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Beginner’s Mind


Spring is springing. St. Patrick’s Day is upon us. In my teaching, that means I’ll be sharing the classic Firedance routine (or my version of it, anyway). I’ve been teaching this routine since 2003 and it’s full of things I love: inspiring music, explosive and beautiful choreography, and sweaty fun. But after 14 years, I can get stuck in habit and even boredom with a routine that once brought me to tears. So as we revisit Firedance (and some of the other classic routines from early in my Nia teaching) this week, it seems like a good time to revisit a post from 2012 about beginner’s mind.

(originally posted December 2, 2012)

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki (see link to original lecture)

In 2006, when I was preparing to go to the Nia Black Belt training (the highest level of teacher training in Nia), I went to a martial arts demonstration led by a Black Belt Kendo Master.  At the beginning of the demonstration, he asked, “What does being a Black Belt mean?”  Others in the group said, “It means you are an expert,” “It means you know everything,” and, “It means you could kick my ass.”

BLACK BELT? ME?

I groaned internally.  I was deeply anxious about doing the Black Belt training for these very reasons:  I knew I didn’t know everything and certainly didn’t feel like an expert who could kick anyone’s anything.  I was hit with a wave of insecurity about even thinking about becoming a Black Belt.  I felt like a fraud.

But the Kendo Master smiled kindly and said, “No, being a Black Belt means … now I am a student.”

Now I am a student.  Yes, this was it exactly.  I wasn’t purporting to know everything, but Nia was something that I was passionate about and wanted to learn in depth.  This definition helped me see that by becoming a Black Belt, I was saying that NOW I was really ready to study and learn.

This definition of Black Belt connects with the idea of Beginner’s Mind.  Beginner’s Mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism and is defined as an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

EXPERT WORSHIP

Our American culture is replete with expert worship.  There is a pervasive idea that if we don’t know something, that we should turn to experts to know what to do (or buy or think or be).  And, so this line of thinking goes, whatever the expert says is exactly what we should do (or buy or think or be).

There are two main drawbacks to the expert worship approach.  First, if you are the one turning to an expert, this approach elevates those with experience to an untenable and unrealistic place of all-knowingness.  Second, if you ARE the expert or experienced one, expert worship encourages you to feign that you know all the answers rather than approaching everything, even things you’ve done 1,000 or 10,000 times with the inquisitiveness and freshness of beginner’s mind.

“I’VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE”

While it is important to gather information from experienced sources when wanting to learn or understand anything, it is important to approach all expert information with a discerning mind and an awareness that no one can know everything about anything.  The greatest teachers are always learning themselves and are willing to be surprised.  I took a wonderful on-line poetry course this fall (see Coursera for their offerings).  The professor, Al Filreis, has been teaching poetry in the Ivy League for 35 years.  More than once, he said, “I’ve been reading this poem for decades and I’ve never thought about it that way before.”  His approach is that we are figuring things out together with all of our experiences and insights as resources.  Beginner’s mind empowers both expert and novice to be open to new information and perspectives.

YOUR BLACK BELT

So what are you a Black Belt in?  What do you love to know/learn/do?  What would you be willing to approach with fresh eyes and an open mind every time?  Whether it is playing the cello, or learning about the Civil War, preparing healthful meals for your family or mowing your own lawn, you are an expert in something.  Beginner’s mind invites you to do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm as if you’d never done it before.  As we enter into the holiday season, do you feel like you’ve “been there done that”?  Or have you “always” done things this way and feel entrained to those choices?  Whatever it is (especially if you find yourself resisting change or resisting letting go of the idea of yourself as an all-knowing expert), see if you can step in next time with the energy, wonder and excitement of a beginner and see how that changes your experience.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the hey the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

P12 Gandhi quote

Principle 12 – Continuing Education

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Principle 12, Continuing Education, is about making a personal and professional commitment to your ongoing growth and education with Nia. This principle is more than a concept and a practice; it is a way of living.

***

From conscious actions such as speaking, to unconscious functions such the pumping of your heart, your body lives and breathes with a natural intelligence that is always taking in information—always learning about itself so it can make adjustments to support its highest state of functioning. By merging the two intelligences of sensing and thinking, you tap into an awareness we call the “thinking body.” Here, your true capacity for perception and self-knowing unfolds. To access the thinking body is to develop body literacy—the ability to listen, understand and consciously respond to the information your body communicates to your mind via sensation. Once you develop body literacy, every sensation becomes a powerful form of education you can use to transform your life.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

On Friday, November 14, Charlottesville hosts a TEDx conference: a day of local and international speakers sharing ideas worth spreading. I have the great good fortune to be the speaker coach for Jim Harshaw, who will be giving a TEDx talk called “Why I Teach My Children to Fail.” On the face of it, Jim’s talk is about failure as part of the process toward success, but really, what he’s talking about is continuing education. (Coincidence that Principle 12 falls on the week of TEDx? I think not.) Continuing education is about constantly choosing to step beyond what we already know into new areas of learning and growth.

Continuing Education is about being willing to suck.

During Nia trainings, Nia Founder Carlos Rosas would remind us over and over that the only way we’d improve as teachers (or partners or parents or people) is to be willing to suck: to be willing to flail and not know and stumble and forget everything and totally, completely stink. In Zen Buddhism this practice is called “shoshin” or “beginner’s mind” (I wrote about this a while back). Shoshin is an attitude of openness and curiosity, a willingness to learn something new, even when practicing at an advanced level. In some ways, then, the longer we practice and the more we know, the more challenging Principle 12 (aka shoshin, aka beginner’s mind, aka willingness to suck) can be.

Often I forget that learning and practice are two different things. Once I’ve learned something, I can practice it over and over and train myself to do it more easefully. But learning is awkward. As my brain and body endeavor to do something unfamiliar, I feel vulnerable and clumsy and uncomfortable. Awkward is simply what it feels like to learn.

And, if I’m really in the spirit and practice of Principle 12, I seek out that awkward feeling even while doing things that I’ve done a thousand times before. Continuing education is to be willing to suck — even at things we’ve done for a long time.

No matter what you want to do better ~ teach Nia, play ice hockey, parent a child, sing opera, give a TED Talk ~ some part of that learning will feel spazzy and uncomfortable. At some point in the learning process, you will suck. You will flail and fail. As Jim Harshaw will say on Friday at TEDx, the inevitable failures aren’t bad things to be avoided but are simply part of the process of continuing your education and enhancing your life.

It takes courage to be willing to suck, so Continuing Education takes courage. It is much more comfortable to stay in safe, known territory than to risk suckage. But it is only by finding that courage and taking those risks that we can be our best and discover what is possible.

 

P1 Joy of Movement Carlos rockin outThe Unofficial Guide to the 13 Nia Principles:

Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

“Nia Principles?! I don’t even do Nia!” If that is you, fear not, this post is part of a series exploring the 13 Principles of Nia as they apply to anything you do with your body. As long as you have a body, the 13 Principles (and this series) have something to offer you. Since beginning my practice of The Nia Technique in 1999, what keeps me interested in Nia isn’t the particular movements we do in class. What’s compelling about Nia is the universality and the practical application of the 13 Principles. The particular movements you happen to do don’t matter at all – whether it’s Nia’s 52 moves or asanas in a yoga series or dribbling a basketball or weeding a garden or walking a dog. The principles apply to every kind of movement – every sport, every practice, every single movement performed with the human body. This unofficial, practical guide to the 13 principles is designed to help everybody and anybody experience more ease, health, and pleasure in the body – no matter what kind of movement you do.

Principle 1 – The Joy of Movement

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Joy has a physical sensation, which encourages us to embrace the body as it is and move in such a way as to create further Joy and pleasure. The ‘Capital J’ Joy we speak of in Nia is different from emotional enjoyment. The Joy of Movement is a physical sensation, experienced through the body. Your body is the source of the Joy of Movement. If anything distracts you, come back to the body. To experience the Joy of Movement, you simply need to consciously choose to sense Joy – and then let it in. … If Joy is not present, tweak your movement by making small modifications to what your body is doing. Keep seeking the sensation of Joy. Once you find it, sustain it.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Joy” is a red herring in Principle 1. The key is that the Joy in the Joy of Movement is the “Big J Joy” not the “little j joy.” Joy in Principle 1 isn’t necessarily about happiness or pleasure or excitement or even enJOYment but about presence in the body no matter what is happening. Whatever you’re doing, be here for it.

One day, soon after I started my Nia practice, I made a thoughtless comment to Frank about his dishwashing habits. He considered it for a few minutes and then proceeded to tell me how hurtful my words had been and how many women would love to have someone with his dishwashing habits.

There are few things in this world I hate more than being in trouble with someone. When someone is angry with me, my usual response is to get the hell out of the situation as fast as possible. My favorite escape strategies are to cry, run away, stop listening or strike back. This time, however, I looked straight at Frank and listened both to what he was saying and to the sensations in my body. I could feel my stomach get tight, my heart contract, and my breath quicken. I adjusted my stance so I felt more stable and I thought to myself, “This is the Joy of Being In Trouble.”

The Joy of Movement or Being in Trouble or Anything At All is about being right here to experience it. A tweak — a small modification to what your body is doing — is an act of self-compassion.  In the case of me being in trouble, I adjusted my feet so I felt more grounded and supported.  A tweak allows me to take care of and be kind to myself in the midst of whatever is happening.

One of my meditation teachers uses the phrase “it’s like this right now” to remind me to stay present without grasping to keep something going or resisting and pushing something away. She also teaches self-compassion and kindness.

The (Big J) Joy of Movement is all about that.

I might be getting all green lights and parking spots right out front.  Or my kids may have just tracked mud onto my carpet and my favorite jeans don’t fit anymore. No matter what, Principle 1, The (Big J) Joy of Movement reminds me to choose to stay connected to physical sensation and to treat myself with compassion and care.

The Joy is the juice in what’s happening right now and my ability to be with it.

opposite of good PoserThe opposite of good is bad. Duh. As a people-pleasing, first-born child, I’ve known for absolute sure that bad is — not to get too fancy or anything – really, really bad. Doing it right and fulfilling others’ expectations has always been high on my list. I’ve always been sure that the best way to get love is to be good. But recently, all my certainty about good and bad has been turned on its head.

A friend recently loaned me Claire Dederer’s, Poser: My Life in 26 Yoga Poses. I opened it with some caution as some yoga books wander in radiant wonder for so long that they annoy me. Deeply.  All that transcendence and inner peace…pulease.

I approached warily. Any regular practice – be it yoga, or parenting, or simply getting up every morning – are day-in-day-out affairs that encompass a whole lot of everything. Any descriptions of these practices that include constant angel choirs and perpetual, patient peacefulness leave me with eyebrows up and arms crossed.

Turns out, Dederer’s book doesn’t have any angel choirs. She writes with humor, honesty, and self-deprecation that resonate with me as a practitioner, a teacher, and a writer (she actually gave me my first full-blown case of writer-envy). Overall, reading was a pleasure of recognition and affirmation. But a couple of times, her words took my breath away with revelation.

One example is when she tells of learning about ancient yogic teachings that warn against effort in one’s practice. This confounds her since effort, she thinks, is the whole point of yoga. She writes:

It would be a long time before I could entertain the notion that maybe my yoga would improve if I didn’t try so hard, and a longer time still before I began to question why my yoga needed to improve at all.

As a lifelong over-achieving, direction-following self-improver, this hit me where I live. Truly, isn’t all practice about getting better? Isn’t improvement an inherent part of practicing? But after I gave Dederer a little chuckle/quizzical-face, I wondered, what would it be to practice without the goal of getting better?

With that tantalizing yet unimaginable seed planted, she tells of taking classes at Naropa University in Colorado:

The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent … said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”

Okay, this, I get. As a teacher of mindful movement, this is what I want for my students: for them to feel it in their own skin and move/choose/respond from there. Parroting my movements and following what I do is entirely and precisely not the point.

But what Dederer writes next stopped me cold and has utterly changed my thinking about practice and life. She says, “I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good isn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?”

What if the opposite of good was real?

The truth of this stopped me. I thought of how much energy I put into improving my practice, my teaching, myself. I not only see but feel the tension and anxiety my students can put into doing things right. The notion of constant improvement carries the paradoxical enticement that someday, if I work hard enough, I’ll be good enough while simultaneously knowing I never will.

And when I’m not focusing on getting better and when I let go of doing it right? What’s left but real? Real and true and authentic.

The opposite of good is real. This so shakes the perspective of constant improvement that I’ve held as my main tool for getting love and acceptance, that I’m still processing it. When I find myself breathing shallow and calculating how to get it right and stay in the lines, I ask myself what would real look like right now?

eggbeaterLive as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday, I wrote about all the things I learned on my Radical Sabbatical – and then promptly didn’t do when my sabbatical was over!  One perspective on what might seem like illogical behavior can be found in the Four Stages of Competence.

I learned some things and had some insights, but I hadn’t practiced them enough to embody them, so I went back to my old habits (I moved from Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence, to Stage 2, Conscious Incompetence).  Learning was important but it wasn’t enough to change me.  Change and mastery happen in a cycle:  Learn, Practice and Embody (and repeat!).

Ever borrow a friend’s car and feel like a complete spaz driving it?  You go to put the turn signal on and the windshield wipers start?  It feels like someone’s put an eggbeater in your brain. That feeling of being confused and bamfoozled?  That oogie feeling?  That, my friends, is the sensation of learning or Conscious Incompetence!  We know what we want to do but we aren’t able to do it.  It feels strange and gawky, but no worries, it is just part of the process!

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  “Practice, practice, practice.” ~ old joke

After learning (Stage 1 to 2), the next part of the cycle is practice.  I’m practicing when the intense awkward feeling passes (mostly, anyway), and the focused work begins.  In practice, I do the newly learned skill over and over with concentration and attention.  At the beginning, I may fluctuate between learning (Stage 2) and practice (Stage 3) and then back again.

Many teachers and trainers believe that all we need to gain a skill or change our behavior (or thinking) is the information:  the learning that shows us why we should do it.  But most people do better with the information and experience to really learn it.  (Ever try to eat more green leafy veggies or go to bed early instead of watching Downton Abbey until all hours because you know that it will be better for you?  Ever have a little trouble with that?  Yeah.  Me, too.  For ideas about how to start a new habit, click here.)

Practice might seem like grunt work:  the discipline that comes after the spark of learning and before the grace of mastery.  Practice in its pure form, though, is both indispensable and energizing.  When I am practicing, I am absorbed in the process and noticing the details.  This kind of attention allows for on-going discovery and refinement.

With continued practice, I move from Stage 3, Conscious Competence, to Stage 4, Unconscious Competence, when I can do the skill without thought or effort.  This stage of complete embodiment or mastery then cycles back into Stage 1.  The very nature of Stage 4’s unconsciousness can lead to a tendency not to consider advances or other approaches which could improve my abilities and outcomes.  On some level, no matter what our level of expertise, there is always more to learn and new details to practice.  (Remember the Beginner’s Mind post?)

While this cycle may seem like an endless series of awkward learnings followed by never-ending practice, there is tremendously cool news!  The process of learning and then practicing changes your brain.

“What is the strongest force in the Universe?” “The force of habit.” ~ another old joke

Your brain wants to be efficient, so whenever it can, it creates shortcuts and habits to reduce the energy it takes to do things we do often.  Imagine the effort of typing or driving a car if you had to really focus on all the details of those skills?  It would be exhausting just to drive across town or write an email!

Learning something new, on the other hand, burns new neural pathways in your brain.  Learning makes connections where there weren’t connections before.  Which is, as previously mentioned, entirely and tremendously cool — especially since 15 years ago, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was  not only finished growing but that neurons were being pruned in the brain.  For a long time, science told us that an adult brain couldn’t change!  But loads of current neuroscience shows that the cycle of competency actually allows our brains to transform and develop – no matter how old we are.

Practicing Nia is a process of learning, practicing and embodying.  By moving in a wide variety of ways, speeds, ranges of motion, and patterns, your body and brain are always learning.  If you are new to class, you are doing a lot of learning/Stage 2!  If you are doing movements that you’ve done before, you may be doing more practicing/Stage 3.  Eventually, we can embody the movements in Stage 4/Unconscious Competence…but in Nia, we don’t stay there very long!  It is The Body’s Way to be in this cycle of learning, practicing and embodying, constantly stimulating not just your bones, muscles and connective tissue, but your brain and nervous system!

I hope you’ll join me this week in finding something new to learn and practice.  Enjoy the oogie sensation and know that it is expanding the capacity of your brain – keeping you vibrant, young and alive.

BeginnersMind2“Beginner’s mind = many possibilities; expert’s mind = few.” — Shunryu Suzuki (paraphrase)

Being a “Black Belt” doesn’t mean that you know everything.  Being a Black Belt means now I am a student.

What are you a “Black Belt” in?  Maybe a career (being a lawyer) or something practical (how to change a tire).  What if you approached “Black Belt” activities with Beginner’s Mind?  An attitude of openness, eagerness, and without preconceptions, as a beginner would.

Beginner’s Mind bucks the culture of expert worship.  If you do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm like you’d never done it before, what would be different?

PS Please “like” Focus Pocus on Facebook!  And if a post resonates with you, please share it!

BeginnersMind2“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”  — Shunryu Suzuki (see link to original lecture)

In 2006, when I was preparing to go to the Nia Black Belt training (the highest level of teacher training in Nia), I went to a martial arts demonstration led by a Black Belt Kendo Master.  At the beginning of the demonstration, he asked, “What does being a Black Belt mean?”  Others in the group said, “It means you are an expert,” “It means you know everything,” and, “It means you could kick my ass.”

BLACK BELT? ME?

I groaned internally.  I was deeply anxious about doing the Black Belt training for these very reasons:  I knew I didn’t know everything and certainly didn’t feel like an expert who could kick anyone’s anything.  I was hit with a wave of insecurity about even thinking about becoming a Black Belt.  I felt like a fraud.

But the Kendo Master smiled kindly and said, “No, being a Black Belt means … now I am a student.”

Now I am a student.  Yes, this was it exactly.  I wasn’t purporting to know everything, but Nia was something that I was passionate about and wanted to learn in depth.  This definition helped me see that by becoming a Black Belt, I was saying that NOW I was really ready to study and learn.

This definition of Black Belt connects with the idea of Beginner’s Mind.  Beginner’s Mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism and is defined as an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

EXPERT WORSHIP

Our American culture is replete with expert worship.  There is a pervasive idea that if we don’t know something, that we should turn to experts to know what to do (or buy or think or be).  And, so this line of thinking goes, whatever the expert says is exactly what we should do (or buy or think or be).

There are two main drawbacks to the expert worship approach.  First, if you are the one turning to an expert, this approach elevates those with experience to an untenable and unrealistic place of all-knowingness.  Second, if you ARE the expert or experienced one, expert worship encourages you to feign that you know all the answers rather than approaching everything, even things you’ve done 1,000 or 10,000 times with the inquisitiveness and freshness of beginner’s mind.

“I’VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE”

While it is important to gather information from experienced sources when wanting to learn or understand anything, it is important to approach all expert information with a discerning mind and an awareness that no one can know everything about anything.  The greatest teachers are always learning themselves and are willing to be surprised.  I took a wonderful on-line poetry course this fall (see Coursera for their offerings).  The professor, Al Filreis, has been teaching poetry in the Ivy League for 35 years.  More than once, he said, “I’ve been reading this poem for decades and I’ve never thought about it that way before.”  His approach is that we are figuring things out together with all of our experiences and insights as resources.  Beginner’s mind empowers both expert and novice to be open to new information and perspectives.

YOUR BLACK BELT

So what are you a Black Belt in?  What do you love to know/learn/do?  What would you be willing to approach with fresh eyes and an open mind every time?  Whether it is playing the cello, or learning about the Civil War, preparing healthful meals for your family or mowing your own lawn, you are an expert in something.  Beginners mind invites you to do even “expert activities” with curiosity and enthusiasm as if you’d never done it before.  As we enter into the holiday season, do you feel like you’ve “been there done that”?  Or have you “always” done things this way and feel entrained to those choices?  Whatever it is (especially if you find yourself resisting change or resisting letting go of the idea of yourself as an all-knowing expert), see if you can step in next time with the energy, wonder and excitement of a beginner and see how that changes your experience.  And of course, as always, I’d love to hear all about it.  Do post a comment below!

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