I had my technique ripped to shreds by a teacher the other day. He pointed out every little mistake, and he wasn’t the least bit gentle. There were no attempts to soften any criticism or to protect my ego. This was the epitome of “in your face” instruction. Every little point was picked apart and corrected with almost brutal efficiency and effectiveness.
A lot of people think this sort of instruction is abusive. That a teacher who does this is harming his students. That such teacher couldn’t possibly respect his students. Such a person has to be insecure to treat other people so harshly. That a student should stay far away from people like this. This kind of teacher is just an abusive jerk, right?
Wrong. While Sensei was ruthless in tearing apart my technique, he never once came close to stepping over the boundary into abuse or even being unnecessarily harsh. It was tough, and it’s not easy being on the end of that kind of criticism, but guess what? That’s why I was there. I’m in the dojo training so I can improve. I’m not there to show anyone how great I am or to prove I can beat someone, or to convince the world of anything. I’m there to learn.
If you’re serious about learning, the best way to do it is to have a very small ego. Take your ego and pride and desire for positive recognition and leave it with your shoes by the door. These things only get in the way of learning. Worse, pride and ego can be downright dangerous. The worst injury I’ve ever gotten was because I was too proud to admit my partner was a little better than I was. I pushed too hard and got injured because of it. It certainly wasn’t my partner’s fault I ended up in that position.
I have no problem with how this teacher does things in large part because I’m there for one reason, to improve. Sensei isn’t gentle, but I learn an incredible amount in a remarkably short time. I park my ego by the door and step into the dojo with no mental distractions to get between me and Sensei’s rapid fire deconstruction of what I used to think was pretty good technique. I’m there to learn and Sensei is not there to waste any time coddling egos. He is there to train.
There are lots of reasons for being in the dojo that just get in the way of moving further along the Way of Budo. There’s the guy who’s out to prove how tough he is. Unfortunately, these guys (they are almost always guys) are only there to prove how physically tough they are. They have no interest in showing the mental toughness required to take real, harsh, tough criticism and tell Sensei “Thank you!” with sincerity.
Then there are the folks who are there to prove they are better than someone, or everyone. These folks only want to do the things they’re already good at. If they are working on their weak spots, no one can see how great they are. Their practice is all about themselves. You have to be careful because these guys are far more concerned with looking good than with taking care of their training partners.
People who come to the dojo just to play around and have fun are annoying because they don’t want to do the hard work of growing their skills and themselves. There is plenty of time for fun, and the dojo I love are rich with smiles and laughter. For all that, the best dojo are filled with people working hard to polish their techniques and grow their spirit. The laughter in the dojo is wonderful spice added to the rich stew of effort, sweat, concentration and dedicated training. Students who are primarily in the dojo for amusement aren’t really students, and they are a distraction to everyone around them. The world is full of places to amuse yourself and pass some time, but the dojo should not be one them. Just about anything that gets you to the dojo is a good reason to me.
I do think the above reasons are perfectly acceptable reasons for going to the dojo. The point where things change is when you step onto the dojo floor. Once you’re in the dojo, there is room for only one purpose; to learn. The dojo is a place for studying the Way, through whichever particular path you have chosen. It’s not a place ego, for power struggles, dominance games, silly games or horsing around.
The dojo is a place for learning and if you are learning to prove you are better than others, or how demonstrate your personal excellence, or how to have fun, you’re learning the wrong lessons. Leaving your ego at the door with your shoes is a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s fundamental to everything else. If I couldn’t check my ego at the door, I can’t see any way I would be able to absorb all the lessons Sensei offers. I’d likely make the mistake of taking Sensei’s critique as a personal attack instead of as the effort to hammer the weakness out of me and my technique.
After all, budo isn’t just about learning fighting techniques, its’ not even mainly about learning fighting techniques. The techniques of budo are tools, but such tools are wasted in the hands of a fool. Teachers worry more about the mind and spirit of a student than about the technique. The mind is the most effective, efficient weapon there is. If you’re not training that in the dojo, what do think you’re learning?
Learning to leave your personal baggage at the door, whatever that baggage is, is one of the most important and most fundamental lessons in budo. It’s impossible to make real progress until you can do that. When your mind is filled with the baggage of ego, or dominance, even just amusement, there’s no room left for the lessons to be learned in the dojo. If the only things you’re learning are techniques, you’re not learning budo.
At the end of practice, what’s the best compliment you can get? Sensei walks up, slaps you on the shoulder and says “You worked really hard today.” That’s as good as it gets. The Way doesn’t have an end. The real question is how we tread the path.