This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2011.
In 1997, Tiger Woods was already the number one golfer in the world. He'd won the Masters with a record score and a record margin of victory. Then, he faded. Only a single win in 1998. Clearly just a flash in the pan, right?
No, he was working on his swing. He came back better than ever, and from 1999 until 2002 was one of the most dominating players in the history of golf.
Then he did it again, failing to win a major in either 2003 or 2004 before retaking the top spot in 2005.
Think about that for a minute. A man at the very top of his game, already an icon, spent two years in a self-imposed slump because he was trying to get better.
In aikido, we call that beginner's mind. Everyone agrees that it's a good thing, but how many people actually practice it consistently? Beginners do — being beginners, they have no choice. But fifth-kyu shihan syndrome is well-known, as is brown belt disease. Go to any seminar and you'll see plenty of people falling back to their old habits instead of whatever the instructor is demonstrating.
Beginner's mind is hard. No one enjoys doing things wrong. Everyone wants technique that "works," especially when people are watching. But the reason why beginner's mind is so important is that the alternative is really just a way of lying to yourself.
Suppose I'm a brown belt or a relatively junior black belt, up in front of a class full of beginners. I call someone up to take ukemi, confidently step in to execute the technique … and he doesn't budge. Uh oh. Now what?
Well, since he's a beginner, he's probably doing lots of things wrong. I can correct his posture, explain why being rigid is a bad idea, encourage him to relax, and one way or another probably create a situation in which I can get him to fall down.
But then I visit other dojos, or go to seminars, and it keeps happening. My technique doesn't work away from my own dojo, either. Now there's a problem. I'm a black belt. I've been training for a long time. I should be pretty good at this by now, shouldn't I?
It must be uke's fault. He's not committed enough, or relaxed enough. He's not really attacking, or he's attacking in a way that makes my technique impossible. Or he's just being rude, misunderstanding the purpose of the exercise, misunderstanding the purpose of training, the goals of aikido.
All of which may be true. Still, my technique doesn't work.
The easiest way to solve such a problem is to avoid it. Don't go to seminars, or only train with friends if I do. Avoid the more obnoxious members of my own dojo. Decide that my dojo is too martial, and train somewhere that emphasizes aikido's more philosophical side.
None of which will improve my aikido, of course, but these solutions allow my ego to protect itself from failure and embarrassment. That's important too, right?
Well, no. Not if I'm looking for a practice that refines the spirit. Not if I want to polish the mirror, sharpen the sword, or any of those metaphors that budoka like to use. You can't forge steel without fire. You can't learn to do something well unless you're willing to do it badly.
It's hard. Standing in front of a class with an uke who doesn't move isn't much fun. Getting whacked with a shinai because my irimi is inadequate really starts to sting after a while.
Watching my teachers helps. This is one of the ways — perhaps one of the most important ways — in which teachers light the path for the rest of us to follow.
The first draft of this column included a section about how hard it must be to have beginner's mind when your livelihood depends on getting up in front of a class and showing what you can do. I cut it because I don't actually know. I just know that I have enormous respect for the teachers who can walk into a class and present a new version of a technique because they've decided the old version didn't work. Or who are willing to put on a white belt and train with teachers from other arts or teachers who have less experience, just to find out what else might be out there.
Those models remind me that I have the luxury of anonymity. I'm not Tiger Woods. I'm not a shihan; I don't have a big number after my name. No one really cares whether my technique works or not. With anonymity comes the freedom to fail as often as I need to in order to actually get good.
Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.