Shoshin?! The State of Mind for Studying Anything

By Thomas D. McKinnon

‘Shoshin’, (初心), translates to ‘Beginner’s mind’.  To quote the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki:

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‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.  A true beginner’s mind is open and willing to consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time.’

Shoshin: The Quintessential Mindset for Learning

Shoshin, simply the best way to approach any learning experience: an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconception. Even when studying at an advanced level just do it as a beginner would.  Listen without commenting, regardless of how much you think you know of the subject.  Observe as if you know nothing, learn as a child learns, and get excited about a new discovery.  Shoshin, like all of the concepts you discover on your journey of Karate-do, will help you to lead a more rewarding life.  Shoshin is the quintessential mindset for learning.  

One of the things that we (karateka) do, prior to and on completion of training, is the ritual mokusoMokuso means to “silent thinking”. However, in the dojo it has further connotations: to meditate or contemplate quietly, thus separating your karate training from the outside world.  I give this guiding instruction to beginners for mokuso:

‘Empty your mind… Concentrate on your breathing, think of nothing but slowly filling and emptying your lungs (using diaphragmatic breathing) whilst emptying your mind.’

Mokuso is a vital step towards Shoshin
Mokuso is a vital step towards Shoshin

Shoshin: Make Room for Learning

By emptying your mind you are making room for learning, or absorbing, like a child or a complete beginner.  Shoshin is a concept far less literal than it is metaphorical, not to be confused with simply forgetting everything.  As we develop knowledge and expertise the tendency is to narrow our focus, filtering out the things we think we already know, concentrating on details we consider we don’t know.  The danger here is that we may block out information that disagrees with what, we consider, we already know. Unconsciously we sifting out any conflicting ideas in favor of information which confirms our previous experience or philosophical standpoint. 

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Entering the dojo for the very first time students, from varying demographics – age, sex, socio-economic, body composition, up-bringing, life skills and experience – begin with shoshin… more or less. 

Female beginners learn quicker than their male counterparts

I know that, in these enlightened times, it is considered politically incorrect to mention the difference between the sexes in regard to anything.  However, for the purpose of clarifying the concept of shoshin, please excuse this political faux pas.  Firstly, I will clarify the statement: ‘Every student begins with shoshin… more or less.’  I will generalize here when I say, male beginner karateka and female beginner karateka start at slightly varying states of shoshin because of their differing life-experiences. 

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In my experience, the male beginner generally already has some set, physical responses when hearing the words punch and kick. Fighting is a concept to which they are more likely to have had a modicum of experience.  I’m not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that it amounts to a difference in the natural state of shoshin of the male and female karateka as they begin training.

Having taught and observed the martial arts for the best part of half a century, I feel qualified in making that last sweeping statement. In addition to that, the following broad avowal: Female beginner karateka, generally, learn quicker to execute techniques more accurately than their male counterparts.  I believe this occurrence to be due to the degree of shoshin they begin with.  The male’s prior familiarity usually means that they have some incorrect habits to first unlearn.  

Shoshin can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.
Shoshin can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.

Shohin Is a Treasured State of Mind

However, swings and roundabouts…  Arguably, one of the single most important concepts to grasp in Shotokan Karate is kime!  The following paragraph is one of the descriptive explanations I use when introducing kime!

‘I believe that kime, like ki, is akin to tapping into the universal energy in little bite sized pieces.  If you have never accessed kime… I have found that, at the point where it is appropriate to punctuate your technique with kime, you should explosively inflict your intent.  And I describe that feeling as, almost, like getting angry for a nanosecond at that point of intended impact.’

In my experience, the male beginner karateka gets his head around that concept quicker. That, I believe, may have something to do with hormones.  However, all that being said, by the time that Shodan is achieved we largely have a level playing field. As adults we may have a tendency to allow our prior knowledge to block us from seeing things anew.  Shoshin, like all those esoteric concepts we utilize in Karate-do, is a state of being that is difficult to articulate to anyone who has not taken this path of Karate-do.  Once understood, however, shoshin is a treasured state of mind for studying anything.

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