute beginner. When a beginner approaches a task they don't have any assumptions about how it should be done. They look at everything with fresh eyes.

When I was a kid I used to hang out at the arcade. This was the early 90's; the golden age of the fighting game. Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, and Samurai Showdown were the games we all came to see and be seen on. I was pretty good, and could beat most people who challenged me, but I remember that the hardest people to fight were those who had never played the game before. They just went crazy, smashing all the buttons and waving the joystick in all directions. None of my attacks worked because the new person wasn't playing right, there was no sense of timing, no special attacks, it was just random button pushing. In fact, when we veterans would get beat like that, we'd console ourselves by saying "don't worry about it man, that guy was just a button pusher."But you know, those button pushers had the most fun of any of us. They were just happy to see their character move around the screen and do cool stuff. That's beginner's mind. But in time they would learn about the special moves and combos and then they became really easy to beat, because suddenly they were trying to win.

So I asked around and researched and decided, in tribute to my youth as a video game brawler, to try a martial art. Originally my plan was a soft art to complement yoga, such as judo, aikido or even tai chi, which is based on martial arts. But I couldn't find a style that fit my schedule and location. I was asking my friend Kaz about it one day and he mentioned that he had seen a new karate dojo just down the street from the yoga studio. I checked out their poster and it was like "full contact!" all over the place in exploding font. With some reservations, I climbed up to the 3rd floor to check the place out.

Well, they were really nice, and after a few kicks and punches I was really into it. It was such a change from yoga, but not jarring. Instead of using the muscles for pinpoint control, I was using them for explosive power. But it's the same muscles, and the balance and breath are all similiar to yoga.

But a few things bothered me, especially "sanchin dachi." This is the basic stance in karate and looks like this:At first I just couldn't see how this could be a helpful way to stand. The knees and ankles are torqued like crazy, the joints are all out of line, and the spine is forced into an awkward compact curve. I kept widening my stance, and the sensei kept correcting me. After half an hour I realized that I was carrying over a lot of ideas about how the body should be positioned from my yoga experience, and that, even in my first lesson, I had lost my beginner's mind. So I relaxed, listened to the teacher, and didn't worry about why, just enjoyed the how.

Well, I've been practicing karate hard for a month now, and I can say the sanchin dachi continually surprises me. What I felt as unnatural torque in the joints is actually more like a wound up spring, and when you throw a punch (combined with a twist of the hips) you can powerfully release that energy. In addition, having your legs closed allows for easy blocks of low kicks.

That's just one small example of how letting go and not thinking so much has taught me more than forcing my preconceptions onto things. But the true meaning of beginner's mind is not about how to be good at any physical activity, but how to approach yourself. Beginner's mind ultimately means looking at everything, including your thoughts, without judgment, without endless commentary, without an overlay of the ego. It means to be in the moment, truly alive.

Hai Ya!

Yoga Garden