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Once a Beginner, Always a Beginner: Why It’s Okay to Be a Novice

Recently, I have been out dancing a lot.  Argentine tango is becoming my new addiction.  Check out one of my favorite dancers, tango legend Osvaldo Zotto:

The other day, I was on my feet for 5 hours and I didn’t even realize it until I was laying on my living room floor at home—my legs ached but I felt alive.  I love the feeling of dancing outdoors, watching the stars overhead, feeling the tickle of the breeze.  This week, I danced to a live band.  I even danced in the rain!

The Argentine tango is a social dance, so we rotate partners frequently.  At first, I was quite apologetic with each new partner.  As a novice, I worried about boring the poor guys but, to my surprise, my partners told me they preferred to dance with beginners because we don’t go into “auto pilot” like the pros.  With expertise comes habit and routine.  And what my dancing partners have noticed about tango “experts” is that, as they advance in their skills, they could lose the ability to improvise and feel the dance.

In Zen Buddhism, the word Shoshin means “beginner’s mind” and it refers to an openness to learn without prejudice.  Shoshin is the spirit of immersing oneself in a new area, free of expectations.  Zen Buddhists believe that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.  I very much have “beginner’s mind” when it comes to Argentine tango.  I come to each class with great humility and an eagerness to observe and absorb everything I see.

Novice dancers are especially attractive partners—even for the pros—because of beginner’s mind.  When learning something new, beginners are forced to exist in the present moment because acquiring knowledge requires alertness and attention.  This presence allows the novice dancer to feel the dance and respond to his or her partner instead of moving unconsciously through the space like the pro may be prone to do.  Thus, the tango is more about two dancers’ connection than technique.

I think this is why tango fascinates me so much.  You have to be completely in sync with your partner to produce a beautiful dance.  And I find my own dancing improves when I surrender to the moment instead of worrying about who may be watching or if I’ll make a mistake.  Dancing is the perfect metaphor for life—living in the moment is not about staying in your head and anticipating the next move but reacting spontaneously as life happens.

A while back, I went to a practice session at a dance school and saw a young boy there who spent the evening moving forward and backward, nothing more.  I assumed he was simply trying to familiarize himself with the basic steps.  Then, a few days later, I saw him dance at the Milonga and, boy was I wrong!  This “beginner” was actually an advanced dancer with beginner’s mind!

It is the same in martial arts.  The real masters always return to the basics, even the black belts.  When you think you “know it all,” that is when you cease to grow.  Shoshin says that no matter how much we may think we know, there is always more to learn, so why not be lifelong beginners?

As you move forward in the dance of life, try to approach each step as if it were the first time you were attempting it.  Recall the precision and concentration of your early days learning that particular move and bring back “beginner’s mind,” no matter how senior you may feel.  How can beginner’s mind improve your relationships, your work life, and your favorite hobbies?  Leave a comment with how Shoshin teaches you something new—today!

Recently, my husband has been out of town for work so I have been out dancing every (other) night. Argentine tango is becoming my new addiction. Check out one of my favorite dancers, tango legend Osvaldo Zotto:

Yesterday, I was on my feet for 5 hours and I didn’t even realize it until I was laying on my living room floor at home—my legs ached but I felt alive. I love the feeling of dancing outdoors, watching the stars overhead, feeling the tickle of the breeze. This week, I danced to a live band. I even danced in the rain!

The Argentine tango is a social dance, so we rotate partners frequently. At first, I was quite apologetic with each new partner. As a novice, I worried about boring the poor guys but, to my surprise, my partners told me they preferred to dance with beginners because we don’t go into “auto pilot” like the pros. With expertise comes habit and routine. And what my dancing partners have noticed about tango “experts” is that, as they advance in their skills, they lose the ability to improvise and feel the dance.

In Zen Buddhism, the word Shoshin means “beginner’s mind” and it refers to an openness to learn without prejudice. Shoshin is the spirit of immersing oneself in a new area, free of expectations. Zen Buddhists believe that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. I very much have “beginner’s mind” when it comes to Argentine tango. I come to each class with great humility and an eagerness to observe and absorb everything I see.

Novice dancers are especially attractive partners—even for the pros—because of beginner’s mind. When learning something new, beginners are forced to exist in the present moment because acquiring knowledge requires alertness and attention. This presence allows the novice dancer to feel the dance and respond to his or her partner instead of moving unconsciously through the space like the pro may be prone to do. Thus, the tango is more about two dancers’ connection than technique.

I think this is why tango fascinates me so much. You have to be completely in sync with your partner to produce a beautiful dance. And I find my own dancing improves when I surrender to the moment instead of worrying about who may be watching or if I’ll make a mistake. And dancing is the perfect metaphor for life—living in the moment is not about staying in your head and anticipating the next move but reacting spontaneously as life happens.

A while back, I went to a practice session at a dance school and saw a young boy there who spent the evening moving forward and backward, nothing more. I assumed he was simply trying to familiarize himself with the basic steps. Then, a few days later, I saw him dance the Milonga and, boy was I wrong! This “beginner” was actually an advanced dancer with beginner’s mind!

It is the same in martial arts. The real masters always return to the basics, even the black belts. When you think you “know it all,” that is when you cease to grow. Shoshin says that no matter how much we may think we know, there is always more to learn, so why not be lifelong beginners?

As you move forward in the dance of life, try to approach each step as if it were the first time you were attempting it. Recall the precision and concentration of your early days learning that particular move and bring back “beginner’s mind,” no matter how senior you may feel. How can beginner’s mind improve your relationships, your work life, and your favorite hobbies? Leave a comment with what Shoshin teaches you—today!

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