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Shoshin?! The State of Mind for Studying Anything

Shoshin belongs to the basic concepts of budo. But most students of Shotokan karate do do not know what it is and how to achieve it. By Thomas D. McKinnon

‘Shoshin’, (初心), translates to ‘Beginner’s mind’.  To quote the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki:

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.  A true beginner’s mind is open and willing to consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time.’

Shoshin: The Quintessential Mindset for Learning

Shoshin, simply the best way to approach any learning experience: an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconception. Even when studying at an advanced level just do it as a beginner would.  Listen without commenting, regardless of how much you think you know of the subject.  Observe as if you know nothing, learn as a child learns, and get excited about a new discovery.  Shoshin, like all of the concepts you discover on your journey of Karate-do, will help you to lead a more rewarding life.  Shoshin is the quintessential mindset for learning.  

One of the things that we (karateka) do, prior to and on completion of training, is the ritual mokusoMokuso means to “silent thinking”. However, in the dojo it has further connotations: to meditate or contemplate quietly, thus separating your karate training from the outside world.  I give this guiding instruction to beginners for mokuso:

‘Empty your mind… Concentrate on your breathing, think of nothing but slowly filling and emptying your lungs (using diaphragmatic breathing) whilst emptying your mind.’

The picture shows mokuso, which is a vital step towards Shoshin.
Mokuso is a vital step towards Shoshin

Shoshin: Make Room for Learning

By emptying your mind you are making room for learning, or absorbing, like a child or a complete beginner.  Shoshin is a concept far less literal than it is metaphorical, not to be confused with simply forgetting everything.  As we develop knowledge and expertise the tendency is to narrow our focus, filtering out the things we think we already know, concentrating on details we consider we don’t know.  The danger here is that we may block out information that disagrees with what, we consider, we already know. Unconsciously we sifting out any conflicting ideas in favor of information which confirms our previous experience or philosophical standpoint. 

Entering the dojo for the very first time students, from varying demographics – age, sex, socio-economic, body composition, up-bringing, life skills and experience – begin with shoshin… more or less. 

Female beginners learn quicker than their male counterparts

I know that, in these enlightened times, it is considered politically incorrect to mention the difference between the sexes in regard to anything.  However, for the purpose of clarifying the concept of shoshin, please excuse this political faux pas.  Firstly, I will clarify the statement: ‘Every student begins with shoshin… more or less.’  I will generalize here when I say, male beginner karateka and female beginner karateka start at slightly varying states of shoshin because of their differing life-experiences. 

In my experience, the male beginner generally already has some set, physical responses when hearing the words punch and kick. Fighting is a concept to which they are more likely to have had a modicum of experience.  I’m not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that it amounts to a difference in the natural state of shoshin of the male and female karateka as they begin training.

Having taught and observed the martial arts for the best part of half a century, I feel qualified in making that last sweeping statement. In addition to that, the following broad avowal: Female beginner karateka, generally, learn quicker to execute techniques more accurately than their male counterparts.  I believe this occurrence to be due to the degree of shoshin they begin with.  The male’s prior familiarity usually means that they have some incorrect habits to first unlearn.  

The picture shows shoshin, which can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.
Shoshin can be trained. Meditation helps to get rid of prejudices and preconceptions.

Shohin Is a Treasured State of Mind

However, swings and roundabouts…  Arguably, one of the single most important concepts to grasp in Shotokan Karate is kime!  The following paragraph is one of the descriptive explanations I use when introducing kime!

‘I believe that kime, like ki, is akin to tapping into the universal energy in little bite sized pieces.  If you have never accessed kime… I have found that, at the point where it is appropriate to punctuate your technique with kime, you should explosively inflict your intent.  And I describe that feeling as, almost, like getting angry for a nanosecond at that point of intended impact.’

In my experience, the male beginner karateka gets his head around that concept quicker. That, I believe, may have something to do with hormones.  However, all that being said, by the time that Shodan is achieved we largely have a level playing field. As adults we may have a tendency to allow our prior knowledge to block us from seeing things anew.  Shoshin, like all those esoteric concepts we utilize in Karate-do, is a state of being that is difficult to articulate to anyone who has not taken this path of Karate-do.  Once understood, however, shoshin is a treasured state of mind for studying anything.

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Hikite: More than just the pulling hand

Addison and Eleanor with a strong focus on Hikite!

Hikite has been criticized in the last few years to be ineffective and actually solely for the purpose of pulling an opponent. I will show in this article its actually bio-mechanical purpose as a counter-motion for the creation of speed and power. By Thomas D. McKinnon

The Hikite Critics

I have heard many so called experts criticizing the hikite as a pointless exercise. It makes no sense, they say, that pulling one hand in the opposite direction, to the one that is punching, will generate power to the punching hand. They usually go on to say that the original purpose of hikite is easily seen in the older, Okinawan forms of karate. They operated at a closer range between the attacker and the defender. Karate was originally, purely for self-defense. It was used when attacked by an adversary, and not for sport, where two karateka are facing off.

So, in those experts’ opinion, the hikite – originally meant for destabilising the opponent, grabbing limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a throw or takedown – is a waste of time unless used for those reasons. In fact the free hand would be put to better use as a cover, for the face say, while the opposite hand is punching et cetera.

A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.
A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.

What is Hikite about?

Hikite is another of those Japanese terms that means more than it says. Hikite: the pulling hand. Firstly, the hand that is the counter-piece of any given hand technique is not just pulled back per se. But we’ll get back to that. The difference between karate and let’s say boxing is simple. Karate doesn’t use a shoulder and or a lean in or a swing to generate power in the technique. Power generated in that manner makes the weight of the initiator a major part of that power generation. The (switched on) Shotokan karateka uses the rotation around the central pivot, or Hara (the core), of the body. Utilising the whole body, not just the side that is punching, the karateka is in fact employing more mass.

Furthermore, the slingshot effect generates more explosive speed. And, as everyone knows, this is instrumental in both power output and payload delivery: Force = Mass x Velocity (Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion). In the David and Goliath scenario: do you think that David would have slain Goliath if he’d simply thrown the stone?

Counter Pivot Around the Core for Maximum Speed and Power

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It "works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home."
Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It “works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home.”

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

What The Experts get Wrong

I do not disagree in regard to those other uses for the hikite. However, in my humble opinion, those so called experts don’t see the whole concept. They totally miss or misunderstand, the other side of the equation. To talk about pulling and pushing is somewhat redundant. Pulling one hand back is not going to power up the pushing or punching side… that’s obvious. That is where most of the power generation naysayers get their nickers in a twist. At the risk of repeating myself: the hikite is not pulling back, it is pulling the opposite side of the body into the equation by powering it through the central pivot or center axis. This action enables the karateka to utilise the power of the entire body. And not just the side that is delivering the strike.

Hikite Creates Physical Force

There is an equation for this power generation. Centripetal force (defined as, “The component of force acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or axis of rotation”) is equal and opposite to the Centrifugal force. Centrifugal force (defined as, “The force, equal and opposite to the Centripetal force, drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation, caused by the inertia of the body.”) then adds to the Mass and the Velocity already in motion. Again, we have a measurable: Force = Mass x Velocity.

Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both focus a lot on Hikite!
Our Two young ladies of the opener picture: Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both have a strong focus on Hikite!

All the other possible constituents of the hikite – destabilising the opponent, grabbing, pulling and assisting a throw or takedown et cetera – actually become even more relevant. Power generation, on its own, is a very real component of hikite. However, in addition, the supplementary power element makes all the other mechanisms of hikite even more practicable.

Hikite: more than just the pulling hand.