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The Belt Rank I’m Most Proud of…
In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryu Suzuki states:
“In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means ‘beginner’s mind.’ The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. …In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”
The practice of cultivating a “beginner’s mind” has been foundational to my meditation practice, my professional creative work as a designer, and, as I’ve discovered, in my kung fu journey as well.
For me, simply beginning anything is difficult (I’ve perfected the art of procrastination!), let alone maintaining the beginner’s open-minded detachment to achievement. Before I start a work project, the vastness of possibilities gape in front of me. Anxiety sets in as the blank page stares back—what if I don’t like what I create? Where do I begin? HOW do I begin?
The first step in my kung fu journey was particularly difficult: I have never thought of myself as an “athletic” person. I don’t care for competitive sports in general, and in particular, the comparison of how I do things to how other people do them has been a barrier to participation in more than just sports. This was a barrier I had to overcome before beginning kung fu. There are clearly students in the dojo who are far more advanced than I. There are students who are more flexible. There are students who are stronger, more precise, more fluid...
Fortunately, I got to know the dojo’s students and senseis before I began taking classes. My wife (Sensei Michele) has been a part of the community for many years, and as I came to know the people, I realized that everyone was open, accepting, and supportive. So I took a little leap—remembering my beginner’s mind—and became a white belt. I thought, if nothing else, the exercise would be good for me…and I would get to spend time with someone I love in a community of support.
What I’ve found is that this journey is more than just strengthening my body. It has also been good exercise to deepen my understanding of two key aspects of the beginner’s mind. Firstly, as I advance in belt rank, there are new forms, kempos, techniques, and jiu jitsus to learn and remember, in addition to practicing everything that has come before. In a tangible way, it’s truly the act of beginning all over again.
Additionally, a new belt rank has the potential to feel like the “attainment” that Suzuki cautions us about. As I work toward the next belt level, I have to remind myself of his beginner’s mind approach: let go of pre-judgement and anticipation of an end result that doesn’t yet exist. That is, no belt rank will be a final expression, but merely a marker on a never-ending journey. A journey without an end point is simply practice…and practicing is exponentially easier than setting out to create a finished masterpiece.
Approaching each new belt as I did a white belt, with an open and fluid mind—a beginner’s mind, has become essential to remaining focused on my kung fu journey. And for that reason my white belt is an important symbol for me—not only as a marker of my journey’s first step, but also as a reminder: kung fu is a practice, not an end result.
Right foot out to elbows. HEEYA!