This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2015, all rights reserved.
I don't know how to write this column. The first couple of drafts … bleh. Too preachy, too much false certainty when doubt is the whole point.
I know where I'm going, I think. I want to talk about beginner's mind, and achieving it when one is no longer a beginner. But how to start?
I tried the meta-discussion, about how language obscures as much as it reveals and sometimes seeing something as a big capital letter Concept just adds complexity. That approach stumbled into the weeds pretty quickly.
And I tried listing all of the opportunities that open up if you're willing to say, "I don't know." That was better, but about three paragraphs in I realized I sounded so sanctimonious and preachy I was making myself ill.
I'm a professional writer. I'm supposed to be able to toss off a column like this in my sleep, and here I am surrounded by crumpled paper. (Yes, I'm old school.) At least if I really were a beginner, I'd have an excuse.
That's the problem with beginner's mind, isn't it? That nagging voice that says, "I'm supposed to know this." Even if something is demonstrably not working, even if your practice partners are laughing good-naturedly at each successive failure, the ego still wants to say, "Leave me alone. I've got this."
No, I don't, but it's okay. I don't know how to write this column, but I know how to put one sentence in front of the next and eventually get to something worth revising. I don't know how to execute a particular technique, but maybe if I slide a foot here and rotate my core a little there I can float my partner off his base and get him moving again.
Or maybe he knows what I'm doing wrong? Maybe if I ask what he's feeling?
Now we're getting somewhere. "I'm a little stuck here. How does the right side feel different from the left?" "I'm not sure why this isn't working. What does it feel like to you?"
Or even, "Sensei, I'm getting stuck and I'm not sure why."
This asking questions bit is pretty magical, really. It even works if you're teaching the class. "What would everyone like to work on this evening?" "I don't know what happens if you do that, let's try it and see." "I'm not sure what that guest instructor meant, either. Let's look at it together."
As a writer, I never have to show anyone my early drafts. On the other hand, editors can't offer suggestions if they don't see what I'm trying to do. For martial artists, though, our mistakes are out there for our partners and teachers to see. They can probably see things we can't, if we're willing to listen.
It's an iterative process, a successive approximation. We all start, as beginners, by just trying to learn the geometry of each technique. Over the years, the approximation becomes more and more refined, closer and closer to the ideal. Yet the ideal is always changing, too. Our partners become more skilled. Our goals become more subtle. Our understanding of what our teachers are doing becomes more complete. We become more able to appreciate a change in angle here, a release of tension there. "I don't know" is the magic phrase that opens up more layers, more nuances.
I still don't know how to write this column, but I think this draft is one that I'm willing to share. If I keep practicing, keep making adjustments, maybe I'll have a better version further down the road.
"The Mirror" is written by a roster of women who describe themselves as a disparate bunch of scientists, healers, artists, teachers, and, yes, writers. Over ten years into this collaboration we find we are a bunch of middle-aged yudansha from various parts of the world and styles of aikido. What we share is a lively curiosity about and love for both life and budo, and an inveterate tendency to write about our explorations.