The White Belt Mind

The young boy orphaned by bandits goes to the samurai and kneels before him.

“Please, master, I want to learn the art of the sword. How long will it take me to acquire the technique?”
“Ten years!” barks the crotchety master.
“But if I double my efforts, if I train as hard as I possibly can, study constantly and dedicate myself completely?”
“In that case,” says the master rubbing his chin as though cogitating on the premise, “In such a case it will take twenty years!”

The White Belt Mind can be a thing of beauty or a thing of confusion. Beginners are known to ask some head splitting questions but the honest teacher must admit that most of the white belt queries once issued from his own lips.

Its easy to get confused. On the one hand we hear that “beginner’s mind” is a positive thing, an attitude to cultivate, not deny. On the other hand we’re told that the White Belt mentality basically has everything wrong with it. Another way of saying this is that much of our early training in martial arts seems to be to avoid doing what is intuitive to us, what seems natural. This two attitudes appear so contradictory that the situation almost ranks with that amazing paradox where our instructors tell us “to relax so we can get more power.”

The real distinction lies in the levels of social conditioning attached to our development. Just to make this distinction perfectly clear I’ve given it a scientific name: The Dodge Ball Barrier. It’s simple. Before we learned Dodge Ball (by that I mean before we were introduced to the joys of the modern equivalent of being ostracized and stoned) we had the childlike reaction you can see in any three year old. Toss a ball at a little child and he will spread his arms open, expectantly, welcoming the ball which, it is true, might very well bump him on the forehead and set him down on his rump. Nonetheless, the “intuitive” reaction to a ball is not to block or counter but to attempt to embrace it. AFTER Dodge Ball we have learned to be afraid, to guard ourselves, to expect punishment of some kind or momentary survival at best. This and other similar experiences at that time of life are so powerful, and some times so devastating, that they in essence begin our lives anew, blotting out all previous instincts.

So when we think “that’s not natural” or intuitive or whatever we are actually referring back to this time when we were, in essence, conditioned to trust nobody, especially carrying a ball.

The training we undergo in Kung Fu attempts to make us work backwards to our beginnings and then progress forward in the Kung Fu manner. One of my best teachers likened it to building a skyscraper. He would repeat over and over that the higher the building you planned, the lower you were required to dig the foundation. He was also of the opinion that it was this back tracking, returning to original movement, that was the heart breaking and frustrating part of Kung Fu training. And he was right. People walking into a martial arts studio want to feel stronger immedaitely from the day they start. Unlearning is not part of the plan because, in our modern world, progress is almost always guaranteed even if it’s not significant progress.

But in the case of Kung Fu you often make progress by going backwards. Maybe this is the real “secret of youth”.

One Response to “The White Belt Mind”

  1. Joanna Zorya says:

    Nice article. It’s a very interesting point – that of digging the foundations as deep as you plan the building to be high. Only tonight I told my students that the proverbial mountain that the different martial arts work their way up has no top. They were not to be limited by the tools they were learning to use – they should recognise that martial arts were made for man, not man for martial arts. Although no one could count on being the best martial artist of all time, past, present and future, they could certainly aim to be. My motto is “aim high and expect nothing”.

    On the embracing thing, one of our instructors recounted tonight an interview he’d seen with Chris Crudelli (of “Mind, Body & Kickass Moves” fame) in which he stated that you really needed to want to give your enemy a hug – if you see someone ready to clout you with a baseball bat or whatever, you’ve got to get in there and hug them. OK, so then you wrestle them to the ground, but it’s the thought that counts.

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