Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why Are You In The Dojo?

I had my technique ripped to shreds by a teacher the other day. He pointed out every little mistake, and he wasn’t the least bit gentle. There were no attempts to soften any criticism or to protect my ego. This was the epitome of “in your face” instruction. Every little point was picked apart and corrected with almost brutal efficiency and effectiveness.
A lot of people think this sort of instruction is abusive. That a teacher who does this is harming his students. That such teacher couldn’t possibly respect his students. Such a person has to be insecure to treat other people so harshly. That a student should stay far away from people like this. This kind of teacher is just an abusive jerk, right?

Wrong. While Sensei was ruthless in tearing apart my technique, he never once came close to stepping over the boundary into abuse or even being unnecessarily harsh. It was tough, and it’s not easy being on the end of that kind of criticism, but guess what? That’s why I was there. I’m in the dojo training so I can improve. I’m not there to show anyone how great I am or to prove I can beat someone, or to convince the world of anything. I’m there to learn.

If you’re serious about learning, the best way to do it is to have a very small ego. Take your ego and pride and desire for positive recognition and leave it with your shoes by the door. These things only get in the way of learning. Worse, pride and ego can be downright dangerous. The worst injury I’ve ever gotten was because I was too proud to admit my partner was a little better than I was. I pushed too hard and got injured because of it. It certainly wasn’t my partner’s fault I ended up in that position.

I have no problem with how this teacher does things in large part because I’m there for one reason, to improve. Sensei isn’t gentle, but I learn an incredible amount in a remarkably short time. I park my ego by the door and step into the dojo with no mental distractions to get between me and Sensei’s rapid fire deconstruction of what I used to think was pretty good technique. I’m there to learn and Sensei is not there to waste any time coddling egos. He is there to train.

There are lots of reasons for being in the dojo that just get in the way of moving further along the Way of Budo.  There’s the guy who’s out to prove how tough he is. Unfortunately, these guys (they are almost always guys) are only there to prove how physically tough they are. They have no interest in showing the mental toughness required to take real, harsh, tough criticism and tell Sensei “Thank you!” with sincerity.

Then there are the folks who are there to prove they are better than someone, or everyone. These folks only want to do the things they’re already good at. If they are working on their weak spots, no one can see how great they are. Their practice is all about themselves. You have to be careful because these guys are far more concerned with looking good than with taking care of their training partners.
People who come to the dojo just to play around and have fun are annoying because they don’t want to do the hard work of growing their skills and themselves. There is plenty of time for fun, and the dojo I love are rich with smiles and laughter. For all that, the best dojo are filled with people working hard to polish their techniques and grow their spirit. The laughter in the dojo is wonderful spice added to the rich stew of effort, sweat, concentration and dedicated training. Students who are primarily in the dojo for amusement aren’t really students, and they are a distraction to everyone around them. The world is full of places to amuse yourself and pass some time, but the dojo should not be one them. Just about anything that gets you to the dojo is a good reason to me.

I do think the above reasons are perfectly acceptable reasons for going to the dojo.  The point where things change is when you step onto the dojo floor. Once you’re in the dojo, there is room for only one purpose; to learn. The dojo is a place for studying the Way, through whichever particular path you have chosen. It’s not a place ego, for power struggles, dominance games, silly games or horsing around.

The dojo is a place for learning and if you are learning to prove you are better than others, or how demonstrate your personal excellence, or how to have fun, you’re learning the wrong lessons. Leaving your ego at the door with your shoes is a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s fundamental to everything else. If I couldn’t check my ego at the door, I can’t see any way I would be able to absorb all the lessons Sensei offers. I’d likely make the mistake of taking Sensei’s critique as a personal attack instead of as the effort to hammer the weakness out of me and my technique.

After all, budo isn’t just about learning fighting techniques, its’ not even mainly about learning fighting techniques. The techniques of budo are tools, but such tools are wasted in the hands of a fool. Teachers worry more about the mind and spirit of a student than about the technique. The mind is the most effective, efficient weapon there is. If you’re not training that in the dojo, what do think you’re learning?

Learning to leave your personal baggage at the door, whatever that baggage is, is one of the most important and most fundamental lessons in budo. It’s impossible to make real progress until you can do that. When your mind is filled with the baggage of ego, or dominance, even just amusement, there’s no room left for the lessons to be learned in the dojo. If the only things you’re learning are techniques, you’re not learning budo.

At the end of practice, what’s the best compliment you can get? Sensei walks up, slaps you on the shoulder and says “You worked really hard today.” That’s as good as it gets.  The Way doesn’t have an end. The real question is how we tread the path.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mastery and Black Belts: What's a Journeyman Budoka?

Over at The Stick Chick blog, written by Arnis teacher Jackie Bradbury, she wrote a neat essay titled I’m Really A Black Belt that got me thinking about levels of proficiency and mastery.

Somewhere along the line, black belt became synonymous with mastery. That’s not what it means in Japan, where the first level of black belt is called shodan 初段 and means “beginning step.” Many traditional arts in Japan don’t use dan ranks or belts at all. Outside Japan though, black belt implies a degree of mastery, and that’s what I’m really interested in. What is mastery in a martial art, and how do we know we’ve achieved it. I’m not talking about external recognition in the form of belts and certificates, but the mastery itself.

"Shodan"  Literally "beginning step"

I’ve been doing this budo thing for nearly 30 years. One of my teachers has been doing it for 85 years (that’s not a typo). The longer I do this, the less any of the awarded ranks mean anything.  But what Ms. Bradbury is talking about I do understand. At what point have you mastered the art? When do you stop being an apprentice who needs direction and start being a journeyman who can direct their own work and train others? When do have this level of mastery?

What is that level of mastery for a martial artist? Jackie Bradbury recognizes the critical step of being able to see the links between techniques and actions and how she can choose different paths and where they will lead.

Mastery is a very relative concept. If I compare myself with someone who has just started training with a sword, I look like I know an awful lot. My grip is good. I use my hips pretty well. I know how to breathe and how to move. Like Ms. Bradbury, I can see what is happening and what will happen in many instances, and how a partner can be locked into an unstable path.  Compared to the beginner, I’m pretty good. 

But I rarely consider comparing myself with a beginner. My personal baseline for comparison is my teacher. Since Kiyama Sensei has been doing budo for 85 years, I always feel like a beginner with him. What I do well with effort, he does beautifully without trying. His grip is wonderful while his movement is elegant, efficient and powerful. That is the skill level I judge myself against.

When I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that I’m certainly at the journeyman stage. What is it that really qualifies someone as journeyman? I think there are several attributes.  A journeyman budoka has to be able to breathe and walk properly (I’m serious!). She has to be able to do the kihon correctly without thinking about what she is doing. She has be able to do techniques without focusing on them. She has to be able to self-diagnose faults and figure out how to correct them.  When you have all of these in place, you’re a journeyman.

I’ve already written a whole blog about breathing and walking, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just say that journeymen breathe from their abdomen so they get the maximum efficiency from their lungs. They walk upright, without slouching or tipping themselves, and the power their movement from their koshi.

A journeyman has mastered the kihon, the fundamentals, of an art to the point that she can demonstrate them correctly without thinking, even when being distracted. They just happen correctly.  Whether these are the strikes and thrusts of a jo or bo, the cuts and blocks of a sword, the sweeps of naginata, the strikes of karate or the throws of judo. The kihon just happen. The journeyman budoka has reached the stage where doing the fundamentals correctly is unconscious. They have to really think about what they are doing to demonstrate a mistake.

When doing full on techniques, and not just kihon, a journeyman can do the techniques while processing other information. As Ms. Bradbury described, a journeyman can be doing the techniques and processing what effect they will have and what to connect to the technique. In judo we do a lot of practice of renzoku waza, or techniques that are linked together in a continuous chain without breaks in the attack. Even as a technique is happening and your partner responds to it, a journeyman will move to another technique that takes advantage of their partner’s response to the first technique. Journeymen see these kind of linkages naturally, and find themselves explaining to students why a particular technique or attack is a bad idea. The journeyman can see the chain of consequences that follow from the technique.  The student can’t.

A journeyman has acquired enough understanding and skill to direct someone else’s training, or her own. She can generally see what needs to be corrected, whether it is in a student’s technique or in something she is doing.  She can feel when she does something the wrong way. She can see when a student does something wrong, and can see when the root of the problem with their cutting has to do using their right index finger instead of a their left little finger or when the problem with their shoulders is originating in their hips and feet.

A journeyman can do the same analysis on herself and fix problems in her own technique, which is a considerably more difficult skill. It doesn’t take long for beginners to be able to see weaknesses in their own and other’s technique. Being able to recognize a problem is not the same as being able to fix it though. When a journeyman discovers a problem with her technique, she has the depth of skill and understanding to work out what is causing the problem, and come up with a means of fixing it. Journeymen don’t just see the problems, they can see the solutions too.

There is more to being a journeyman than just mastering the techniques. Journeymen understand the principles and fundamentals behind the techniques and can apply that understanding to work out the solution to weaknesses in their students, and their own, technique. A journeyman can see that bobble in a sword cut and trace it back to a weak left hand or an overpowering right hand, and then come up with an exercise or three to start correcting it.

That’s the mastery that makes someone a journeyman. Whether you have a black belt or not doesn’t really mean much. The journeyman has internalized the fundamentals and the techniques to the point that they are expressed without conscious thought, leaving her mind available to analyze the chain of effects that doing a technique will produce. In addition, the journeyman can not only see the weakness in someone’s technique, but they understand the application of the fundamentals of their art well enough to understand what causes a particular weakness so it can be corrected.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

States Of Mind: Heijoshin

Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

This one is for Scott Halls.

From the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary
へいじょうしん【平常心】 (heijshin)one's usual frame of mind; self-possession; composure; equanimity; an imperturbable [unperturbed] (frame of) mind.平常心保つ remain self-possessed [unperturbed]; preserve one's composure [equanimity];  keep one's cool平常心を失う lose one's composure [equanimity,  cool].
Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts   pg. 143
  1. BUDDHISM - an impartial mind and, by extension, a tranquil mind. Literally, a “normal” mind.  2. MARTIAL ARTS - The normal or tranquil state of mind which must be maintained when one is under attack. In other words, one must remain relaxed and self-confident.

Digital Dictionary Of Buddhism
The mind lacking artifice and mistaken discrimination, the natural condition of sentient beings

Heijoshin 平常心 can be a tough term to understand because it is often hidden behind complex Buddhist explanations.  The term is made up of 3 Chinese characters, but is really a combination of two words. The first two characters combine to make the common term “heijo” 平常, which simply means “normal.”  The last character is read “shin’ in this usage, but when it stands alone is read “kokoro” , which is the word for the mind, including the emotions and other parts that are usually labeled as “heart” in English.  The Japanese don’t make the mistake of separating the logical and emotional parts of the mind into separate entities.  They recognized long ago that the mind is all of the logical and rational bits mixed up with the emotional bits, rather like a plate of spaghetti with sauce on it after the noodles and sauce have been stirred together.  They can’t be separated.  It would be pointless to try.

In Buddhist terms it is the normal mind without any attachments clouding it. However, since this blog is about budo rather than Buddhism, we’re not going to get into that.  For me, heijoshin is something of a culmination of some of mental states I’ve talked about in the past. Mushin is often seen as limited, a state of mental flow that can be achieved from time to time, but doesn’t last, and certainly isn’t normal.

Fudoshin, the immovable, imperturbable mind described so eloquently and bafflingly by the Zen Buddhist monk Takuan Soho isn’t as remote and ephemeral as some flow state that we touch from time to time. An immovable mind isn’t disturbed by what happens, doesn’t get stuck on any one thing that comes along, and isn’t distracted by every shiny new idea or event.  
That’s a big part of heijoshin, the normal mind. The normal mind on a normal, boring day can move along with the activity of the day without getting caught up in any of it. Heijoshin includes more than just being imperturbable though. The normal mind in Buddhist theory, as I understand it, is one that also isn’t attached to any preconceptions. It is the normal mind we are born with, one that is not cluttered with preconceived notions, that doesn’t impose it’s own expectations on the world, and one that doesn’t color what it sees with prejudices and prior judgements.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote 常の心 which is often written 平常心in modern Japan (Musashi’s Japanese from the early 1600’s is much more difficult for 21st century Japanese to understand than Shakespeare’s English is for the average American high school student).  His phrase can be read toko no kokoro or tada no kokoro or  tsune no kokoro.  Toku means “constant, unchanging.” Tada is “ordinary, common, usual, unaffected.” Tsune is the “usual state of things.” All these together are are a good equivalent for heijoshin.

Heijoshin is the “normal mind.” Like mushin, the “normal mind” isn’t any more normal than the “no mind” of mushin is really the absence of the mind. In budo, heijoshin is the fully developed mind that isn’t disturbed or unbalanced by actions or events. It remains calm and unruffled regardless of what happens.  I don’t know about anyone else, but to me that is a very abnormal mind. All of the normal minds around me (and too frequently this includes mine) get upset and disturbed by the unexpected.
Heijoshin then, is a very unusual mind. A person with heijoshin mind maintains the same calm, balanced and unruffled manner regardless of whether she is slicing up vegetables with a knife or cutting down foes with a sword. It takes a well trained and highly experienced mind to maintain a calm and unruffled condition even in the heat of battle.

This is where all that training we do comes into play. It’s common to hear people criticize kata practice for being stiff and formal, and especially for not teaching people how to adjust and adapt to the unexpected. On the contrary, I’ve found kata training to be exceptionally good at developing students awareness, calmness and mental flexibility.  Precisely because so many factors are known in kata practice, students have the mental space to really learn to read their partner’s body and movements and learn to spontaneously adjust to differences in timing and spacing.

In koryu, you don’t get to be on the receiving end of the kata until you have significant experience on the doing side learning to read your partner.  This is important, because once you are on the receiving end of the kata working with beginners, anything can happen. Beginners mix up kata and do the unexpected with great frequency. Having a solid grounding in being able to read your partner’s stance and movement is the first step in developing a heijoshin mind. The senior is responsible for handling whatever the junior does, and quickly learns to do this causally. It’s just part of the training.

As the intensity of practice in kata increases, the student has to become more and more calm in the face of that pressure. Developing a heijoshin mind is one of the goals of classical budo practice. There are lots of stress and shocks built into budo practice. Over time, the student should gain greater and greater composure and equanimity. Certainly it is not unusual to see senior level students deal with a junior mistakenly switching from one kata to another part way through the first kata. Or getting accidentally banged with a stick during practice without acknowledging that anything untoward or painful happened until after the kata is finished.
Great Martial Arts Equipment, Clothing and Media

That is heijoshin in action. Even when startled, shocked or hurt, the student maintains composure and continues on with the appropriate action.  As students progress, the amount stress needed to disturb their heijoshin increases. Students are able to remain calm and unflustered.

In addition, students learn to recognize when they are trying to impose their preconceptions and expectations on a situation. This often happens when students decide when or how fast their partner will attack and then move at the wrong time. They have to learn to turn off their expectations and just respond to what their partner is really doing. Sometime these lessons hurt because if you decide what your partner is going to do, and she does something different, you end up catching a stick with the side of your head (this hurts and is to be avoided.  I have some experience with this form of learning).

Calm. Imperturbable. Relaxed. Without expectations. Tranquil. The Buddhists call this heijoshin, normal mind. For the rest of us it is an exceptional mind, and another goal of training.