We like training. It’s fun. We value it. Training is good for us. That’s why we do it. We like what we are doing and what it does for us. All those benefits that budo training is supposed to give are great, right? Budo is great training for the body, all that exercise and developing speed and agility and strength. Then there are those mental benefits of being calm and centered and confident and mentally resilient.
Expect when we aren’t actually getting most of these benefits. It’s easy to train and not really progress. I know there have been periods where I went to judo and did the whole workout, and never really progressed or improved in any of the areas I just listed. Yes, it was a good workout and I maintained my level of fitness. Yes, the exercise felt great. Yes, I did a lot of techniques, but they were all techniques I already had a reasonable level of mastery of. Yes I had to focus and work my mind but it was more of a reinforcement and repeat of lessons learned. I knew what I could do, and I did it.
What I didn’t do was more. I didn’t push my body to its limits of strength. I certainly didn’t do anything that made me develop my speed or agility. When it came to mental training, I did things I was already confident that I could do. It’s easy to be calm and centered when you’re working well within your comfort zone.
None of this is really training. It’s more like maintenance. It’s more like keeping up with what I’ve achieved in the past. It doesn’t improve me in any way though. In truth, even when I’m doing those things, I’m diminishing. When I don’t test my limits they start shrinking because I’m not sure where they are. If I’m not out close to the edge, I lose sight of where it is and my imagination always makes it closer than it really is. When I’m not sure where the edge is I naturally give myself a plentiful safety zone so I don’t accidentally stray across the edge into uncertain territory.
I will admit, there are times in life when just treading water is tough enough. Most of the time though, we can do better. The question is, how do we know we’re doing better? A simple clue is your answer to the question “Am I in my comfort zone?” If you answer yes to this question, you’re not getting any better. If you’re not in your comfort zone, even if you’re just a little bit outside it, you’re pushing your limits and growing.
Ultimately, I’m responsible for the progress of my training. I have to push myself and find people to help me advance each step along the road. In judo, if I just show up every week and do my stuff, no will say anything, and people will be happy that I’m participating. If I want to to really learn, they’ll be thrilled. It’s my choice, and my responsibility. We each have to work at pushing our limits.
For most of us, the first time we step foot in the dojo we are pushing against more limits than we realize. We are learning to master our bodies and our minds. We are learning about power and conflict dynamics in the most fundamental way, by actually learning to fight. We are learning to go beyond the raw physical conflict and master our minds and ourselves. Often, we are pushing limits society has told us we can’t go beyond, that we can’t be deal with violence because good people don’t do that. It can be difficult if you’re male. I can’t imagine the pressure against that first step if you’re female.
Once we’ve taken that first step and trained for a while, the new danger is complacency. After we achieve a certain degree of competency at budo, or anything, the danger is leaning back, letting out a big sigh, and thinking “I’m good”. At that moment we’re in danger of stopping dead in the path and not learning anything new. This is true of anything we do, not just budo.
In a lot of things in life, a certain level of competency is sufficient. One of the wonders of budo is that there is no such thing as good enough. I have been privileged to train with people in their 80s and 90’s who were,and are, striving to improve. They still get out in the dojo and actively work at becoming better today than they were yesterday. Scroll down here and you’ll see the number 91. That’s the age of Hada Hidetoshi when he passed his 6th dan in iaido on November 19th this year.
The key to this is to keep searching for that edge. If you’re outside your comfort zone, even just a little, you’re growing. So how do you know where that edge is? Well, first, are you at all uncomfortable? For many years I had the good fortune to train with a wonderful man, Hikoshiso Sensei, in Shiga, Japan. The last 20 minutes of every training session was left for randori (judo sparring). I always ran and grabbed Sensei because he was so good I couldn’t do anything to him, while he could toss me any time he wanted. I learned from every 3 minute session he gave me. I noticed after a while though that most of the time no one asked him to do randori. In fact, people went out of their way to avoid meeting his eyes and getting asked to play (and yes, it was play. He always had the biggest smile through the whole session. It was pure fun for him).
I finally asked some people why they never trained with him and they all told me “He’s too good.” They didn’t want to train with someone they felt they had no chance of throwing. They didn’t want to go out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, that was exactly why I loved training with him. For me, it was a personal victory when I progressed enough to be able to break his balance a little. I wasn’t near to throwing him, but I had become good enough to affect him. Yes I knew I wasn’t going to throw him. Yes, I knew he would throw me. It was exciting and I really had to work and present my very best judo just to stay standing.
Over time though, my comfort zone increased. Practicing with Hikoshiso Sensei made everyone else much less intimidating. After Sense had thrown me around, even the big, tough guys didn’t seem nearly as imposing. And then one day a miracle happened. I’d been working on a technique, with Sensei in mind, I admit, and one day the universe aligned in my favor and I THREW Sensei. He was laughing in joy and excitement before he hit the mat. He was as thrilled that I had progressed far enough to throw him as I was. When he got up, he made a bow to me with a grand smile, and then we came together and continued the randori session. It was fabulous.
If I had, like some many others in the dojo, stayed in my comfort zone and only trained with people I was already able to throw from time to time, I would never have progressed to the level where I could throw Hikoshiso Sensei.
You have to go out past the edge of your comfort zone. That’s the only way it will get bigger. If you look at a training partner and think “There’s no way I can do anything to him” than you’re probably outside your comfort zone.
If training with someone makes your heart beat a little faster and your breathing pick up, that’s another good sign. When I do jodo or kenjutsu, there are certain partners who I know will be coming in faster and harder than I’m used to. I trust them to not hurt me, but still, I know I’m out on the edge of my ability to keep up, and I may not be able to get out of the way in time, or get the block up, or place the counterattack properly to stop them. It’s thrilling. I know I’m learning when I train with them. They push me to improve every time we meet.
Another clue is your mind. Are you worried about making mistakes? Are you concerned that you could fail to do things right? These are clues that you are in the right zone. If you don’t have questions about your ability to do something, you’re not pushing your limits. If you’re not concerned about completely blowing the movement or getting overwhelmed in randori or sparring, you’re not advancing. If you are putting yourself out there, and making the mistakes, being overwhelmed by your training partner, then you’re pushing on down the path, and your comfort zone is expanding.
Don’t stay where you are. Budo is a path, not a seat. Don’t give in to the temptation to sit down and stay where you are. There is always more to be learned, another hill to go round and another river to cross. Push yourself. Take the losses. Make the mistakes. Go where you can’t win. It doesn’t always feel like it, but when you push your limits, you are progressing, and that development can show up when no one is expecting it. I was barely dreaming of it, and I know Hikoshiso Sensei wasn’t expecting it. One day though, everything I had learned about sensing and responding to movement that I had learned from hours of frustrating practice when it felt like I was fighting a mountain came together, and suddenly Sensei was airborne. And laughing all the way to the ground because I had learned enough out there on the edge that I could catch him in a bad movement.