Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trust In The Dojo

Trust is a wonderful thing.  Real trust is something that is earned over time.  In budo practice, trust is absolutely essential.  What we do in the dojo can’t happen without it.  We are practicing dangerous, potentially crippling or even fatal techniques.  We have to practice them on our partners, and we have to turn our body over to them so they can practice.  We have to expose ourselves to incredible physical vulnerability so our partners can practice.  In a very real sense we are loaning them our bodies so they can learn.  In turn, they do the same for us.  Without fuss, without complaint, seemingly without concern, they turn their body over to us to practice throws, strikes, joint locks, weapons attacks and all sorts of things which at are simply dangerous and could get them seriously injured.   When we’re in the dojo, it seems perfectly natural.

When I think about the amount of trust I give to my partners, and how little I even think about it at this point in my training, it’s really amazing.  I don’t think twice about letting someone throw me, twist my wrists so the bones in my forearm cross, turn my arm so my elbow is taken in an unnatural direction, or assault me with large sticks.  It’s what I do now.  I can’t believe I trusted training partners so much or so easily back when I started out on this path.

Trust, real trust, the deep down kind, the “here’s my body, go ahead and throw it around a room” kind, the “hit me with that stick” kind, isn’t something you you give naturally.   I have to remember back a long way to when I started Kodokan Judo, and letting people throw me and armbar me and choke me.  I was stiff for a while.  Absolute trust in my partners did not come right away.  I had to work at it with them.  The first people I trusted were my teachers.  They could pick me up and put me down and it felt even safer than diving into my own bed.

Trusting my peers, especially my fellow beginners was different, and took a lot longer.  We had to work hard together, and go through more than a few bumps and bangs as we learned to throw and to be thrown.   It’s scary when someone who knows as much as you do, which is nothing at all, picks you up and then hurls you at the ground.  No wonder beginners are stiff.  They are trusting some stranger to not break break them horribly.  Over time students learn to trust their partners not to hurt them, and they learn to trust their own skills to receive the techniques safely.  

I know that I trust the people I train with regularly a lot.  A lot more than I trust people that I spend significantly more time with.  Based on the amount of time we spend together, and that fact that we do what we do as much for the enjoyment it gives us as anything else, it’s surprising how much I trust these people.  I freely hand them my body to do with pretty much as they please, without any worry at all.  In many ways, I trust them vastly more than I trust most of the people in my life.

This level of trust has been earned.  I train with these people often, and the training environment is one where people’s fundamental nature becomes remarkably clear remarkably quickly.  As I train with people, the vast majority of them are fundamentally good. You quickly realize who is a little careless or a bit thoughtless when they are training, because these people hurt their partners more often and don’t realize that they are doing it.  There are all sorts of personality quirks that show up quickly when you’re handling people and doing dangerous things with them.  The ones who are careless or thoughtless get extra instruction about that in the dojo, and they are genuinely upset and apologetic when they do something wrong.

There are some real diamonds in the dojo too, people who go out of their way to be helpful and willingly absorb extra pain while you work on a technique that is giving you problems.  They are also the folks who are quick to work with beginners who have no control, which makes beginners dangerous regardless of how wonderful a person they are.  They are also wonderful to let work on you because of their care and the honesty of their technique. They aren’t hiding anything, there is no hidden agenda and no secret desires.

The folks who aren’t nice but usually cover themselves with at least a civilized veneer in conversation and outside the dojo though don’t seem to be able to hide anything in the dojo.  The guys who get a kick out of hurting people or who like to prove how powerful they are show their true colors when training and they get a reputation pretty quickly.  There are the guys who always crank an armbar harder than it needs to be, and they always seem to hold the technique for a while even after their partner has tapped to signify that the technique is effective.  Nobody likes these people, and nobody trusts them.  They show who they are very quickly.  They muscle their techniques and they throw extra hard so their partners hurt when they get up. 

This is why I trust the people I train with so much.  We are operating at such a raw level that peoples true natures are nearly impossible to hide. We give our training partners immense power over ourselves.  We routinely give them the power to hurt and injure us.   We know who will be petty and mean enough to hurt us more than absolutely necessary, who might be basically good but a little careless, and who is a truly wonderful human being.   In the dojo, we play with raw power to harm people, and the ones who enjoy hurting others can’t hide this from us.  And they lose the trust that everyone else in the dojo has for each other.
I’ve seen a few of these guys over the years, and they happily trade the trust and community of the dojo for the feeling of power they get when they abuse a partner or when people are afraid to work with them.  They seem to think this makes them strong and powerful.  They are always on the outside of the dojo community because no one really trusts them, regardless of how good their technique becomes.

I trust the people I train with so much because it is so easy to spot the rotten apples and avoid them.  Better yet, the best dojos I’ve been in simply don’t tolerate their behavior.  They either shape up and play nice, or they are encouraged to leave.  I just don’t tolerate them in my dojo.  I love the people I train with because time and time again they have proven that I can give them my body to do with as they please and they will give it back to me whole and healthy.  In fact, I often have to tell them to be a little bit stronger, to hit me a little bit harder because they really don’t want to hurt anyone, and they do the technique less than completely because they don’t want to cause me the little bit of pain that goes with it.  We trust each other because know each other at the fundamental level where we have the power to harm and we know what the others heart looks like there.

It’s amazing how true this is even when you visit a new dojo.  After working with a person for just a few minutes you will know more about their personality than you would in days of working with them outside the dojo.  There are so many opportunities for someone of ill will to take advantage of during budo training that in under 15 minutes I can tell if someone should be avoided. 

What is wonderful about going to a new dojo to visit is that the vast majority of people are very good, and they show it clearly when we train.  After an evening of training with a group of people at a new dojo, I have a new group of trusted friends, because we have shared ourselves with each other, and shown that we care about each other’s well being.  Training means operating at a fundamental level where we offer ourselves to our partners and they show who they really are by how they treat us while they train.  It’s hard to find an activity outside the dojo where you do something with such a powerful exchange on a regular basis.

The trust that this builds is a wonderful thing.

3 comments:

Malina said...

Thank you for verbalizing the feeling of trust in the dojo in such a good way! I realize I have been taking it for granted, just having a short aikido experience and only in one dojo. And, indeed, I trust the people in the dojo much more that those outside.
It is definitely worth thinking it through.

D Suter said...

A great article.
Thank you.

Jerome Barber, Ed. D. said...

I believe that you hit the target right in the center of the bulls- eye and there isn't a whole lot more that anyone can add. Excellent piece of writing and well worth the time reading it.

Jerome Barber, Ed. D.