This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen © 2009.
"Beginners' mind" refers to the state of trying to shed the burden of assumptions in order to be open to learning. How hard is this? Just think about all the Aikiweb discussions about how students at seminars don't seem to be doing what the instructor is demonstrating!
Very often it seems to be the more advanced students who have the most difficulty. I don't think it's an epidemic of arrogance, but that often they are making (not so) useful assumptions based on more highly developed pattern recognition. The mind says, "Oh, he's doing shihonage, OK, I can do that." At that point observation stops, and the person starts rehearsing the pattern for the shihonage that is already in the body.
In the June, 2002, issue of Discover magazine there was an article titled "Sight Unseen" by Michael Abrams. It profiled Mike May, a highly achieving professional and athlete who had been blinded at the age of three in an accident. In 1999, corneal stem cells were placed into one of his eyes (the other was deemed beyond repair), and in early 2000 he began to look at the world.
When the article was written, May should have had 20/20 vision in that eye; instead, functionally, he had 20/500. He could not read facial expressions. He could not, at first, distinguish a cube from a sphere. As an artist the thing that most fascinated me about Mays was his issues with "perspective."
When I was a child, I was taught that a hallmark of Western art is the use of a vanishing point at the horizon, at which all lines converge; that is, the familiar row of fenceposts making an inverted "v" as they get further away. This contrasts with the Eastern way of depicting space on the picture plane, having whatever is further away higher up in the picture. As it was taught to me in the 1960s, there was an implicit value judgment that since we obviously see the convergence to the vanishing point that this was more accurate, and the Eastern version artificial or stylized.
Well, Mike May spent most of his life experiencing hallways and roads as the parallel lines they actually are. It never occurred to him that they might converge at some point in the distance. And, newly sighted, he was blind to the illusions we have somehow learned to accept. Optical illusions didn't work for him and he never saw the "V" at the horizon.
I took two lessons from this article: One, don't assume that what you perceive is reality. Two, don't assume that what you think is reality is hardwired and not taught.
But can we go through life questioning and testing reality every moment? In fact, we make useful assumptions all the time. They help us swiftly filter and prioritize input, preserving our sanity and health. Sometimes it works. Most drivers make successful left turns without consciously thinking about the exact speed and distance of each oncoming vehicle. An artist quickly grabs the right tube of color, an editor scans the page and spots the typo, a birdwatcher or hunter spots the visual anomaly that is a bird in the reeds.
But our filters aren't foolproof. In birdwatching, this is when you learn to cheerfully report the presence of "the giant dead leaf bird." In dealings with humans or large fast moving hunks of metal on the street, the results of acting on a severe misreading of patterns can range from embarrassment to death.
And in the dojo, if we remember to bow in with open eyes and to train based on moment-to-moment reality, rather than on our expectations and assumptions, then we have a real opportunity to learn and grow.
"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.