Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Good Dojo Isn't A Comfortable Place

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Practice on Saturday was very good, but not what I had been planning at all. We started out according to plan, working on jodo kihon. About halfway through though, we veered into dangerous territory. We started looking at some of the core principles. One of the newer students in the dojo has background in aikido and kenpo, and asked some good questions related to ma’ai and intent and origin. The answers clearly were nothing like he had expected, and we could nearly see steam coming out his ears as he worked to process the new ideas. He found himself having to revise his understanding of things he thought he understood.  A good dojo is a dangerous place for preconceived notions and dearly held ideas. It can be downright brutal on concepts and conceits that aren’t built upon solid foundations. A good dojo can make you question who and what you are. A good dojo doesn’t just teach techniques for fighting. A good dojo will make you look at yourself and help you strip away self-delusion and simple poor understanding.  

In very solid ways, my student is discovering that what he thought he knew about the effective range of weapons and where he might be safe isn’t very accurate. The solid way he is discovering this is by being on the wrong end of a piece of wood poking him in the gut or stopping just short of walloping him in the head.  

There are lots of ways the dojo can should be uncomfortable that are less physically solid than a stick in the gut, but they are no less real. We all have areas where we are less than perfect, and training in a good dojo will bring these to our attention. Budo is all about dealing with conflict. What nobody told me when I started was that some of the toughest conflicts would be with myself.

Everyone starts budo with a variety of goals; to learn how to fight, to stop being intimidated by aggressive people, to learn about samurai, to gain a sense of personal power, to learn to physically defend oneself. Those are few of the reasons I’ve heard given by people who start martial arts. They are all fine motivations for starting on the journey. It’s just that the journey involves dealing with many parts of ourselves we never intended to deal with, and going places in our minds we never thought we’d go.

Many people start budo who aren’t comfortable with hitting people or doing anything they think might hurt someone or might be aggressive. This is a problem for people who want to learn to defend themselves. This is a problem that is usually apparent to people before they walk in the door of the dojo, so it’s one they are already willing to confront. Training every day brings them face-to-face with this issue. More importantly, it brings them into contact with  a senior or a teacher who is telling them “hit me” or “throw me” or some other version of an attack, but we we all grow up knowing that nice folks don’t hit people.

When a beginner in the dojo says “I don’t want to hurt you,.” they are admitting to several things. First, that they think they can hurt people. Second, that they don’t trust themselves to have enough control to not hurt someone, and third, that at some level they don’t believe the teacher can handle what they are doing.  All three of these are things that make most people uncomfortable.

Society doesn’t approve of hurting people, and we internalize that as we grow. Coming into a dojo is uncomfortable from the first step because studying budo involves learning how to hurt people, and everything in our public culture says that is “bad.” So the first mental discomfort we have to get over is the idea that knowing how to fight isn’t something “good” people know. I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, because I suspect everyone reading this already trains in martial arts.  Think about it though, outside the dojo, people are afraid and intimidated by fighting skills, even if the folks in the office never see you do anything more aggressive than shredding old documents.  This is just first thing people have to get used.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
In judo and aikido, the next fear people have to get past once they are in the door is the fear of falling. We spend half our time practicing technique on our partners, and the other half being practiced on, which means a lot of falling down.  Falling is something we learn to avoid as kids, because it hurts and it’s embarrassing. It can take a while to get comfortable with falling down. It’s counter to what people are used to, but I love taking falls for people. You can feel their technique, how they move and set up a throw, and how they do or do not take care of their partner. Frankly, I also think it’s really cool that someone can throw me at the floor hard enough that I should have broken bones, and I can bounce up and say “That was great! Do it again!”  Once you get over your fear of hurting yourself, falling down is fun.

A bigger discomfort for many people is they are afraid of actually hurting someone else. They don’t trust themselves to be able to not hurt their partner, and many people don’t feel comfortable with having physical power. We can let pass the fact that real beginners in the dojo don’t have much in the way of skills that would make them a threat to students who have been around for while. New students have to get over the feeling that just having the knowledge of how to hurt people, much less being really skilled at it, is something bad.  

Add to that, the niggling voice at the back of many people’s minds telling them that they can’t trust themselves with this knowledge and skill. “What if I get angry and do something I regret?” “What if I’m not good enough to control my technique and I injure someone unintentionally?”  “What if I really like being powerful and become a bully?” People have all kinds of worries, some of which seem pretty silly. Until you’ve been around the dojo long enough to see a few people go badly wrong. Then the worries don’t seem quite so silly.

Not trusting the teacher to be able to handle what the student does is a lot easier hurdle to clear than not trusting yourself.  After a few rounds of the teacher saying “Hit me”  the student finally decides that well, she really wants it, so it’s on her if she gets hurt. The student tries to hit the teacher and discovers that the teacher isn’t where the strike went. Worse, or better, the teacher has counterattacked in some way that would be really unpleasant if the teacher didn’t have such good control.   It doesn’t take very many repetitions of this kind before the student starts to trust that the teacher can do what she says and will keep herself safe.

Learning to trust yourself though is a lot tougher. We don’t get a lot of experience with physical conflict and violence in Western societies (Japan is even more peaceful). Most new students likely haven’t even been in a pushing match since high school, much less a fight. Before people start training, they are aware that they can hurt others, but they don’t have any technique, so they have little idea what will happen if they do something. Beginners, quite reasonably, don’t trust themselves. They don’t have any technical skill and they don’t have much control of their own bodies, so not trusting themselves to be able to attack someone, or to be able to apply a technique without hurting or injuring their training partners is probably wise.

It takes time to learn to trust yourself and understand what you are really capable of.  The journey to really trusting yourself is a complicated one.  The first steps are just learning to trust your basic technique, that you can safely take a fall, or throw your partner or attack with precision and control. Once students start to have a degree of confidence in their physical skills, they run into some of the other uncomfortable questions. Do I have enough self-control for this?  Could I lose my temper and hurt someone? I’ve rarely encountered students who had the self-control and discipline to stick with training but lacked the self-control to not use what they are learning without good reason. That students worry about this is good sign to me, but it does require the sort of self-reflection and consideration that is never easy and almost always is uncomfortable.

It’s tough to consider that we might not be perfectly wonderful human beings. That makes the self-reflection one of the most uncomfortable things in training. As a student acquires skill, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder what sort of person knows these things. I find this especially true for women. “Good girls don’t behave like that.” “Hitting people isn’t ladylike.” “Ladies are above that sort of thing.”   Add to that social stereotypes that girls can’t fight (He hits like a girl), and the mental and emotional hurdles can get high fast. I have to thank Ronda Rousey for demonstrating to the world that, yes, women can fight.  Each woman that comes through the dojo though has to make that mental journey for herself.

Everyone has to decide what kind of person it is who knows how to fight. This usually isn’t an issue for men, but a lot of what is taught in a martial arts dojo isn’t fighting. It’s the careful, nearly scientific art of how to deconstruct another person. What kind of person knows this stuff? A monster? Until students become comfortable with knowing how to dislocate joints and break limbs, with how to choke someone unconscious or throw them across the room so hard they bounce, they are going to be uncomfortable.

Students have to look within themselves and figure out who they are, what kind of person they are and decide that it’s ok for them to know how to do these violent things. They have to decide it is ok for them to have this power. It’s easy to say “That’s no challenge” when you’re standing on the outside. We all have facets of ourselves we don’t particularly like though, personal traits and characteristics that we aren’t proud of, and maybe even that we’re ashamed of.  Those parts of ourselves gets all this knowledge and power too.

These are just the issues that everyone has get over in the martial arts. Different hurdles will be higher or lower for different people. Then there are the particular issues that people can bring with them. If someone has suffered abuse or trauma, just grabbing a partner’s hand to practice a joint lock might be difficult. Allowing a partner to throw them might require a leap of trust, faith and courage greater than I’ve ever had to take.

Being in the dojo isn’t comfortable, but it is good. A good dojo gives students a place to work on all of these issues. Good teachers give students support to work through them. I’ve known people who thought they had to “push people’s buttons” to help them grow.  I find that just being in the dojo and actively training is usually more than enough. What we do in the dojo is play with violence, aggression and force. Stuff that’s not allowed in polite society. Just working with these things, learning to control and and how to apply them will make people face parts of themselves they can avoid facing in their day-to-day world.



Sometimes the stress of training exposes bits of ourselves we’d rather not face. Perhaps we are too ready to be angry at other people when we are unintentionally bruised or hurt during practice. Maybe we discover that we aren’t as good under the pressure of a steady, continuous attack and that we start to panic. It might be the discovery that we can’t stand to lose, even though losing in randori isn’t really losing. These are just some of the issues that can come up in the dojo.

Working with these things can make the dojo an uncomfortable place, but a great one for learning not only how to fight and inflict harm, but also about what sort of person you are. Looking at ourselves clearly is almost never comfortable, but being in the dojo demands it that we look at ourselves again and again as we progress. Maybe it’s simply discovering that we don’t know things we thought we understood. All of these involve making a discovery that we aren’t quite as good as we thought we were.

In the dojo though, that’s fine. That’s what the dojo is for. You can’t be a good fighter if you don’t know your own weaknesses, so a good dojo helps you deal with the issues and weaknesses you find in yourself.  A good dojo is a little bit uncomfortable because it provides a mirror to look at yourself in. A good dojo is also wonderful because it gives you the support and structure for dealing with what you see in that mirror.




5 comments:

Rick Matz said...

Well said, Peter.

Being in a BJJ academy, wrestling with young men and women, most of whom could be my kids if not grandkids; who are faster, stronger, more flexible, athletic and skilled than I am has me examining a lot of things.

alex said...

As a new beginner (as opposed to the 2nd kyu beginner I am now), I wasn't so much worried that the teacher wouldn't be able to handle my attack as I was worried that she/he wouldn't deal with it without hurting or scaring me. We don't always know how to react to things like the experienced people do, so sometimes our reactions aren't always what instructors expected and planned for. Just to add a background point of view.

Rick Matz said...

https://gaijinexplorer.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/happy-safe-kyudo/

Ronin scholar said...

Hi Peter

Nice article, but two things:

One is that we are NOT taught in American society that we should not be violent. American society IS violent. I know some mild-mannered people who will throw someone under a bus if they think it's in their best interest. It's how they are. Don't get me started on gun laws. Call me cynical, but it seems like Americans consider violence, whether personal or as a matter of international policy, to be the answer.

The second is: Ronda Rousey? Really? You don't have any women martial artists in your world that can illustrate this point?

The Budo Bum said...

HI Ronin,

American society is quite violent, but the lesson I see pushed in schools and to children (especially girls) is that we shouldn't be.

As for Ronda Rousey, I picked her not because she's someone I know, but because she's someone everyone else knows. I couldn't think of any other women who fit that description.