What does cancer have to do with the beginner’s mind and the business of running a martial arts school? Read on to find out…
The Day I Had To Start All Over Again…
Almost two years ago, doctors found a roughly racquetball-sized mass in my right lung. I’d contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus a few weeks earlier. When I started coughing up blood, my physician sent me to get a chest X-ray, and there it was on the film, plain as day.
I have a background in healthcare, having worked first as an Army medic and then as an ER tech in the years before I started my first successful martial arts studio. I’ve seen a ton of X-rays, and I know what that big milky blob meant. Next came the CT scan, then the biopsy, with each test resulting in even more dire news.
I’ll never forget the moment when the pulmonologist looked at my radiology report and CT scans, and said, “I won’t mince words—this looks like cancer.” The only memory that could top that was when he gave me the results of my biopsy over the phone two weeks later. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said, “But you have an epithelioid angiosarcoma.”*
Soon after, I discovered that this is a diagnosis so dire, that most oncologists won’t even treat patients for it. I was referred to a specialist at M.D. Anderson, and what followed was an 18-month journey that culminated in the removal of the tumor and the right upper lobe of my lung in May of this year.
Giving Up Martial Arts Practice
I continued teaching and training for roughly the first six months after my diagnosis. Eventually, I had to stop teaching and training with others for various reasons.
First, even moderate exertion caused me to begin coughing up blood. Second, the doctors thought the tumor might be invading my pulmonary artery, and they were concerned that, with overexertion, I might burst that major vessel.
Thus, I had to give up an activity that had been an emotional anchor and physical outlet for nearly forty years of my life. Of course, I continued training on my own. But as my condition progressed I found I was only able to tolerate light exercise, and eventually, my activities were restricted to a daily walk on the treadmill and some light calisthenics.
I won’t bore you with tales of the dark days I spent as a virtual lock-in after my blood counts began to plummet. Nor will I go into details about what it’s like to wake up every day for almost two years, thinking that the current week might be your last.
What I will say is that I had no idea how much I depended on my martial arts practice as a coping mechanism for the stresses of everyday life. And never in a million years would I have thought taking it up again would be as difficult as it turned out to be.
Starting Over After An Illness—It’s Not As Easy As It Sounds
Now, three months after my surgery, I’ve resumed training again. Thankfully, my red and white blood cell counts began returning to normal levels soon after my surgery, and I am no longer living in fear of contracting an illness that could kill me.
That said, all is not sunshine and roses. After a year of not being able to practice or train with others, for all practical purposes I’m starting over again in the martial arts.
Certainly, some skills aren’t as perishable as others. During my ordeal, I shadow-boxed and did light bag work when I was able, maybe once a week over the year leading up to my surgery. Yet, solo training is no substitute for working with a partner, and it’s certainly no replacement for live sparring practice.
Now, as I return to training, everything feels awkward and out of step. I try moving my body in certain ways, and it just doesn’t respond as it did before my diagnosis. Moreover, I’m dealing with the loss of a good portion of my breathing capacity, which means I’ll never have the endurance I enjoyed before my surgeon removed a lobe of my lung.
Coping By Adopting The Beginner’s Mind
To say the least, it’s a frustrating and humbling experience. Of course, I’m grateful to simply still be here after the challenges I’ve faced these past two years, but I won’t lie and say I’m not discouraged at times. Yet, I’ve uncovered a secret for coping that’s helping me turn my dissatisfaction into contentment.
This “secret” isn’t something new to me. It’s a principle I learned decades ago, and it’s also something I’ve taught my clients and students for ages. And that principle is, learning and practicing with a beginner’s mind.
The beginner’s mind, known as shoshin in Japanese, is a concept taught in Zen practice and Buddhism that advocates an attitude of openness, wonder, and discovery in learning. Indeed, those who practice Zen understand it as a vital prerequisite for achieving the state of personal calm and centeredness that is key to experiencing what the meditative practice offers.
Shoshin requires one to leave all preconceptions and presuppositions behind. In practicing this principle, it’s necessary to approach all things with the mind of a child, as if seeing and experiencing them for the first time. This leads to a sense of wonder and fascination that leaves you open to new ideas and concepts.
Why Shoshin Requires Discarding Your Ego
More importantly, it squashes the ego. When you approach things with a beginner’s mind, there is no expectation of performance or outcome. You are simply engaging with and experiencing things as they are, not as you remember them or thought them to be.
This provides you with a clarity that is difficult to achieve under other conditions, such as when we take up our practice with old expectations, even though we might be studying under new circumstances. By shedding those old assumptions, we open the path to new experiences, insights, and breakthroughs that would not be achievable had we clung to our former beliefs and habits.
However useful the principle of shoshin might be for martial arts training, it’s just as powerful when applied to business endeavors.
Could The Beginner’s Mind Be The Key To Martial Arts Business Success?
Over the last two decades, I’ve coached many martial arts instructors and school owners through the process of building a successful martial arts studio. Can you guess what the primary stumbling block is for most of the clients I’ve worked with over the previous twenty years?
If you guessed that it was the inability or unwillingness to learn and try new things, you are correct. It’s not an inability to learn that stops most instructors from achieving business success, it’s a stubborn tendency to approach the business of running a martial arts school with a beginner’s mind.
Consider the many types of students you’ve taught over the years. Now, try to recall those who were the most annoying and difficult students to teach. Do you have one or two in mind?
It’s not the rank beginners that are the hardest to work with, but those with a little prior experience and lots of ego who present the greatest challenge. And why is that?
It’s because they’re clinging to everything they learned before. Just as Bruce Lee often said (while paraphrasing Krishnamurti and Zen teachings), you cannot fill a cup that is already full. Likewise, you can’t very well learn something new until you let go of prior beliefs that are preventing you from absorbing new knowledge.
Your Ego Is Your Delusion—And Delusion Is Holding You Back
More importantly, when those beliefs have you puffed up on your own self-importance, that delusion will keep you from recognizing how critical new ideas and change can be in your growth process. Just as I’m having to let go of what I “used to” be able to do, in order to learn effective business systems you must jettison any conceptions of your ability to function as a business owner.
Here’s the key truth I want you to accept here—this doesn’t have to be a painful process. Ultimately, you have a choice in how you experience your growth as a school owner, just as I have a choice in how I experience starting over again in my training.
Yes, I could see this as a difficult journey, one fraught with disappointment, failure, and embarrassment. Instead, I choose to approach this process with a beginner’s mind, reveling in the wonder of learning things all over again, like a new white belt who just took their initial steps across the threshold of the dojo’s front door.
Free Yourself To Thrive
What a privilege that is, to be able to learn an art all over again, as if for the first time! Rather than seeing it as a personal setback, I choose to appreciate the unique opportunity I’ve been afforded, to be a white belt one more time.
When it comes to your journey as a dojo owner, will you fight the process, or embrace it with a beginner’s mind? Fundamentally, this is the choice between spinning your wheels for years in struggle or breezing through the roughly two-year period that it should take to go from zero to six figures of yearly profit in a martial arts studio.
The decision is yours.
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(*Note: My final diagnosis was EHE—epithelioid hemangioendothelioma. It’s a rare, one-in-a-million cancer that is no picnic. Thankfully my surgical team was able to remove the tumor just as it was showing signs of becoming high-grade. Had the original diagnosis been correct, I might not be here today. ~M.M.)