Up until last February, I had what I found to be a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and the way I was doing the technique.
Now I’m investing in failure. I could keep doing hiki otoshi uchi the way I have been, which works pretty well. Instead, I’ve abandoned my old technique as I work to develop the one this teacher uses. The downside of this is that for now, my technique is lousy. In order to improve my technique and try to reach the teacher’s level of smooth, effective control, I have to give up the technique I’ve developed and start working on something new. For a while until I begin to grasp the mechanics of this new version of the technique, there are a lot of juniors whose technique will be a lot stronger than mine. I will have to put up with personal frustration as I flub things with the new version I’m working on, things that I could have nailed with my old technique. It’s worth the frustration and the flubs and the failures though to develop an even more subtle, effective and powerful level of skill.
If I can’t set aside what I think I know and all the ego and effort that has gone into it, I won’t progress beyond this point. I’ll be stuck here, unable to advance. On the other hand, if I set aside what I have already learned, take myself back to the practice yard and treat what I have done in the past as the groundwork that enabled me to see and understand what this teacher is doing, then I can make a leap forward. First though I have to be willing to do what seems like backsliding. At this point, progressing doesn’t just mean refining my existing technique. It is it tearing my technique apart and rebuilding it.
To tear a fundamental technique like hiki otoshi uchi apart and rebuild it is not easy, particularly for the ego. For a while, I know my technique is going to be weaker than my students. I am going to be flubbing the technique and messing up kata practice with horrible and embarrassing frequency. All of the habits developed and laid down so solidly in my neuro-muscular system are at war with what I am trying to do now. My old technique was like an good friend. I’d been doing it one way for so long that I didn’t need to give it any thought. It just happened. Now if I don’t pay particular attention to what I’m doing, it still just happens. I don’t want it to do it that way though, so I have to pay extra attention to every movement I’m making with my head, shoulders, hands and hips, all at the same time.
Currently I can usually get 2 or 3 out of the 4 to do what I want. The other one or two go back to the way I did it in my old technique, creating interesting hybrid techniques.
The one thing that is consistent about all of these new/old hybrid techniques is that they don’t work. Trying to blend them just makes the whole thing fall apart. It will be a few months before I can integrate the new technique into my body and do it consistently. Until I do that, I’m going to be really bad. I expect my students to look at me and wonder if I have lost it. I will feel foolish. A part of me will desperately want to go back to the old way. It’s simple.
My old technique worked. My new technique doesn’t. Yet. For now I am investing in failure. Instead of doing what worked well enough, I’m going back to being incompetent. I’m wiping the old technique from my system and starting back at the beginning, at the slow, careful, clumsy beginning. This is the only way for me to move forward. I can’t build a new, more subtle and effective technique on top of the powerful one I had. I have to let go of what I’ve achieved so far and become as unskilled as a beginner. Beginners fail a lot. That’s why they are beginners. It’s also why beginners make such rapid progress compared to those of us who’ve been around a few years. They haven’t accumulated a lot of technique that works well enough that they’ve become attached to them. They don’t have ego invested in being the powerful senior student. They aren’t worried about looking like a real teacher. They are beginners and beginners are allowed, even expected, to fail. For me to make real progress, I have to go back to being a beginner and allow myself do a lot of failing.
It’s a check on my progress. If I’m never failing, never making mistakes, I’m not learning anything. Learning is done out there on the edge of our knowledge and understanding, out where we aren’t sure of anything except that we don’t know. It’s not a comfortable place to be. We can’t look cool or strong or masterly out there. We can only look like what we really are, students exploring something new that we’re not good at. If we have problems with looking like a student, like someone who is learning and figuring out how to do things, we’re not going to want to go out and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding. If I’m not failing though, I’m not advancing. It’s a little ironic that the best thing to do to get better is to be make mistakes. It’s only by making mistakes that I can figure out what works better and start on that next step.
So invest in failure. It pays high dividends.