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Begin Again: on being a beginner

As I slowly progress towards mastery in my chosen Art, I get further and further ahead of my beginners. This could lead to me getting out of touch with their needs. I also get accustomed to a certain routine, a set way of doing things. Both of these things are death to a good teacher. So I have made it a deliberate habit to be a beginner at something, all the time. From early 2001 to the end of 2003, I was a private student of an instructor in a very traditional kung-fu style; the same chap that fixed my wrists. The sort of school where to learn the inner secrets of the Art you have to be legally adopted by the grandmaster. Old School indeed. So much so that I will not identify the school here, because its internal politics are so damn Confucian that it may cause all sorts of trouble if I do. The training was not just profoundly uncomfortable, it was also hellishly painful, as this school included serious hardening training in its core curriculum. I would not normally touch hardening with a stick, as it is often a short-term unhealthy strategy, but in this case it went hand-in-hand with serious maintenance; specifically massage, breathing, and herbal medicine. So I ended up much healthier than I started, but also, and this is the point: from 7am to 9am three mornings a week, I was an absolute beginner. Which meant that when I was standing up in front of my class that evening, I had some sympathy for, and insight into, what my students were experiencing.

As I started to get emotionally comfortable with the kung fu, and so it lost some of its beginneriness (if you’ll allow me to coin a term), I took up something I’d wanted to learn since I was a little kid: bullwhip cracking. I loved loved loved Indiana Jones, and could think of no more apposite multi-purpose tool than a bullwhip. You can fend off baddies and swing across ravines with these things. Really, why doesn’t everyone carry one?

Indiana Jones

I met a professional performer at Hämeenlinna medieval market in 2002, Ari Lauanne, who taught me some basics; in half an hour I striped myself from knee to shoulder, and found out why they are not so commonly carried. They are damn hard to use! So I got a beauty made by Alex Cobra of Cobra Whips, just a six-footer to start with, and practised most nights before class. I got quite good, compared to a beginner (though I’m not in the same class as Alex, or Ari), and so while I keep up my skills every now and then, I needed to find something else. The essence of beginneriness is having no frames of reference with which to make difficulties approachable. The same is basically true for everything else; once people ask me what I’m doing and I can explain it properly, I’m no longer really in the true beginner state.

Around this time I started to seriously study Finnish. Now there is a language where you can stay a beginner for a very long time. I put in two years of real effort, and got to a very basic level of competence. Then my first daughter was born, and I had to make a decision; spend my now much more restricted time putting in another thousand hours or so getting to fluency; or spend that time writing a couple of books. I chose books, and while there are negative consequences to not being comfortable in Finnish, there are about five million people who can speak Finnish, but perhaps only fifty who can write books like mine on European swordsmanship. The world needs my books more than it needs me to speak Finnish. Another side-benefit of course is that I can step outside my comfort zone (I literally break into a cold sweat) by simply engaging a neighbour in basic conversation.

Being a parent is also a state of being a constant beginner. Just as you get competent at taking care of a baby, you’re suddenly running around after a toddler. They develop faster than you do. Excellent, long-term beginneriness. But like everything you do day-in, day-out, it gets easier.

In 2012 I was given a flying lesson in a light aircraft, by a friend of mine. Oh. My. God. It was terrifying, exhilarating, very, very challenging (like learning to drive a car in three dimensions instead of two, then multiplied by about a million), and I was literally giddy with it for days afterwards. But it will cost about 6,000 euros to get my license, so that will have to wait until one of my books goes all 50 Shades on me and I am rolling in cash. (No, I will NOT be adding tepid BDSM scenes to my next book. Nor torrid ones neither.) So in 2013 I took up the yo-yo. Yes, really. Very cheap, and really, really hard. There are some excellent tutorial videos online (go to André Boulay’s site; there he has arranged a complete curriculum from beginner to master level, and explains every trick in detail. Check it out online to get some idea of what expertise in that field actually looks like). So for a thousandth of the cost of learning to fly, I was constantly working at, and failing at, something. And it was really fun.

This is about as far as I got:

This is what good looks like:

Then Audatia came along, and what a learning curve that was. I knew nothing about game design, or producing card games, and not much about any of the nitty gritty of getting a project like that done, with several different experts all working on it at the same time. But after the first decks are out and the rest are on their way, while it remains challenging, I’m not a proper beginner any more.

Of course, from the inside, I am a beginner whenever I pick up a sword. My errors of form and technique are as obvious to me as those of the clumsiest beginner. But I have a large store of experience to draw from when figuring out how to improve. The art is deeply familiar to me. Huge chunks of the relevant sources are just there in my head to read at leisure. So even though my skills are sadly lacking, from my perspective, that doesn’t give me a true insight into the beginner because the problems are well known to me, not confusingly new. I know exactly how to fix them, I just have to get on and do it.

Right now I am looking for the next activity to be a beginner in. It needs to be a) ethical b) affordable c) have a physical component other than using a computer d) clearly defined basics (success/failure states. Is the yoyo tangled? fail. Did the whip crack? success. Is the plane still in one piece? success. Is the whip wrapped round my own face? fail. And so on) and e) not require formal classes unless they happen in the mornings.  I welcome your suggestions!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

3 Responses

  1. Brilliant piece and way of looking at life, especially for one teaching movement arts. While I periodically take trainings that better my understanding how human bodies work and move, I never specifically looked at learning new things as a practice for maintaining or developing a beginner mind or way of being. Kudos!

    In terms of suggestions, have you tried acroyoga or massage? Those are two practices that would give you some interesting insights into how the body works and particularly in how bodies work together.

    Another area would be partner dancing. I would recommend either Blues or Tango. Why these? Because, they are both fully lead dances – meaning the follower has no set movements or rhythms to follow other than what is given in the moment. The skill of listening and communicating through touch is much more enhanced than through ballroom or more popular dances like Salsa.

    On a side note I was amused that during my first lesson of Tango I was taught distinctions that in my Internal Martial Arts training was reserved for senior students. In the past, that would have only been taught to the closed door students. These were concepts of moving from the pelvis and psoas and where we should feel and connect with are partners.

    1. Glad you liked the post, and thanks for your suggestions. I did some tango back in the day, and loved it. The breakthrough moment for me was realising that it was more like riding a horse than wrestling; give the signal and the lady does it; you don’t actually have to throw them around. Now that my kids are older, my wife and I are planning on taking up tango again!

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