Beginner’s Mind – The Power of the Empty Teacup

This is the second in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

B is for Beginner’s Mind.

There’s a long story that ultimately gets around to someone continuing to pour tea into an already-full teacup. The tea runs over the sides and is wasted. The lesson is that when we are hanging onto what we already know, there is no possibility of learning something new.

From this story you will hear the expression “Empty your teacup.” To learn, we must be willing to make room for new ideas. This open, inquisitive state is called “Beginner’s Mind,” or in Japanese, sho-shin.

There is no power in already knowing. In Aikido we practice the same techniques over and over, year after year. There is always something new to discover in them. I help in the children’s classes at the dojo (Aikido of San Diego), and it’s hilarious – although I’m careful not to laugh – to hear a new white-belt kid say, with an exasperated sigh, “I  already know this one! We did this last week.” Their teacup is full. They think the know all there is to know about the technique, so they mindlessly repeat it, hoping we’ll eventually get around to doing something more interesting. We all do this. We stop noticing, stop paying attention. We already know how things are, and that’s that.

So how can you empty your teacup?

I challenge the kids to consider that there might still be some hidden thing they haven’t noticed yet about the technique, and ask them to see if they can find it.

Keeping an open Beginner’s Mind is a good practice both on the mat and out in the world. Whenever you catch yourself thinking “Oh, this again,” pause and take a fresh look. Stay actively engaged with what you are doing. Ask yourself what about this situation could I be missing? What could I see in a different way? What does this teacher have to say that I have not heard from other teachers? What have I been assuming about this person that might not actually be so?

When something conflicts with your existing understanding, ask yourself if there is a common theme, a deeper layer, and overarching principle. Could there be some truth in both points of view?

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“The purpose of today’s training is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi
16th-17th century swordsman and author of “The Book of Five Rings”

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Beginner’s Mind is a sense of wonder, about skills, places, things, people, and even about ourselves. Practice it in all you do, whether learning Aikido techniques or talking to a friend, and you will find more depth and richness in your experience.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to read more about Beginner’s  Mind, here is one of my early posts, Your Teacher is Always Right. The page I referenced above, about the teacup story, also has a lot to say about it.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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