Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Spirit Of Learning

We study martial arts.  That should mean we’re here to learn.  How we approach learning, the attitude we carry with us in the dojo is critical to what we learn.  Sadly, all too often when we get advice the thought barging through our heads is not “Thank you. I will work on that.”  Instead we’re thinking “I know that. Don’t bother me with stuff I already know.”

It’s easy for me to write that we should always receive advice with gratitude, but what does that really mean?  It seems pretty obvious we should appreciate and be grateful whenever someone helps us.  That’s a lot harder to do than it is to write.  So often people, especially peers, or people who think they are our peers, will give us advice that seems pretty worthless.  

Advice and instruction can be broken down into 3 categories.  The first, and best of course, comes from our teachers.  They are giving us advice from their deep experience and knowledge.  This is usually easy to receive with gratitude and an open mind.  After all, we go to our teachers for instruction on how to do the techniques right, so whenever they share their knowledge and experience, we are happy to receive it.  Except sometimes.

Sometimes teachers are telling us something we already know.  Do we really know this stuff though?  If we really knew it, would our teachers feel the need to tell us again?  For me, the most common direction I get is to relax.  After nearly 30 years in the dojo, you might think I know I should be relaxed and that my shoulders shouldn’t be pulled up tight next to my ears.  In one, limited, sense I do know this, and it’s the correction I most often make with my own students.  In a deeper sense though, I don’t know it.  If and when I truly know how to maintain a relaxed state, it will manifest itself in my movement all the time. Kiyama Sensei won’t feel the need to remind me because I won’t be tensing my shoulders and tugging them towards my ears.

Another direction I get frequently from Sensei is to use my hips better.  Well, what he actually says is “Koshi ha yowai.”  “Your hips are weak.”   Sensei has been telling me this for years.  I’m working on it.  I have made major improvements.  I can see it in video of me training in years past compared with now.  Sensei still pushes this.  It’s something I know quite well.  Sensei reminds me often though.  Should I feel annoyed with him for always harping on this one thing?  Should I be frustrated and resentful that he never lets me forget this?  

Annoyance and frustration aren’t a part of this.  Koshi 腰 (really the whole region of the lower back and hips) are fundamental to everything we do in budo.  They are what ties together the foundation provided by our feet and legs with the floating mass of our upper body and head.  If this connection isn’t solid, my balance with be weak and I won’t be able to transfer the power of my legs to my upper body.  It’s absolutely critical.  I’ve made a huge amount of progress in this area, so why does Sensei keep coming back to it?  I’m working on it after all.   Then I watch guys like this, and wonder why Sensei doesn’t spend more time pushing on this point.

I approach anything Sensei has to say with gratitude and a desire to figure out how to apply what he is telling me.  Sometimes this is pretty tough.  I don’t always make the connections immediately, so I spend a lot of time wandering around trying to figure out what I’m missing.  I learn a lot this way.  It makes me think about things from different perspectives trying to understand what Sensei is getting at, and why it’s important at that moment.

It’s tougher to take the same advice from someone of equal or lesser skill.  Having one of my training buddies tell me to relax or to use my koshi could really annoy me. Sometimes this  annoyed me badly enough that I got busy being annoyed and I completely lost the point of my training that day.  These guys have no right to be telling me what I need to work on!  Especially someone who’s only been training that long!

Then one day a thought walked over and smacked me in the temple.  If someone with that little experience can see how much I need to improve something, maybe I should be paying attention to it.  It really doesn’t matter how skilled they are.  I can take what they say with openness and appreciation and gratitude.  If they can see it, then there may be a very obvious weakness that I need to work on.  The one thing I am 100% sure about my budo is that it’s not perfect.

I also understand that not all advice offered by juniors is good.  Sometimes I have to explore it.  I’ll ask “What do you mean?” or “Why do you see that as a problem?”  Then we can talk and explore their concern together, and if it’s a valid point, I’ve got another item to add to my already long list of things to fix, or they learn why their understanding may not be as strong as they thought.  Either way, we learn something.

If we are honest with ourselves, our budo becomes a search for improvement and not an ego building exercise related to how much more we know than someone else.  I’ve reached the point where I’ll take help improving myself from anywhere I can get it.  I’m a slow learner, so if I’m going to accomplish much of anything before I die, I’ve got to take all the help and assistance I can get.  Even if it’s from my own students.

Recently, I’ve started doing something new..  I ask my students to sit down. Then I demonstrate something.  Their job is not to look at it and think about how they can emulate what their teacher is doing.  Their job is to look at what a fellow traveler on the budo path is doing, and help him. I ask them to tell me about anything they see that I should correct.  It’s a lot of fun and we all learn something from it.  The more senior students are quite capable of telling me in detail about a lot of things I should work on.  Often these are the same points I’ve just finished bringing to their attention in their own practice.   At first it’s embarrassing to have a student call you out for the same problem you were helping them with 15 minutes before. I had to work at not being embarrassed by this and just accepting their help.  If I’ve just pointed something out to them, they are hyper-aware of it, so if I’m off by one degree they see it.  

After a few run throughs though, I’ve gotten past most of my ego issues (if I ever transcend them all, you’re invited to my investiture as a living Buddha).  At first my goal was to take advantage of my senior student’s ability and knowledge to help improve my practice.  Now I’ve begun to see some other benefits.   All my students gain from this.  They really focus on trying to see more clearly in my practice what I have been asking them to do in theirs.  Even the beginning students begin to see better because they are looking for things at higher levels and advancing their understanding based on what other students are saying and what I am doing.

Once I fold up my ego, put it in a bag, stomp it thoroughly flat, and kick it to the back of the closet, we all win.  I get progressively better and more subtle critique from my own students.  In turn, they become more discriminating about their own practice.  They begin to understand what they are trying to achieve, and they can see where they want to go.  Then we can work together to get there.  We all advance.

That’s the spirit of learning that I love to see in the dojo.  We are all there trying to improve. Ultimately, there is no perfect in budo.  There is only progress.  Once I put aside my ego, I know I can learn from everyone.  Now I’m teaching my students how to critique me so I can improve at the same time they are learning to see with clearer understanding what some of the goals of practice are.  Enter the dojo in the spirit of learning, and you can learn from anyone, not just they people you address as “Sensei.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Student Responsibility

The responsibilities of teachers gets a lot of discussion, but I rarely see anything about the responsibilities of students.  As adult students of the martial arts, what are we responsible for?   Are we as students responsible for something more than showing up, being respectful and doing what is taught in class?  
    Yes, we are. Students’ first responsibilities start the moment they walk into the dojo.  They are responsible for being aware and paying attention to what the dojo is like. What is the atmosphere in the dojo?  How does the teacher treat the students?  Does he treat them with respect and dignity?  Or does he belittle and demean them?  Does he yell at them?  How do the students treat the teacher?  Is he treated with respect, or is he treated like some sort of princeling, with students groveling and debasing themselves before him?   Do the students seem afraid of the teacher?  Does the teacher seem to take advantage of his position?

    Being aware of things like this and checking on them are part of our responsibility even before the we join the dojo and become students..  These are things we should be looking at when evaluating whether or not to become a student somewhere.  When you join a dojo and begin studying, you will learn not just the physical techniques that are being taught, you will also learn from the way people interact with each other.  Do you want to learn how to be disrespected, verbally and possibly physically abused?  Do you want to learn how to stand and absorb yelling?  To learn how to accept being demeaned and belittled?  You are responsible for what you are learning.  If it looks like this is part of what is being taught, your responsible for making the decision to not attend classes where abuse is part of the lesson.

We, as students, are responsible for ourselves.  Teachers and sempai have responsibilities, but the ultimate responsibility for what we learn resides with us.  We have to go in with our eyes open and our minds alert.  This remains true after we’ve found a teacher and school that we feel we can trust.  Students’ responsibilities don’t end just because they found someone they are comfortable learning from, can respect and who offers them respect in return.

I was in the Judo dojo on Tuesday, my first practice after being away for several weeks because I’d been traveling in Japan (practicing other stuff) and then I was sick.  As a student there, I’m responsible for being aware when I’m sick and contagious and not exposing the teacher and my fellow students to whatever crud I’ve got.  I stayed away for a week until I was better.  I wasn’t 100% yet though, and it was my responsibility to be aware of my condition and adjust my training appropriately.   I knew I didn’t have my usual stamina or strength that night.  In one way, this was a great training opportunity for me, because when we did some newaza drills, I had to do them correctly.  I didn’t have the strength or stamina to muscle my way through the practice with weak technique and a lot of muscle.  In the other direction, I had to be aware of my physical limits and know to say “enough” if I got too close to those limits.

Towards the end of the evening we did some newaza randori, and I got through that without getting too winded or worn out.  A little later though, we started some standing randori sets.  When Sensei offered one set to me, I passed on the chance. I could have gotten out there and mixed it up with some of the strong young guys, but I didn’t.  Not because I didn’t want to; I love randori.  There is little in life that has the intensity, immediacy and complete mental and physical involvement of judo randori.  I’m first in line, though, to be responsible for my safety and my training partner’s safety.  I knew that without adequate stamina, I wasn’t physically strong enough to safely work with my partner.  If I can’t count on my own strength, I can’t protect myself or my partner.  Randori is high speed, high intensity, free fighting.  If I get tired and make a mistake because of exhaustion at a critical moment, I can easily get hurt.  I’ve seen it happen to people in the past.  They push themselves too far, and when they need to protect themselves with a good fall or a quick reaction, they are too tired to do the technique properly, and they end up with an injury.  This hurts their partner too.

Every person training should feel some responsibility for their partner’s well being.  I know that I do, and on the couple of occasions my partner has been injured, I have felt horrible that it happened.  Afterward I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I could have done to prevent the injury.   The partner of nearly every person I have seen injured during practice has felt the same way.  We are working together, so part of my responsibility is to see that you don’t get hurt.  The few times I have run into people who truly don’t care about their partners, I’ve stopped working with them.  The only time I ever saw my first judo teacher truly furious was when a guy was condescending and uncaring towards a partner’s well-being.  That guy didn’t stick around very long.  One of the fundamental principles of Kodokan Judo is “Jita Kyoei” 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare.”  If someone can’t be bothered to concern themselves with his partner’s well-being, I don’t want them training with me or anyone I care about.  My teacher at the time felt the same way, and let this guy know it.  The guy couldn’t be bothered to care, and ended up leaving instead.  

We train together and we have to take care of each other.  If for any reason you aren’t certain you can train safely, it’s your responsibility to stop.  Any responsible teacher will respect that decision.  

Students are responsible for the dojo. Yes, the teacher leads.  We often say that it is “Sensei’s dojo,” but without students, there is no dojo; there’s just a guy in the corner practicing by himself.  In any good dojo I’ve been in, whether in Japan or the United States or Europe, the students have taken a lot of responsibility for the dojo. It’s their place and their practice as much as the teacher’s.  As a student,  before and after practice I run to make sure I get to a broom Sensei does.  We make sure the dojo is a safe, clean place to train.  This means a few minutes of care before and after practice, and keeping an eye out for things that could go wrong during practice.  Everyone is responsible for making sure there is nothing out of place in the dojo.  A belt or a bokken in the wrong place can trip someone doing paired practice and have all sorts of unhappy consequences.  We students are responsible for keeping an eye open for things out of place.

I also help make sure new people in the dojo understand the etiquette and expectations of our dojo.  As part of the dojo, as a member of the dojo, I’m partly responsible for the atmosphere in the dojo.  I’m one of the people whose job it is to make sure people don’t do anything that could be dangerous. Nearly every time I’ve had to say something to someone, they’ve apologized and thanked me for telling them they were doing something potentially dangerous.  People, including me, don’t always realize we’re about to be in the way.  A polite, respectful word of safety is part of everyone’s responsibility.

We students are responsible for our training, for what we learn and for how well we learn.  This is a tough one, and comes back around to the first part.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and the group we will train with.  We remain responsible for our training every second after that as well.  As my high school English teacher used to say “I can lay out the banquet for you, but I can’t force you to eat it.”  She was talking about the beauty and wonder of English literature, but it’s just the same with budo.  

My teachers have all sorts of wonderful things to offer me.  It’s up to me to study what they offer, practice it, and internalize the lessons so they are a part of me.   The first thing this means is that practice doesn’t end when class does.  It is my responsibility to think about, study and practice the lessons outside of class.  Even in Judo, which is all about working with a partner, there are plenty of things for me to practice and study outside class.  I can work on individual movements.  I can read books about applying techniques and about the principles of Judo.  Today, unlike the dark ages when I started training, there are millions of videos of good martial arts available for free, 24 hours-a-day on Youtube.  For any popular martial art, and a surprising number of very small ones, the biggest problem a student has who wants to study something on video is wading through the bad budo videos to find the good ones.  There are plenty of great videos of Judo, Karate, Aikido, Iaido, Jodo, Kendo, Jujutsu, and nearly any other art you’re interested in.  If obscure koryu budo is your thing, you’re still in luck.  Go check out Gudkarma’s Youtube channel and you’ll find stuff on obscure arts you didn’t know existed.

There are plenty of books on budo out there too.  There is a lot of really bad misinformation around, but it’s still our responsibility to educate ourselves about our art.  If Sensei recommends a book, that’s a clear sign that we should read it.  The book might help us put things that we do in class in perspective.  It might teach us something of the history of our art or maybe help us figure out techniques on our own.  Sensei can’t do it for us.  We have have to read the book and find out.  It’s also our responsibility to read more than just the stuff our teachers recommend.  There are lots of good books out there.  If you’re not sure, ask Sensei and other students.  They might even be able to loan you a few books.  I know my wife would be thrilled to have me loan out two or three hundred books and not be able to get them back.  Read.  Learn.  Get some additional perspective on your training.  Additional perspective and information will help you ask better questions during class.  

As a student, it’s my responsibility to learn.  Sensei teaches stuff; he puts it out there, but I have to learn what he’s offering.  I have to go home and practice.  I have to work at what I’m studying.  If I go to class and I haven’t practiced during the week, Sensei can see that.  It’s my responsibility.  If this is important enough for me to show up to class regularly, it’s important enough for me to take some time and practice at home.  Whether using the sword or the jo or tying a belt to a post so you can practice throws or whatever point that needs work, it’s the student’s responsibility to work on it.  My big thing right now is engaging my koshi.  Kiyama Sensei says I’m not using my koshi as effectively as I should be at my level.  So that’s what I’m working on.  I know I look silly when I’m practicing, because it’s just me slowly moving across the basement focusing on keeping my koshi under my shoulders.  Sometimes I’m doing it from my knees.  Sometimes I’m standing up.  This is what I work on.  Sensei fulfilled his responsibility.  He identified my biggest weakness for me and told me what I need to do.  After that, all of the responsibility is mine.

If my problem is a lack of stamina or upper body strength, you’ll see me in a gym working on that.  I mention those, because they have both been issues for me in the past.  If a student recognizes a weakness, her job is to start correcting it.  Sometimes a teacher or senior student will alert us to a point that needs special attention.  Sometimes we can identify those on our own.  Either way, our responsibility is to give those points attention and make the improvements ourselves.  That way, when we go to class, Sensei can teach us something new instead of repeating herself for the 900th time.  

Our training is our responsibility, not our teachers’.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and fellow students wisely.  Once we’ve done that though, our responsibility doesn’t end.  We are still responsible for the dojo, the safety of ourselves and our fellow students, and what we learn.  That means that we help in the dojo, we watch out for each other, and when class is over, we go home and work on our weak points.  We don’t stop learning because someone said “Class is over.  Have a good night.”  That’s when the real learning begins.  Don’t abandon your responsibility for yourself and your learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Way Of The Sword

Here's a beautiful short video about Japanese sword arts, practice and the mind you want.  It's about Shozo Kato Sensei, 8th Dan Kendo, 7th Dan Iaido.  The cinematography is lovely, the budo is excellent and the ideas fundamental to practice.

Shozo Kato - Way of the Sword from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rory Miller on Training Costs and Why You Should Train

I love Rory Miller's stuff, and recommend to everyone without reservation.  He is pretty much the complete artist.  He has a judo background, does some wonderful koryu budo, 17 years in corrections work, plus lots of other stuff.  I get something out of everything he writes.  And this time he wrote something that I agree with a lot.  A while back, I wrote a blog asking "Is Martial Arts Training For Self-Defense A Good Idea?"  Now Rory Miller has taken a crack at the subject, and I love the way he answers the question.  His post is on his Chiron Training blog, and is just titled "For Love"   Go read it. And then read some of his other stuff.  It's all worthwhile.