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Maintaining a "Beginner's Mind" as a Teacher

If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve read material about the importance of maintaining what is commonly referred to as the “beginner’s mind” in your martial art training. But I think it is equally important to maintain the same sort of beginner’s mind as an instructor or teacher.

Expertise can take its toll on creativity. Our thoughts can become shackled by the familiar and we can become numb to new ideas. There is a Zen saying which states, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.” When a person attains a high level of expertise in something, they often have a tendency to only want to listen to those who possess equal or more expertise than they have. However, when it comes to innovation and creativity, this can be a mistake. We need to be willing to open ourselves up and look at new and creative ideas regarding training, teaching, etc. This may include drawing from people who have less training and experience than we may have.

In his book, Imagine, author Jonah Lehrer comments -- “Creativity can come from an “outsider,” a person on the fringe of a field – who may have the benefit of knowing less and can inject new ideas into old (existing) fields. This person doesn’t know enough to be an “insider,” cynical with expertise, relying on the same old, same old. While such ignorance has all sorts of obvious drawbacks, it also comes with creative advantages – while they may indeed know less (in terms of technical expertise, tactical experience, etc.) they may innovate more.” Lehrer goes on to point out that such “outsider” creativity is not a phase of life so much as a state of mind. To me, this sounds very much like the aforementioned Zen quote.

Sometimes we need to leave behind the safety of our expertise. We need to not be afraid to look at new things, try new teaching approaches, and also be open and willing to accept an idea that might be given to us by someone with less experience or knowledge than we have.

To me, Sifu Dan Inosanto is a shining example of someone who, while possessing an immense amount of knowledge and skill, still retains a beginner’s mind. In his book, “Absorb What is Useful” (1982, Know Now Publishing) he wrote, “I think it is important for an instructor to remain a student at heart always – to constantly seek better ways of training or execution. It is important to be creative and to experiment and to seek help in areas where you lack expertise.”

I think this quote can relate equally to teaching as well. As teachers, we should strive not to become shackled by our expertise and calcified in our teaching methods. We should strive to maintain a beginner’s mind as equally with regard to our teaching as our training. We should be willing to take risks, break with convention, step back and look at something with a fresh perspective.

Train well. Train intelligently.

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