Begin Practice with a Beginner’s Mind
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 20th, 2011

Beginner’s Mind is a popular term that originated in Zen Buddhism, where it’s called Shoshin. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. Maintaining a Beginner’s Mind is a central tenet not only in the study of Zen, but also in Japanese martial arts.

In a very particular sense, cultivating a Beginner’s Mind is a desirable way to begin a TI Practice session. The best illustration of what I mean is to contrast the kind of workouts I did in the 20-odd years between 1968, when I began college swimming and 1989, the year I founded TI, and the practices I’ve done in the 20-odd years since then.

The workouts were usually based on some kind of aerobic or conditioning formula which heavily dictated the structure of the entire session and all the sets included. Most ‘serious’ swimmers are still trained this way in a method called Energy System Training.  The more ‘scientific’ your training, the more rigorously structured it is, with the training year divided into macro- and micro-cycles. Some coaches follow them so religiously that they repeat the same sets every Monday, a different group of sets every Tuesday, etc. And the content of those sets is strictly dictated – how many repeats, what distance, what heart rate, what ratio of work to rest, etc.

In contrast, in my TI Practice of today,  I have a far more general idea of what I want to do on a particular day. Often I begin practice sure of only one thing — how long I’ll swim. That’s generally an hour, both because I’ve conditioned myself to maintain a laser-like focus (and high level of enjoyment) for that long, and because it’s the approximate duration I can swim in the pool before calf and foot cramps make it hard to push off the wall.

To activate the Beginner’s Mind, I start by swimming easily for some period (usually 5-10 minutes, but sometimes it extends to the full hour simply because that feels right) taking inventory, trying to find out What Is. How do I feel in physical and mental energy, in ease or flow of movement? Do I sense any aspect of my stroke asking for attention? Is there something my spirit feels eager to do – that could be longer or shorter swims, it could be one stroke or another. And finally I will often take an empirical measure of What Is, doing short repeats at a low stroke count, checking the pace clock to learn what time that stroke count translates into. Or swimming with a Tempo Trainer set at a leisurely tempo, to learn what stroke count (and thus time) that tempo translates into for that distance. When I can’t improve or maintain my initial count – if it starts to increase – I stop. And how long I maintained that tempo at that count, becomes a useful Data Point.

From there, ideas for my practice emerge naturally. I will simply plan sets that focus on improving the Data Point combinations (of stroke count and time, or tempo and stroke count, and sometimes tempo and time) with which I started. That way, when I finish of swimming I can have the satisfaction of both having achieved measurable improvement during the past hour, and of enjoying the transcendent experience that comes with intense focus.


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