Friday, December 26, 2008

Budo and the unflinching gaze

In most Japanese classical budo, the vast majority of training is done with a partner, and in the modern budo there is generally some form of randori . Training with another person with whom you have to demonstrate the effectiveness of your technique forces you to be honest aobut your technique. Unless your training partner takes a dive for you, you have to be honest about how well you are doing a technique and what needs work.

When using a live blade in iaido, it's difficult to find sensible people who are willing to act as training partners. You have to train solo. Solo training means you don't have independent input on your technique. The most difficult thing about iaido training is that you have to look at yourself and decide if you're doing things correctly. I don't know about anyone else, but I have a nearly limitless ability to convince myself my technique is great. Without the check of a partner, I can tell myself all sorts of stories about how fine what I'm doing is. Good iaido demands that you look at yourself without flinching. I have to think about what I'm doing very carefully so I can't let little self-deceits slip in.

I have led myself down some disasterous dead ends, even when people whose opinion I should know enough to listen too have told me how wrong I was. Even looking at myself on video didn't help much. My river of training started flowing backwards for a couple of years while I listened to the lovely lies I was telling myself. It was only when I started to look at myself without consideration of how good or bad I was did I begin to fix things. I had to stop telling myself that this or that works better for me, and only ask "How close is what I am doing to ideal iaido?" When I started doing that and looking at my iai without flinching I started making progress again.

Looking at myself like this has been really hard on my ego. As much as I try to convince myself critizism from others isn't quite right, it really hits hard when it is coming from own mouth.


Janet said...

This is going to sound weird, but maybe there was a reason and a lesson to be learned - and I don't mean just the obvious one you are kicking yourself over - I think what I'm getting at is, was there something else, some puzzle about form or movement you needed to explore even if it led you down the wrong path? ... just a thought that pops into my addled brain.

Budo Bum said...

There were any number of movement puzzles that I had the opportunity to explore. Almost all of them were dead ends. I think my own ego was the lesson that really needed to be learned. When I came back from Japan 10 years ago I was quite convinced at how great my iai was. The sad part is, that my iai was quite good at that time. What I wasn't good enough for was maintaining my skill level without outside instruction, but THAT I didn't realize. So as my iai deteriorated, my opinion of it stayed high until there was an incredible mismatch and my ego wasn't prepared for it when I started to get feedback again. That was a lesson I really needed.

keyboard samurai said...

I definitely understand where you are coming from. After having the first six years of training with weekly correction and and hands on feedback, I then had to learn how to examine what I was doing with a critical eye in comparison to the ideal. Maybe it helped that I was never quite convinced my iai was that good. Maybe it helped that I never traveled where I had to, to be able to take the dan tests. So to continue, I had to now study to prove that I could perform at a level satisfactory for the tests. I had to become unflinchingly critical of what I was doing as a habit just to not be embarrassed in performance. That was a great motivator not to think to highly of what I was doing.

PAR-2 Productions said...

I went through the same thing in Dec. 2007. Due to the fact that almost no one else practices iai at the dojo, sensei was almost always busy taking care of the karate guys' training so from the beginning of my time in Japan, the bulk of my training has been very much self directed with sensei sitting down near the end of class to watch what I have been working on and give a couple of pointers. All in all it worked o.k. but after going back to the U.S. for a couple of years and after returning, still only being able to go to the dojo occassionally, I more of less got stuck in a sort of holding pattern for a few years where I had some ideas on what I probably should improve, but being too lazy to actually do the work ("Well it's not really that bad so I can start working on that later"). For me the wake up call came suddenly when sensei came up to me and said "You are doing a short iai demonstration at my daughter's wedding next month so don't mess up... oh, and you are getting 5-dan next month as well." Luckily the "Holy Crap" double punch really woke me up and I've gotten back on track since then (maybe even gone overboard as you know but...). I think the biggest issue is at some point everyone will need to completely throw away everything they have learned to date and rebuild themselves from scratch at least once if they really want to improve and it quiet hard for your ego to let go of all those years of training and admit "this isn't working and I need to start again". Ironically since doing that, whenever I get to the dojo now, sensei spends almost the entire time working with me and leaves the karate guys to their own devices.