The Beginner's Mind

Muse_Of_Fire has done it again! Her insight as a beginning traceuse is amazing and helpful to us all. Thanks to Felipe Motta for editing this article. APK is community driven, do you have something to contribute?

We value expertise and experience a great deal as human beings. Indeed, experience and expertise are critical to effectiveness in almost any discipline. Imagine how it would feel if you knew you were having surgery performed by a novice doctor, or if a "beginner" mechanic was giving your car a tune-up before a long road trip in winter. However, expertise can be a hindrance in many cases, and being a beginner can be liberating. Knowing how to navigate between and through these two types of status can have foundational effects on your parkour training as well as almost every other area of your life. The compass that will help you navigate that is the Zen notion of "The Beginner's Mind.”

The Liberty of Beginning.No one started out as an expert in anything. Even the most accomplished in our society once were novices, relying on other experts for training and guidance. It's hard to imagine, when we watch Olympic athletes, or read the words of gifted authors, that at one point they, too, skid and fell on the ice, or struggled with capitalization and punctuation. It is important to remember that even our most admired practitioners definitely flubbed, fumbled, and stumbled their way through the early stages of emerging competence on their way to proficiency and beyond; some of them may have struggled for years or even decades.  So as a beginner, one can take heart in the realization that, for instance, David Belle probably fell down a lot when he began his training. We would all do well to bear in mind that no one, no matter how gifted, arrived at proficiency without struggle.

However there are other aspects to being a beginner that can be helpful as you navigate training in a discipline, whether you are a beginner in the truest sense of the word, or whether you are an “old hand.” Primarily, being a beginner is liberating. No one expects a beginner to do well, and as such, a beginner has plenty of room to fall down, goof up, and generally botch without drawing too much flak. Embracing this liberty, this freedom to fail, can be a great learning tool. We all want to be successful, and it can be frustrating when the failures seem many and the successes seem to be barely pale glimmers of hope on a distant horizon. However, if you embrace the reality that you will screw up, that your first kong will probably look pretty dorky at best, then you can approach your attempts with the liberating joy of "just doing" as opposed to "doing a certain way." There is no substituting for technique. The reason we drill movements over and over, and focus on doing them a certain way, is to ensure that proper technique is ingrained, to minimize injury and maximize efficiency. However it is also important to let a movement be free within your body, to achieve the much-desired "flow" that is such a holy grail for us all. Learning to be comfortable within the freedom of beginning enables us to recognize how our own bodies wear a movement, and technique can grow from there. Furthermore, it keeps the learning process fresh. How much easier it can be, emotionally, if every botched attempt at a movement were met with laughter: from the silliness of how you must know you look, being inexperienced, and also from the joy that comes from feeling your body moving in a new and unexpected way.  This ability to laugh at oneself comes from the conviction that one is still a beginner and is therefore "allowed" for a certain amount of time to make mistakes. 

 So here we are, exalting in the liberation that comes from knowing that being a beginner gives one a "get out of fail free" card. How wonderful! And soon, laughing at ourselves, we will be on our way to proficiency and therefore once we become "good at" something, we no longer have to be beginners, right? Partially. As we become more expert, as we gain more experience and technique, we become less and less able to write off our failures as functions of being a beginner. In essence, our "get out of fail free" card becomes less and less valid.  For most practitioners, this is when frustration really starts to set in. You start to think, "I should be able to do this precision jump; I've been doing parkour for 5 years. What's wrong with me?" However, if you dig deep, and get in touch with the beginner's mind, you can ward off those feelings of frustration and self-doubt.  

Navigating Expertise with The Beginner’s Mind.

As we progress through learning and become more experienced, we put limits on ourselves. When we see a spoon on the table, for instance, experience tells us what a spoon is: it sits there on the table, next to the knife, and you use it to eat soup. By extension, then, we are also telling ourselves what a spoon isn't, or can't be.  Contrast this with a baby seeing a spoon for the first time. The baby has no preconceived notions of what a spoon is, so the baby will bang the spoon on the table, put it in his mouth, throw it, gaze at his reflection, and all sorts of other things. The baby is approaching the spoon with the beginner's mind. In terms of parkour (or anything else), these “limitations from experience” can take many forms:

  •  â€œI can’t” statements: “I can’t climb that wall. I haven’t been training long enough.” These types of statements usually come from people who have just enough experience to know where their experience is lacking. But often these kinds of statements are rooted in fear; what they really are saying is, “I know enough about my skill and experience levels now to know what I can and can’t do, and exactly where my comfort zone is. That wall is beyond my comfort zone, and training to go beyond that will be unpleasant because I might make mistakes.”
  • “I should” statements: “I should be able to climb that wall. I’ve been training for several months and can climb lots of different walls. I’m a failure for not being able to climb this one.” This kind of statement is also often made by people with some experience, who no longer consider themselves “beginners.” They lose patience with themselves and hold themselves to a preconceived notion of what they should and shouldn’t be able to do. In essence, as we gain experience, we feel less and less like beginners and therefore less and less like we’re “allowed” to make mistakes. However, in the example above, even though the traceuse may have some experience and skill, she is an absolute beginner with regard to the wall she is facing. This is good news, because it liberates her to make mistakes, to struggle. In essence, it renews her “get out of fail free” card. â€œI can’t” and “I should” are limiting statements. They speak to one possibility only; to dead ends. “I can’t do a turn vault. End of discussion. I’m done,” or “I should be able to do a turn vault (this certain way, today, right now).”


Approaching obstacles (mental or physical) with the beginner’s mind converts them from limiting, finite statements to infinite statements of possibility: “A turn vault is a brand-new thing for me. Who knows what my body will do, how it will feel, what I will do with it today. Exciting!” Not knowing is utter freedom. No matter what, it will be a surprise! This does not mean we should be content with ignorance. Rather, it means we should be conscious of applying our experiences to useful pursuits without allowing them to become fixed limiters over that which is still unknown to us. As learners gain expertise, experience can be a help and also a hindrance. Experience enables them to make better judgments and perform with a degree of proficiency. However it can also limit perceptions on what they are and aren’t capable of, and can also enable them to create mental barriers against further learning: “I used to be a beginner, but now I’m not, so my learning has ended.” There is a danger in no longer considering oneself a beginner, because in doing so you no longer give yourself permission to make mistakes or have something be “new,” and therefore, learn. The way out is to see every new level of mastery as a new beginning, and every new beginning is a reset on that beginner’s “get out of fail free” card. No matter how much you train, you will never do the same kong twice. Therefore, in a sense, you are always beginning. The trick is to learn when to let your experience help you (executing a roll properly), and when to remove your experience from the equation because it’s a hindrance (hesitating before a vault because you’re worried about not making it, because you think that “by now you should be able to”). Learning to make this judgment is a lot like parkour in many ways. There is a perspective among traceurs vis à vis the general population: “You see an obstacle, I see a doorway.” The non-beginner sees a spoon and only a spoon. The beginner sees a musical instrument, a mirror, a toy, a tool. The non-beginner who is in touch with the beginner’s mind sees a spoon and a musical instrument, a mirror, a toy, a tool. The trick is to know how to eat with a spoon, but also to always keep in mind that the spoon can have other uses, and to be willing to accept and try them as the situation calls for it. No one is ever “finished” learning. New mastery only ever leads to new levels of beginning.   

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Written by Muse_of_Fire   
Monday, 04 June 2007 01:02
Last Updated on Monday, 13 December 2010 22:04