Keeping Your White Belt Mind
In the school of thought known as Zen Buddhism, there is a concept that plays an important role a Zen practitioners worldview, known as "beginner's mind." Beginner's mind is the notion of always approaching life with fresh eyes, allowing your intuition and curiosity to guide you, as much, if not more than your intellect and analysis. For Zen practitioners, one of the goals that drives them (although they would hate that phrase) is to truly experience life as it is, without overthinking and letting our minds get in the way. When we are children, the the Zen philosophy, our minds are more pure and our "cup" is much more empty than it eventually becomes as we "grow up" and take on more and more responsibilities.
What in the world does this have to do with BJJ? Aren't we all trying to become black belts and experts at the craft? Why would we want to embrace the mind of someone just starting out? Why would we want to approach BJJ as a white belt? Wouldn't this approach actually stunt our growth and delay our progression to that coveted black belt? As we will see, this approach could be the mindset that helps us persevere during challenges and stay on the path of endless learning that BJJ can present.
In BJJ, we all start off as white belts. The white color of the belt can symbolize the beginning of our journey, the emptiness of our canvas as we're just starting out. The longer we train BJJ, the more knowledge we gain, the more we think we know. This accumulation of knowledge and skill, is great in and of itself, but our attitude towards this knowledge can be problematic. By maintaining a white belt mind or mentality, we can continue to learn and question and develop our game. Let's look at some ways we might be able to apply this Zen-like approach to our BJJ and keep the "white belt mind."
"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few."--Shunryu Suzuki
In this famous quote, the author and famous Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki is pointing out that in the beginning of any experience, all things are possible. There are no preconceived notions or ways of interpreting the experience when you approach something as a beginner might. For Zen Buddhists, this beginners' mind is an attempt to experience the world as it is in all of it's entirety.
Let's look at an example of how this beginner's or white belt mind can be applied to BJJ. The first time I ever saw an arm lock watching UFC 1, I experienced a mixture of stunned disbelief and fascination. Having no real knowledge of what was happening, I knew that Royce Gracie's opponents were placed in a very compromised position, not long after they had just been striking (and seemingly winning). Flash forward to the first time, I was ever taught the arm bar, the technique was broken down into a series of steps that needed to be followed to achieve the technique.
Over the years, I've drilled the classic arm bar thousands of times, but to be perfectly honest, most of those reps were probably just me, mindlessly repping the technique. A BJJ practitioner who also wanted to incorporate the Zen principle of beginner's mind into their practice, would say that we should approach the 5000th repetition of the arm bar, with the exact same fresh eyes as the first time we ever saw the arm bar or practiced it once.
This idea of always starting over, can be very helping not only in our drilling and practice, but can also come into play during times of challenge or injury. Approaching old, well-worn techniques and paths with new eyes allows us to see them again for the first time and get more out of them.
By approaching your drilling with 100% white belt mind, we are going to get more benefit from the repetitions. If we mindlessly drill, thinking about what our plans are for later in the day, or on something that is bothering us, we are not present and therefore, not reaping the benefit of the experience. Let's look at some other ways that we can keep the "white belt mind" and get the most out of our learning of jiu jitsu.
A White Belt Mind is an Open Mind
By approaching BJJ with an open mind, you will have a much better experience. For example, let's say your instructor is teaching a standing guard pass, but nearly all of your guard passing is done low from your knees. You might watch this technique and immediately close your mind to it, because you see yourself as a low guard pass "expert" and possibly dismiss the technique before you even try it. By keeping an open mind, or "white belt mind" approach, you will not prematurely judge a technique before you've attempted it. By looking at the guard pass as it is and not analytically connecting it to what you think you know, you allow yourself to potentially add a new pass to your game and possibly even pick up a concept or two that could help your low passing from your knees.
A White Belt Mind Doesn't Have to be an Expert
As we progress in BJJ and achieve higher and higher belt ranks, there comes a great deal of expectation, and in some cases, pressure with the amount of knowledge we have. As you progress, by keeping a 'white belt mind' you afford yourself the space to be creative, to make mistakes and to open yourself to other approaches. By not comparing yourself to other grapplers and taking that pressure off of yourself, you will experience the learning of the techniques more fully.
A White Belt Mind Isn't Afraid to Fail
Following along further with the idea that as a white belt, our overall knowledge is not expected to be great. There aren't the same expectations for knowledge, application and performance, put on a white belt that might be put on a purple or brown belt. By keeping the mindset of the brand new white belt, you will not be afraid to take risks. You will try techniques, over and over until they become more perfected. If you let your expectations and analytical mind get in the way, you may be less likely to try new things or work towards full understanding of a position or technique.
So all the philosophical discussion aside, how can you implement your "white belt mind" in your next class and test it out for yourself. First and foremost, be present and try to leave the outside world at the door. Whether that is what you're doing after class, or something that's on your mind, try to simply be at class and focus intently on what happens during that 60 minutes or so when you're training. Be completely open to the technique you are being taught during the class. Let's say your instructor is covering a technique that you've seen before. Maybe it's something that you've had a few classes on, but never implemented into your game. Try to look at the technique as if it was the first time you were experiencing it. By approaching without preconceived or pre-experienced notions, you will create the best opportunity for you to gain something from the technique and see it from a new, fresh perspective.
No matter what belt level you find yourself at, even if you're currently a white belt, it's important to embrace the "white belt mind" and approach BJJ with the fresh, enthusiastic, curious eyes of a brand new student. Be open to new techniques, don't say they won't work for you until you've explored them and tried them. Most times, it's not the technique that is ineffective, but our application, so by being open to ALL techniques and by putting aside the notion that you've "mastered" all those earlier techniques, you may be able to take that cross collar choke you learned on day one to a brand new level.
Now that you've explored what it means to add some 'white belt mind' into your approach, it may be a good time to take a look at one of the true OG's of American grappling, Chris Hauter's 4 volume BJJ instructional "Old School Efficient BJJ" here at BJJ Fanatics! Chris Haueter is a member of the legendary "Dirty Dozen" who were the first American's to achieve their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts. His approach is to share his unique perspective on some of what we normally consider the most fundamental BJJ techniques and share them with new perspective. Grab that "white belt mind" of yours and get this DVD or On Demand instructional now!