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.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Is it still Aikido (Iaido/Jodo?whatever) if you take away the Japanese clothes, the bowing and the etiquette?

Someone asked on a discussion board “How important (or unimportant) do folks here feel Japanese customs are important to learning Aikido?  It stuck me recently that a lot of the behaviours carried out during training have nothing to do with learning Aikido, but more to do with Japanese culture.  Bowing on entering the hall, learning the names of the techniques in Japanese, folding a hakama in specific way, bowing when picking up a bokken, I'd even add shiko/knee walking to this list or even wearing a gi for practice.  None of these, to my mind have anything to do with learning aikido, its like thinking you have to wear a beret to learn how to speak French properly.  Most of us don't train in Japan and are not Japanese, so I don't know why we do these things any more. “

My short answer is, “If you strip all that away from Aikido, it’s not Aikido anymore.”
A Way, an artform, is more than just the discrete techniques that are taught.  If Aikido is reduced to just the techniques, and the expressions of etiquette and tradition are removed, you’re making something else.  A Way is all the parts that come together to make it a whole system.  The aspects of Japanese culture inform the techniques and the values of the system.   They are as important to learning Aikido as learning ikkyo is.  This is true not only of Aikido, but of all of the Japanese ways.  

A Way, a DO 道、is so much more than just the individual techniques. The etiquette teaches us how what we study relates to other people, and how we should treat them when we interact with them.  I’ll stick with Aikido because that’s the example I started with.  Aikido is about complex interactions between people.  The etiquette that permeates training is all about how we interact with people.  The techniques of Aikido are not Aikido.  They are a means for learning the path and the way of thinking and acting that express Aikido.  To paraphrase the old Taoist saying yet again, the techniques of Aikido are like the finger pointing at the moon. They aren’t the moon, we look where they point to be able to see the moon.  If we get stuck on the techniques of Aikido, we will never learn Aikido.  This is true of any budo, of any Way.  The techniques are tools for learning the Way, but the Way is far more than the techniques.

In the dojo, pretty much everything is a lesson about the Way you are studying.  The etiquette teaches lessons, the techniques teach lessons, the kata teach lessons, learning the names in their original language teaches lessons.  If a person wants to jettison all of these parts of an art, they should really ask themselves if that Way is appropriate for them.  Why should the etiquette be removed from Aikido?  The etiquette regulates action in the dojo and makes it a safer place to train.  It teaches respect and a different way of thinking about human interactions.  The bowing and respect are critical to the ideas of Aikido and the way they are expressed during training is essential to the Way of Aikido.

Aikido comes out of Japanese culture, and the concept of DO 道 that has developed in Japan for more than 1000 years.  To summarily remove all these aspects of Japanese culture would be to create a very different art, a different way that leads somewhere other than where Aikido leads.  There’s nothing wrong with creating a new martial art, but you should be aware that’s what you are doing.  The learning atmosphere, and the higher lessons about life, the universe and everything that are pointed to and taught by practicing a Way are very different when you change the etiquette and the clothing and the language.   

All that bowing and using Japanese to describe what you are doing set a frame for your practice and establish a particular set of expectations about what you are doing, what the goals are, and how you will do it.  Aikido, and other budo, are not ultimately about learning to use a particular set of techniques or how to do a particular kata.  The techniques and the kata are tools for teaching students about principles of the art.  The etiquette, language and clothes are also part of that.  

Mastering the techniques of Aikido, or any Way (Do 道), no matter how good one is at them, does not mean that you have mastered the Way.  The techniques are some of the tools by which you learn the way, but they are not the Way.  It is quite common to mistake mastery of technique for mastery of a Way, regardless of whether it is a martial way or a flower arranging way or a calligraphic way or any of the other ways that abound in Japan.  

The Ways teach lessons about the world and how to live in it, using ordinary activities as their foundation.   Each Way is a complete package, with it’s own etiquette and language and often even clothes that are worn for various activities.  Given the thought and consideration that has gone into these Ways, I would be very hesitant to monkey with one without decades of experience in that particular Way, even if it is one as young as Aikido.

Those funny clothes and funny words and weird behaviors have a lot more to them then just adding another layer of useless stuff to learn that gets in the way of learning the important stuff.
If all you want from something like Aikido is the techniques, you are missing the real treasures of what you are studying.  The techniques of any Way have only very limited application in daily life, but the Way of thinking, of moving, of being, that is something that can be used every moment of every day. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What is Self-Defense? A Reality Check.

Some genius named Sam Harris got together Steven Graff Levine (former California DA and now a defense attorny), Rory Miller (former National Guard, 14 year prison guard, 18 months in Iraq advising the prison system, modern and classical martial arts), Matt Thorton (BJJ and MMA coach), to talk about what really qualifies as self-defense under the law, when it is legal to defend yourself, and when it is not.

One of the big take-aways should be that if you are in a situation that escalates into a fight, and then you do something causing serious damage or death, it wasn't self-defense, it was a crime.

This is really should be required reading for anyone who carries a weapon (knife, club or firearm) or who trains in martial arts.  Don't fool yourself about what qualifies as self-defense.  You might just fool yourself into prison.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Martial Arts Training For Self-defense Really A Good Idea?

It has occurred to me that practicing martial arts for self-defense is not that sensible an idea.  On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.  I mean, train in the martial arts and you learn great skills for fighting and you can protect yourself if you are attacked.  And yes, I have read the anecdotes of people who have used martial arts for self-defense.  In addition, I’ve been training in various martial arts for over 25 years, during which time I have touted the arts I train in as wonderful forms of self-defense.

Lately though, I’ve been reconsidering the equation.  I can use martial arts to defend myself if I am ever attacked.  This may help me avoid injury and losing personal property.  These are both laudable things.  The odds of my ever being in a situation where I will need these skills however is small.  It is even smaller if I take very sound and excellent advice of Marc MacYoung at No Nonsense Self Defense and simply avoid areas where violence is likely.  Since the vast majority of violent crime happens in very concentrated areas this shouldn’t be difficult.  

Basically, the odds of being injured and/or losing property in an attack are really small if I avoid dangerous areas.  OK, but I still think self-defense training might be a good idea.

Let’s see, martial arts classes run anywhere from $50 to $150 per month.  That’s $600 to $1800 a year in most cases.  Since, in my experience, you need to practice techniques regularly for them to be effective when you need them, basically you are going to be paying this as long as you want your skills to be effective.  So over 10 years you will pay $6,000 to $18,000 just for the training.  That doesn’t include the cost of any uniforms and equipment you might need.  If you go on for 20 years you’re at $12,000 to $36,000.  Now you are way over what you can expect to lose in some sort of robbery of your person.  I know never carry anything close to that in cash and valuables.  About the only way you could steal anything close to that much from me is to take my car, and that’s insured, so fighting for it would be a stupid risk..  Besides, in 2002 the rate of carjackings in the US was 2.1 per 10,000 people.  That’s 0.02% chance of being carjacked.  Add to that that carjackings are most common in particular, known and generally lousy neighborhoods where I don’t go and the odds get even less likely.

Ok, so maybe martial arts training isn’t a cost effective way to protect my property.  What about protecting myself?

I can guarantee one thing that will happen if you practice martial arts.  You’re going to get injured.  It will happen.  It’s the nature of what you’re doing.  Just like football, in martial arts practice people bang into each other and the ground, so from time to time people get hurt.  It’s going to happen, and just like in football, it’s a known and accepted part of what goes on.  Every person, EVERY PERSON, I know who has trained martial arts such as Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jujutsu, Hapkido or any other vigorous, useful martial art, has been injured.  The longer we train, the more injuries we accumulate.  In my more than 25 years in Judo I have broken a collar bone, cracked several ribs, sprained my ankles a few times, hyperextended my elbow, torn my ACL completely, and accumulated more bumps, bruises, strained  and pulled muscles, torqued joints and other assorted injuries than can possibly be remembered.  This list, or something like it, some with worse injuries, some not quite so severe, can be rattled off by anyone who practices a martial art for any length of time.  If you insist on a practicing an activity that has lots of hard contact you will be injured.  Not a question of if, just when.

So wait a minute.  If I study martial arts for self-defense, but I keep getting injured studying martial arts, have I really gained anything?  Lets see.  Someday I might be violently attacked and injured. OK. That’s bad. If I train in martial arts, I am certain to be injured repeatedly.  Um, let me think about that.  I might be a victim of a violent crime someday, but if I train in martial arts to defend myself I am certain to be injured repeatedly as long as I continue to train.

Somehow this doesn’t make training in martial arts seem very sensible.  There is a small chance I will be a victim of crime at some point in my lifetime.  During such a crime I could lose personal property and may be seriously injured or even killed.  If I train in martial arts, the cost will be tens of thousands of dollars over my lifetime (far more than could ever be stolen from me by anyone other than a banker or a hacker), and I am guaranteed to get injured over and over.

Dang.  It’s a good thing I don’t do this stuff for self-defense.  The cost-to-benefit ratio for training in the martial arts for self-defense is so bad I’d have to quit.  Fortunately I train in the martial arts because I love the training and the arts for what the teach about all sorts of things that have little to do with self-defense.

I didn’t write this to knock martial arts for self-defense.  I believe they can have immense value, but this value is not easily quantifiable in dollars and cents.  How do you quantify the feeling of security and confidence that training can impart?  That’s a tough one, especially when it is so different for everyone.  

I do know that with a little discretion about where you go, what you do and how you behave, most men don’t really need self-defense training.  Stay away from places known for fights and violence, and your odds of needing to defend yourself go way down.  Detroit is known as an incredibly dangerous place, but even there most of the violence is concentrated in a few really awful neighborhoods.  I love going to Detroit for shows and food and cultural activities, but I know enough to avoid areas of the city where violence is not uncommon.  This strategy works great for men.
Women have a whole different paradigm to deal with.  Women have to deal with men, and the do so from a position of being smaller and weaker.  The statistics for violence against women are much higher than those for men.  In one subset, 5 times as high.  For women, martial arts training can be exceptionally valuable.  Not that there is any particular style of system, but that they learn that it’s ok to fight, they should fight, and that they can do so effectively.  Any reasonable martial arts system can do these things, and the effect on their lives can be far wider than just knowing how to fight back if assaulted.   it can translate into being treated with greater respect everywhere in their life, because they don’t accept intimidation from anyone.  That alone might be worth the monetary and physical costs of training.