On Beginner Mind, Chess and Cuddling

A few thoughts on jiu-jitsu reside below. I put this post out on my friend Jason’s website Q-Jitsu a few weeks ago, and have decided that I would share it here to reach a wider peer group, in anticipation for a follow-up post on the subject to be released on Q-Jitsu in the next few days. I’ll be discussing the subject of strength.

For any of you who may have seen the many pictures that my club share on Facebook or Instagram, check out Team Pedro Sauer UK and get involved – it would be good to see any of you come and visit us.

The concept of “beginner mind”, or shoshin, stems directly from the teachings of Zen Buddhism. It represents the open-minded and humble approach to any form of studying at any level and is relevant when setting out all the way through to mastery. Zen Masters have been attempting to teach budding students of Buddhism the ways to this expertise for many centuries, not without some difficulty.

This topic is discussed in depth in two of my favourite books, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Zen in the Art of Archery“, both of which are long overdue reviews as they are fantastic books. It is also covered heavily in the collection of essays that make up “Zen Mind, Beginner Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. There may be a vast difference between the mechanical process of mending a steel horse and notching an arrow to loose, but the thought process from a Zen perspective is the same.

Motorcycle maintenance is a hobby and a utility skill; archery is a martial art. Given that this Zen approach has been notably applied to flower-arranging and the tea ceremony,  somewhat more artistic skills, for it to be extended to maintenance of a vehicle is some stretch. However in the knowledge that archery and swordsmanship were two of the greatest vessels of beginner mind, it is only a logical leap for it to encompass all martial arts.

There will forever be a place for beginner mind in jiu-jitsu. Most of us get into jiu-jitsu out of pure curiosity, borne either from enjoyment of a combat sport on television such as mixed-martial arts or wrestling, or from the uncomfortable situation of being a big guy who is powerless when grappling with a smaller guy.

I got into jiu-jitsu aged 10, as another boy who I played rugby alongside had been going with his family. At that time it was Japanese/traditional jiu-jitsu, which I practiced for almost 10 years. I then had a six-year hiatus, before retiring from rugby after leaving the military and needing to fill a void. I fell back into Brazilian jiu-jitsu by a serendipitous string of events, and the passion was instantly aflame once more. After my absence it was all too obvious to me how little I remembered. When I competed as a junior, my strength and weight developed from rugby allowed me to dominate other kids in what resembled at times more a wrestling contest than a jiu-jitsu sparring match. I remember all traces of humility gone, thinking I was a thoroughbred horse, championship material. My return to BJJ bought me crashing back down to earth in what must be considered the best possible way.

Beginner mind set in from the first class, as it pervaded the entire class. Because our club is small and in a different country to the heads of our association, the club was led by two higher-grade blue belts and the majority of the members were white belts, but even among those with multiple years of experience the atmosphere screamed humility. There was no room for ego in that room. The open-mindedness, the calm and the positive reinforcement of each other’s learning bred the perfect environment for rapid development and it showed in the improvement rate of all of the participants. As it permeated into every new joiner, the room progressed almost as one empowered by each other’s shoshin.

In the present day, I have just received the fourth stripe on my white belt. Our club now has over 10 blue and purple belts, and it goes from strength to strength. Yet for every grading, for every stripe and for every new member, those of us that train week-in and week-out have one lesson reinforced in our minds after every single class – how gaping the void remains between where we are and where we wish to be. Beginner mind is part of the club, and has no plans to leave. It is fed from the top down, by the humility and humour of the instructors; know that if you run a club, you set the tone for all of the members.

Jiu-jitsu is a perfect vehicle for learning beginner mind, because it brings together two dramatically separate domains in a perfect conflation; the mental and the physical. Mentally it is a game of chess, a sparring match with an opponent based on a requisite knowledge base of potential moves and counter-moves. Physically, jiu-jitsu is a war. It can be as fast or as slow-paced as the people engaged in the martial dance allow it to be, and it requires strength, flexibility, poise and body-control. It is truly the “gentle art”.

When beginner mind is applied to technical endeavours such as flower-arranging, painting and chess, the conscious mind is detached from the individual. You almost take a back step from your own body when you engage in any of these activities, and feel as if you are watching yourself in the third-person in some sort of slow-motion. You watch the work of your hands and let your mind be a conduit, knowing that what you wish to create is already in there and you try and eliminate all the noise that fills that connection to allow the creativity to emerge.

When this comes to jiu-jitsu however, you are engaged in a heavily-physical pursuit whilst this mental process occurs simultaneously. As the action is happening, you are constantly thinking “What is my opponent doing? Am I taking the right steps to neutralise his action? How can I best counter what he is doing? What techniques do I know that can counter his action?” This internal monologue is in constant flow in your head, even as the physical action itself is occurring. They are separate entities, but entities that are intrinsically tied together.

To develop your jiu-jitsu, you have to be mindful. Longing for stripes, belts and progression in jiu-jitsu will only slow you down. In this gentle art, you have to be fully in the moment both in mind and in body, embracing and engaging with all the stimuli assailing you and noticing as much as possible. The more you notice, the more mindful you are in the moment, the more learning you will open yourself up to, to be absorbed directly through your body and lodged permanently into your mind.

Even as you progress through the belts, towards your blue, purple, brown or even black belt, being constantly chained to your own vulnerability and remaining excited by every new skill or technique that you see will keep the art forever young in your eyes. You will always see jiu-jitsu through the eyes of a beginner.

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