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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > January, 2006 - Shoshin Ni Kaeru
by Ross Robertson

Shoshin Ni Kaeru by Ross Robertson

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My first aikido instructor, Bill Sosa, was an exceptionally patient and loving man. Despite his considerable skills, he preferred to remain humble. He always comported himself as a gentleman. His technique was strong, impeccably controlled, and unambiguous. He was a handsome and very charismatic man -- someone you instinctively wanted to please, and feared disappointing.

After some time in training, I began to feel that progress was being made. Eventually I asked the question that probably most students in any dojo will ask: "So, how am I doing, Sensei?" I waited with innocent curiosity. His twinkling eyes slightly narrowed, Bill calmly turned and said in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, "Well, frankly, not very good." He then sized me up as if picking through vegetables at the market. My posture was lousy, he said. I couldn't keep my one-point. I was always looking for and leaning on outside support.

I felt humiliated. My face burned with a scalding shame. I was angry at him. Wasn't this the man who was supposed to be encouraging us, raising us up to new heights? In spite of my anger, I continued to train, determined to prove him wrong about me. As time went by, I observed others commit the same faux pas. I would watch as our beloved teacher systematically flayed skin from bone, leaving new students raw, bleeding, and exposed. Whatever particular fault he found, he would always come back to the same theme: You are leaning on some outside support that doesn't exist.

The pattern was so consistent that I finally deciphered his code. He didn't really care all that much about the little imperfections he so casually laid bare. After all, he knew we were beginners. What he would not tolerate was the tendency to make him more of an authority over ourselves than we were. Although the punishment seemed brutal, his message was not. We needed to learn how to evaluate ourselves, to stand on our own feet. He was insisting that we be our own authority. He was there to help us learn expertise, not to hold himself up as The Expert.

Now, with my own students, I try to convey the same idea, but a bit more gently. "Sensei, am I doing this right?" No, but neither am I. You're doing fine, keep on improving. How does it feel to you?

There is the old saying that perfection is the enemy of good. In a similar spirit, I would also suggest that knowledge is the enemy of learning, and that learning is the enemy of experiencing. As soon as we think we are doing it right, we stop paying attention. We kill the experience. Our understanding ossifies and becomes inert, until some later event forces another brutal awakening.

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

-- "Tao Te Ching," trans. Jane English

How then, to make progress along a path? One way is to look back and see how far we've come, what we've gained, what scars, what trophies. We look ahead at the tantalizing vistas, and see how far we have yet to go. As we move, we are measuring our movement.

Alternatively, we could take each step, each breath, as a miraculous encounter. Memory of the past is right here, vividly present and alive. Perception of the future meets us exactly where we are. Awareness brings time and space into a vast and coherent singularity. We move with the flow of energy, not knowing where it's been or where it's going. We find the stillness that comes from moving with the movement.

"Shoshin ni kaeru" is often translated as "back to basics." "Shoshin" is also interpreted to mean "beginner's mind," or "first mind."

It's interesting that we are asked to "return" rather than adhere to. This means the process is not one of fixation, but rather a cycle of going forward and coming back. In discovery, in finding the answers, the mystery deepens, and so this starting place moves forward with us. Every step is the first step, every answer is the next question. "Shoshin" is the primal impulse, or original intent. This intent comes from the realization that there is something to be known, but not yet known.

"Not knowing" is why we set out on the path. "Not knowing" is what keeps us seeking. What do we seek? Not something around the corner, not something next year, or some ridiculous "20 year technique." Nor do we seek the emptiness of the Zen master's teacup.

Rather, we seek an infinitely renewable fullness. We seek clarity of each encounter, immediacy and connection with what is happening.

If you are not deeply, passionately in love, right this moment, you are not paying attention. If you are not terrified of the awesomeness of being, you are not paying attention. Every time you bow, you stand on the edge of a fearsome abyss. Abandon any thought of ever crossing, but step forward anyway. Every time you bow to a partner, you are meeting your lover. Remember the embarrassment, remember the foolish feelings of inadequacy, remember the giddy not-caring anyway? Every moment of this love is a little death. We are consumed and all our past is gone like the smoke of incense. And yet, here we are, laughing because we're here. Remember?

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling,
they are given wings.

-- Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks

Return to basics. Yes, by all means, keep coming back to your introductory lessons, those fundamental exercises. But deeper still, go back not to where you began, but why you began. Aikido is not just a thing to keep us alive in an emergency. Being alive, how can we not do aikido? Being alive, every moment is emergent, critical, and pregnant.

"Not knowing" is not the same thing as ignorance. It is the acceptance of things to be discovered. How will this encounter unfold? I don't know. But I do know how to follow it so that I will find out. Certainly not because of any technique I know (you can't know technique and still be a beginner). I know only because I am committed to staying with it and paying attention.

"Shoshin" is the opening of the mind. Shoshin is the opening heart. Whatever comes, let it in. Wherever it goes, follow it through.

It is only in the beginning that we're truly young.

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