Showing posts with label Ego. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ego. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share

I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden.

Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student

I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.

As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Investing In Failure

Up until last February, I had what I found to be a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and the way I was doing the technique.

Now I’m investing in failure.  I could keep doing hiki otoshi uchi the way I have been, which works pretty well.  Instead, I’ve abandoned my old technique as I work to develop the one this teacher uses.  The downside of this is that for now, my technique is lousy.  In order to improve my technique and try to reach the teacher’s level of smooth, effective control, I have to give up the technique I’ve developed and start working on something new.  For a while until I begin to grasp the mechanics of this new version of the technique, there are a lot of juniors whose technique will be a lot stronger than mine.  I will have to put up with personal frustration as I flub things with the new version I’m working on, things that I could have nailed with my old technique.  It’s worth the frustration and the flubs and the failures though to develop an even more subtle, effective and powerful level of skill.

If I can’t set aside what I think I know and all the ego and effort that has gone into it, I won’t progress beyond this point.  I’ll be stuck here, unable to advance.  On the other hand, if I set aside what I have already learned, take myself back to the practice yard and treat what I have done in the past as the groundwork that enabled me to see and understand what this teacher is doing, then I can make a leap forward.  First though I have to be willing to do what seems like backsliding.  At this point, progressing doesn’t just mean refining my existing technique.  It is it tearing my technique apart and rebuilding it.

To tear a fundamental technique like hiki otoshi uchi apart and rebuild it is not easy, particularly for the ego.   For a while, I know my technique is going to be weaker than my students.  I am going to be flubbing the technique and messing up kata practice with horrible and embarrassing frequency.  All of the habits developed and laid down so solidly in my neuro-muscular system are at war with what I am trying to do now.  My old technique was like an good friend.  I’d been doing it one way for so long that I didn’t need to give it any thought.  It just happened.  Now if I don’t pay particular attention to what I’m doing, it still just happens.  I don’t want it to do it that way though, so I have to pay extra attention to every movement I’m making with my head, shoulders, hands and hips, all at the same time. 

 Currently I can usually get 2 or 3 out of the 4 to do what I want.  The other one or two go back to the way I did it in my old technique, creating interesting hybrid techniques.
The one thing that is consistent about all of these new/old hybrid techniques is that they don’t work.  Trying to blend them just makes the whole thing fall apart. It will be a few months before I can integrate the new technique into my body and do it consistently.  Until I do that, I’m going to be really bad.  I expect my students to look at me and wonder if I have lost it.  I will feel foolish.  A part of me will desperately want to go back to the old way.  It’s simple. 

My old technique worked. My new technique doesn’t. Yet. For now I am investing in failure. Instead of doing what worked well enough, I’m going back to being incompetent. I’m wiping the old technique from my system and starting back at the beginning, at the slow, careful, clumsy beginning. This is the only way for me to move forward.  I can’t build a new, more subtle and effective technique on top of the powerful one I had. I have to let go of what I’ve achieved so far and become as unskilled as a beginner.  Beginners fail a lot.  That’s why they are beginners.  It’s also why beginners make such rapid progress compared to those of us who’ve been around a few years.  They haven’t accumulated a lot of technique that works well enough that they’ve become attached to them.  They don’t have ego invested in being the powerful senior student.  They aren’t worried about looking like a real teacher.  They are beginners and beginners are allowed, even expected, to fail. For me to make real progress, I have to go back to being a beginner and allow myself do a lot of failing.

It’s a check on my progress.  If I’m never failing, never making mistakes, I’m not learning anything.  Learning is done out there on the edge of our knowledge and understanding, out where we aren’t sure of anything except that we don’t know. It’s not a comfortable place to be. We can’t look cool or strong or masterly out there. We can only look like what we really are, students exploring something new that we’re not good at.  If we have problems with looking like a student, like someone who is learning and figuring out how to do things, we’re not going to want to go out and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding. If I’m not failing though, I’m not advancing.  It’s a little ironic that the best thing to do to get better is to be make mistakes. It’s only by making mistakes that I can figure out what works better and start on that next step.

So invest in failure. It pays high dividends.

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.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Budo and Ego

All the classical “Do” 道, or Ways, of Japan strive to achieve a better understanding of the world and the self.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tea ceremony, flower arranging, sword fighting, incense smelling (kodo 香道), calligraphy or any of the other common activities that have been organized into form Ways.  You study codified ways of doing things that have roots going back generations, and sometimes centuries.  The goal is not just master one esoteric art form, but through the focused study, master the self and gain a greater understanding of the Way of the universe.

As people practice and study and refine their art, they naturally move up within the art’s hierarchy.   This is the natural progression of beginner to senior student to junior teacher to senior teacher.  There is always the risk that a person can misunderstand the respect that they receive as their skills and status increase.  There are plenty of people who become recognized for the mastery of a particular skill, who someone conclude that because they are skilled and respected in one special field, they should be respected and lauded in every aspect of their lives.  Their egos seem to take over and they get upset when people don’t acknowledge their superiority and innate greatness.

This can happen with anything.  It’s a not uncommon human failing and it is found even in the Ways of Japan where one of the key things we are supposed to be mastering is our self.  To really advance in any of the Ways, whether martial art or one of the more peaceful Ways, we have to achieve a certain mastery over our self and the voices in our head.  All those stories of the serene tea master, or the calligraphy teacher who calmly looks at the paper for a few minutes and then with a sudden flourish creates a marvelous work of art, these all require that you master the voices in your head so you can concentrate well enough to be serene and peaceful and creative.  It’s true of martial arts as well.  If you can’t learn to quiet your mind, you’re never going to figure out how to get out of the way of that incoming sword cut or jo strike.  And trust me, when your mind wanders and you don’t get out of the way in time, it hurts.  Which brings on a different kind of mental focus.

We have to master parts of ourselves to master any of the arts or Ways.  In mastering a Way though, we don’t have to master one important part of ourselves.  We don’t have to master our ego.  It’s easy for the ego to grow even more quickly than our skills do.  It’s amazing how powerful a fertilizer for the ego a little praise and respect can be.

If a Way is to be more than simply mastering the base, physical skills of the art, then we have to do more than just learn to quiet our mind for the time it takes to perform the skill.  We have to apply the lessons broadly to our whole selves, and not let the mastery of one skill enhance our ego to the point that it prevents further growth.   This is a risk for anyone studying any skill.  In a Way, it is a sad thing, because it prevents a student from achieving everything that the Way can give.

For all this, few arts and Ways have the inherent hurdle of budo .  Budo practice actually makes the practitioner more powerful, which can feed the ego with the thrill of the power and the desire for more.  If acted upon and followed, the path of the ego is completely odds with the path of budo, but it is an easy path to start upon, and difficult one to abandon once you have started treading it.

The power taught in budo is real power in the most basic, literal sense.  A student learns raw, physical power over others.  This is a huge trap for some people.  The ability to physically dominate and intimidate the people around you is an alluring drug. In most modern societies, this power is even more seductive because it’s one we avoid socially and culturally we play down the realities of physical power.  We suppress discussion physical power within social dynamics because people aren’t supposed to use it.  We’re wired to react physical power even if it’s not supposed to be a dynamic of polite society.

Power dynamics are a part of most social interactions, and physical posturing is a part of it, even if people aren’t aware of it..  There are people who use aggressive posturing to influence and dominate the world around them.  This works on lots of people, but not on those who are unusually strong, or who have great confidence in their physical skills.  People who do budo don’t react the way untrained people do, and they can in fact become quite dominant because of their skills.  This is another ego trap.  It feels good when people defer to you and let you do things your way.  That’s fine if it’s for a good reasons, but if it’s just because of your martial skills, then it’s probably a bad thing.  Letting this sort of thing feed your ego, and using it to get your way, is another dangerous detour from the budo Way.

Intimidating people, power posturing, and even physically abusing people is an especially dangerous trap in the dojo, because we are supposed to be using and practicing our skills there, and senior students and teachers are expected to demonstrate superior skills.  The lure of power over others because you are physically capable of it can be subtle.  It is easy for senior practitioners to edge from demonstrating superior technique over the line to abusing juniors.  The throws can become unnecessarily hard and brutal.  Joint locks can be go from controlling to inflicting uncalled for pain to physically damaging.  Just because the senior can do it, and they like the feeling of being able to make the juniors react.  This is a subtle trap, because it can start out with simple things, like a throw that’s just a little harder than it needs to be, or a joint lock that is painful when it’s not necessary.  The senior likes how the junior reacts, and more throws become extra hard, and the joint locks get more painful.  From this point, things just get worse, as the seniors ego needs more and more signs of his power and dominance from those below him.

Juniors can unintentionally encourage this behavior by showing greater respect and deference to the person being abusive, because they see this as evidence of the person’s superior skill, rather than as evidence of abuse.  This just makes the ego trap even bigger.

Power is drug for the ego, and in the dojo there is the danger that people will reward you for abusing the physical power that you have.  Just because what you are studying has “Do” 道 in the name, doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better person.  There are pitfalls along the way, and the one labeled “Ego” is perhaps the largest and most dangerous.  This is because it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize you are falling in.  Worse, it feels good.  Having your ego stoked by the people around you feels wonderful, and can be quite addictive.  It feels good to receive compliments and praise, but if you start trying to improve because you want the praise or the power, rather than improving to discover more about the art, yourself and the Way, then you have left the Way and are plunging into the pitfall of ego.