Showing posts with label Self-development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Self-development. Show all posts

Monday, September 23, 2013

Training, motivation, and counting practice time in decades instead of years

I ran across a question recently about long term motivation, and why people keep training year after year.  It was on George McCall’s excellent site Kenshi 24/7

Budo, like any Way, is certainly a lifetime activity.  There are quite a few teachers in Japan with 70 or 80 years of training under whatever is left of their belts after all those years.  By comparison, I’m still just a beginner, with something over 25 years of budo training.  I’m still excited to go to the dojo every practice though.  What is even more surprising is how excited I am about training again when practice is over.  I bounce with excitement and enthusiasm (no, really.  I’m known as Tigger in some circles).

Practice is clean.  Whatever I did the last time I was in the dojo doesn’t matter.  The only thing that counts is what I’m doing right now.  That alone is a great feeling.  Each practice is an opportunity to create something new out of myself.  I go in and don’t have to worry about the baggage of work or finances or other commitments. In the dojo, the only commitment is to my training and my training partners.

We should all be there for the similar things.  We want to train hard and correctly.  We want to maximize the effectiveness of our technique through optimal body mechanics as well as mastery of timing and spacing.  We want to learn effective technique.  We want to polish both our physical and our mental skills.  

There are days when I really want to train hard and push myself physically and other days where I’m completely wrapped up in the mental aspects and may not even break a sweat.  Training offers a variety of aspects of myself that I can work on.   There always seems to be something worth working on that brings me into the dojo and the longer I train, the more things there seem to be for me to work on.  With all the different facets of budo to work on, I can always find at least one that I want to polish on any given day.

I started budo in a college judo class in 1986.  I wanted to learn about Chinese philosophy in action, and that was the closest thing I could find.  I had some vague ideas from having read the Tao Te Ching but I really didn’t know what I was getting into.   Though I smile at some of my naive ideas I had back then, I really could have done a whole lot worse.
That class introduced me to budo.  Everything was exciting and fascinating and really, really difficult.  I had to learn how walk and move and fall down all over again.  I mean really, who needs to learn how to fall down, right?  But that was the very first lesson, and it’s one I’m still working on.  Oddly enough it’s still the practical lesson I’ve used more than nearly any other.  I’m clumsy, so I still fall down a lot, but I will admit, I use the walking lessons slightly more than the falling lessons.

Any good budo has so much more depth than just learning some effective fighting techniques (but if the base isn’t effective combat techniques for the situations being studied, than it can’t be budo).  Effective combat techniques are the first step, but all the really fascinating stuff happens after that first step.  Being effective is just the beginning. That’s why really masterful budoka seem to have magic powers.  They didn’t stop studying at just effective.  They keep polishing and learning, making their effectiveness more and more efficient, until it looks like magic.

For me, the wonderful thing is that everything is still exciting and really, really difficult to do right.   As I progress in the arts I practice, there is no level that is “good enough” because getting “good” isn’t the point.  The point is continuous improvement.  I have had teachers in their 90s who still practiced regularly and were working on improving right up until their bodies gave out.
My teachers were, and are, still learning, still making progress, and still improving.  That’s a great challenge.  It’s also a wonderful realization.  It means I’m never finished growing.  While I live there will never be a point when I am finished, a point when I am done.  That fact, that knowledge, that I am not complete, and that I can always get better is a fabulous motivator.  I can’t ever say “That’s just what I am.” Because I know it’s not.  It’s only what I am now.  It’s not what I’ll be tomorrow. 

It’s a wonderful feeling to know I have always have capacity for growth.  That’s my real motivation.  Yes, I’m working on cleaning up my kirioroshi these days, and yeah, I noticed that my foot is flaring out on some techniques so I’m working on correcting that.  The little puzzles are there all the time. Every once in a while I manage to tie a bunch of them together and make a large leap all at once.  Those are great feelings, but I don’t really pursue them.  I just appreciate them when they happen.  What keeps me coming back are the little steps forward, the small epiphanies, the knowledge that, to quote a good friend, I can suck at a higher level tomorrow.

Budo is gratifying that way, and it doesn’t matter how much time I have to give it.  There have been times when I was able to train 5 or 6 days a week.  There have been times when I had to fight to get 1 practice a week in.  These days I’m usually getting 2 or 3 practices a week in, plus some weight and cardio training to keep the old body in good operating condition.

There is one other thing about budo that I love.  That’s the fact that it’s not really about martial arts.  The martial arts are really just the container.  Budo is really about developing and improving and mastering the self as a human being.  That’s what being a way, a
is about.  If you just want to learn to fight, there are faster, simpler, more stripped down ways to it.  Not necessarily more effective for fighting, but certainly more efficient for learning.

I’m motivated to get up and go to the dojo because it helps me be better at being me.  As I said, I know that what I today is not what I am.  It’s only what I am now.  Practicing budo teaches me about how to refine my physical and mental budo technique.  These are lessons I apply directly to the rest of my life.  I know that if I can learn to not let uke play mind games with me in kenjutsu or jodo, that if I can learn to not let my opponent get under my skin and cause me to lose control during judo randori, I can learn to do those things outside the dojo.
Budo is the container for the lessons, but the lessons are universal.  This is true of any Do , but I find it to be particularly true of budo.  In budo, we deal with conflict at its most basic level.  Whether it is unarmed or with a sword or a staff or kusarigama or a spear or some other exotic weapon, we’re dealing with conflict.  The techniques for dealing with conflict in a particular system of budo seem to be specific to the particular situations that are practiced.  In the case of many koryu budo where the training is with archaic weapons, the lessons might not seem to be relevant to anything anymore.   The principles for dealing with conflict haven’t changed though.  They can be applied to any sort of conflict, whether it is has devolved to physical conflict or not.

Even if budo didn’t go any higher than teaching principles for conflict, it would be fascinating.  You’ve got the physical practice which challenges me every day, and which I expect to continue being challenged by for another 40 or 50 years.  Then you’ve got the mental level of learning to work with partners and opponents.  Above that are the fundamental principles of conflict that you can learn and discover ever more subtle depths to.  This might well be enough to keep my motivated and occupied for the rest of my life. That’s just the “bu” portion though. 

Beyond “bu” there is the “do” .  That’s a big motivator for me.  The lesson that gets drilled home every time I practice, that I don’t have to be satisfied with myself.  I don’t have to settle for being no more, no better, than I am today.  The lessons of budo give me a path, a way, for becoming better so that I will suck at a higher level tomorrow.  With budo I get to do this with some great people in lessons that challenge me on every level: physical, mental and spiritual.

Those people are another motivator for me to drag myself into the dojo even when I’m not feeling it as much as I can.  They help me and push and pull and sometimes drag me forward.  There is tremendous camaraderie in the dojo that is refreshing and simple.  I like these people and I like being around them.  I trust them and they trust me.  In the dojo we have a wonderful time together practicing something that can be deadly serious.  Having wonderful people to train with really does help pull me back even when I think I’m too tired.
I’m not sure these are the same things my teachers are getting out budo now.  I know that my reasons for training shifted subtly over the years.  At first it was Chinese philosophy, and then I really liked learning the techniques and skills of fighting.  For quite a few years now I’ve been focuses on refining my budo and my self.  Looking out at the next few decades of training, I wonder what other things might motivate me in the future.

For now I love going to the dojo and discovering more about myself.  I love pushing myself to do things that are physically and mentally challenging.  I love working with all the people I train with to mutually reach a higher level than the one we are on today.  I love learning about myself and learning how to push myself to do things that are mentally and personally challenging outside the dojo.  I love learning how to reshape my mind over time so that I each day I can be a better me than I was the day before.  All these things motivate me to get up and got to the dojo as much as I can. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Practice Anything More Than Once

I saw someone comment that :

“my Sa Bom Nim says, "You can't learn something until you are ready to learn it." That's why repetition is so important in the martial arts, because you never know when that "learning moment" will arrive. Doing that technique thousands of times was what made you ready to learn the new setup. “

I used to do thousands of repetitions of individual techniques and movements.  I thought it was essential to mastering the techniques.  I would set my mind on autopilot and do the same technique over and over, thinking I was building speed and consistency.

I can’t say about speed for sure, but I can speak to the consistency part of that.  I was building consistency.  I was teaching myself to always do the technique a the same level of skill.  I wasn’t improving myself, I was nailing my skills to the ground where I was at.  My father is a music teacher, and he has always said “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.” However you practice something is how you will do it.  A thousand repetitions of a technique done one way, make it a thousand times harder to do it another way.  You will always do it the way you practice it.  Any errors in the technique you are repeating will be reinforced and that much tougher to correct.

One of the few things I know about my technique is that it’s not perfect.  I don’t want to be doing things tomorrow the way I am doing them today.  I want to be doing them better.   So I don’t do lots of repetitions of my techniques any more.  I try to do every technique one time only.

This is a pretty radical sounding statement for someone who trains classical Japanese martial arts, with a teaching methodology built upon the continued practice of a small set of techniques and kata.  It’s true though.

Each each time I do a technique or kata it is a unique event, never to be repeated.  Now one of my goals is for my mind to never go on autopilot.  I try to always be fully present when I practice.  I want to be completely mindful of what I am doing.  By being aware of what I’m doing with each cut and in each kata that I do, I can make every cut and every kata unique.  I can sense that I am using my hips one way or another, how I’m gripping the sword, what sort of rhythm I’m moving with, how I’m breathing.

If my practice of the kata is a unique event where the combination of all these factors and many more come together to create a single, unique, expression of the kata, then with this awareness of the kata, I can change elements of my action to make my next expression of the kata both unique and, hopefully, better.   To do this though, I have to be mindful.  

The best practice is mindful, aware and always looking for ways to improve what you are doing.  SImple repetition means that you are just programing yourself to do the kata at whatever level you’re currently at.  It ingrains your current mistakes into your body and makes them permanent.  Mindful practice never does the same kata twice.  Mindful practice seeks to improve with every action.  If I’m not really aware of what I’m doing, I can’t change it.  To change things, we have to be aware.  When you do a kata, be aware of your hands, your feet, you tanden, your hips, the location of your head, the rhythm of your breath.  All of these are important. If you are aware, you can experiment with how you use all these elements of your body to improve the kata.  And even if a particular mix of elements isn’t an improvement, you’ll be learning.  You’ll know about another combination that you want to avoid.

I try never to do the same kata twice.  If I’m repeating the kata, I’m stagnating.  It’s only when I mindfully do new things that I can really improve.

(How I balance this with mushin is fodder for another essay)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Will Budo make me a better person?

Will budo make me a better person? Not necessarily. Maybe. If you want it to. If you train properly..  There is an old idea that training in a Way (budo, sado, kado, etc) will make you a better person.  It’s wonderful story.  A lifetime of training has made the grizzled old teacher wise, kind and gentle.  If we study the art we too will be transformed in wise, kind, gentle people as well.  

If only it were so.

You will become what you train.  It is entirely possible to study and master the techniques of an art and completely miss it’s essence.  This is perhaps most visible in international Judo.  If you watch international Judo competitions you can see some spectacular and subtle application of judo techniques and physical principles.  The throws and techniques are incredible.  The  behavior of the contestants is no better than in any other sport though.  There are good competitors who treat everyone with respect.  There are bad sports who throw temper tantrums when they don’t like the referee’s calls.  There are glory hounds who dance and shout and put on displays when they win.  There jerks who are disdainful towards everyone around them.

With as many years of Judo training as it takes to becoming a competitor at the international level, if just training in Judo was going to make you a better person, all of these people should be fabulous human beings with grace, kindness, respect and dignity for everyone, especially when on display in an international event.  Instead the behavior you see is no better than at any other sporting event.  We can see clearly that spending years practicing a form of budo will not automatically transform you into a great person.

The focus of training in the dojo is usually on technique.  It is entirely possible to study the techniques of an art, become extremely good at the techniques, and never touch the rich principles that animate the art and make it applicable throughout life and not just in the dojo or in a fight.    Focusing on technical practice is appropriate, since the techniques are there to point you in the direction of the principles.  

Chuang Tzu talks about the finger and the moon.  The pointing finger directs us to the moon, but once we have found the moon we forget about the finger.  If we fixate on the finger we will never move beyond it, and we will never find the moon.  In budo, the techniques are like the finger.  They point us towards the principles, but it easy to become fixated on the techniques and miss their connections to deeper principles and ideas.

We train techniques.  That’s how we learn budo.  Techniques and kata teach us the fundamentals of the art and how to apply them.  The techniques of an art are powerful.  In Judo, the throws, joint locks and strangles are powerful and impressive.  In other arts there are strikes and weapons to study and be fascinated by.  It’s easy to get caught up in learning these techniques.  The deeper, more subtle principles that make the techniques work can be forgotten in the race to master the techniques.  This is especially true in something like Judo, where victory in competition can become a goal that eclipses and outshines everything else.

The techniques alone can seem powerful.  Victory in competition brings glory and personal satisfaction.  But these are not the principles of the art being studied, and they have nothing to do with becoming a better person.  In fact, they more often lead in the opposite direction.  The techniques of budo dangerous and powerful.  It’s easy to get caught up with learning how to be dangerous and powerful.  Knowing those dangerous and powerful techniques can give a person confidence.  On the other hand, a person can become focused on that sense of power and become obnoxious and bullying because they have some power.  In arts with a competitive side, such as Judo and Kendo, the focus on winning competitions can consume a person’s focus, so they forget all the other parts of the art.  They can stop respecting anything but victory, and cheerfully ignore and belittle any aspect of the art that doesn’t directly contribute to victory in competition.

In both cases, a person can study an art for a lifetime and that study will never make them a better person.  It might even make them less of a person.  They can become proud, arrogant, rude and unpleasant to been around.  Pretty much the opposite of what a well-developed budoka should be.

So the first step to becoming a better person through budo practice is to avoid the pitfalls.  The pitfalls are inherent in the practice.  Fortunately, the lessons for becoming a better person are there too.  If you are willing to work at them to learn the principles the techniques point us towards, you can do a lot with yourself.  You have to be willing to work at applying these lessons not only to how you fight, but to how you live.

Each art has a few principles that drive it and give it unique characteristics, but they all have some unavoidable similarities as well (the optimal use of the human body being something that doesn’t change).  In any budo you develop stamina and endurance and the ability to suffer through tough training in order to improve.  These are certainly not bad character traits.  But they are more like a foundation, since they can also support all of the negative traits mentioned earlier.

The big questions are what do you want to get out of your training, and who do you want to become?  Budo training will make you a better person if you actively direct your training and apply it to being becoming a better person.  If you leave your training at the dojo door every day it won’t have much effect on you.  If you take it with you, look around and see the similarities between budo and the rest of life and apply the dojo lessons about dealing with conflict to the conflicts in life, then you budo can be tool for becoming a better person.  

Budo isn’t passively effective.  You have to actively work at it.  It will make you more patient, and less liable to lose your temper, more peaceful, and much calmer, if you work with it.  These are all lessons you can pick up in the dojo.  You know you can’t tense up when practicing with someone who is attacking you with a big stick.  It just creates opportunities for her to whack you and slows you down.  Now, can you apply that lesson when you are being attack verbally?  Can you keep calm and choose the best response, rather than tensing up and girding for a fight?  Can you breathe calmly and peacefully?

Keeping your balance and maintaining a solid foundation from which to act is critical in budo.  Keeping those physical lessons in front of you, can you teach yourself to maintain a good mental balance and not go rushing into arguments and not reel back from non-physical aggression?  Can a judoka learn to apply the lesson of ukemi and roll with the attack and not stiffen up?  Can the aikidoka remember to get off the line of attack and realize that a counterattack may not even be necessary?  Can the kendoka lightly deflect the incoming attack so it goes off into unoccupied space?

When you can start to do these things, you’ll be on the path to applying your budo lessons to life and becoming a better person.  Learning to apply these fundamentals can lead to the discovery of other budo lessons that you can train at in everyday life.  

One of the lessons of budo training is that you become good at what you practice.  So, will budo training make me a better person?  It will if that is what I train myself to be

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Artist and the Artwork

My friend and colleague, The Rogue Scholar, did me the honor of responding to my post about Creating A Work Of Art.  I had argued that we are each a work of art that we are crafting, and her very well considered reply argues that we are the artist, not a work of art.  I hope I am not misrepresenting her view when I say that she sees the martial artist as expressing herself through the performance of the kata.  She also makes a good point about self-improvement by itself not making one a work of art.

There are a lot steps along the way, and I may be using the idea of the self as a work of art more broadly than the term can support.  I’ll try to unpack my meaning and intention and see where that leads.  I agree that that are many paths to self-improvement, but I would argue that the goal of budo training is not simply moral improvement, but refinement of all aspects of one’s self.  Developing one’s moral understanding of the world is a fine, but limited goal.  Budo 武道 teaches, as do the Daoists, a goal of refined simplicity.  It is not just a moral refinement, as Cook Ting demonstrates.  The Way transcends the physical, but is manifest in physical action.  The Way of Budo is not merely moral improvement.

I have to admit that my use of the term “art” runs very closely towards what the Rogue Scholar is talking about when she describes the classical artist.  The Rogue Scholar says “a classical artist creates something that is unique but also serves her tradition.”  My view of what is happening with budo training is very much in this line of thought.  We are creating a work of art in the service of our tradition.  To me, the work each of us is creating is our self.  

No matter how beautifully we can perform the kata, no matter how expressive we can be within the boundaries of the kata, this is not the art of budo.  The kata are like the finger pointing at the moon in Zhuangzi’s writing.  It is a tool that directs us where we want to go, but if we focus on the finger, we will never see the moon.  If we focus only on the kata, we may never understand what they are pointing us towards.  The kata teach us proper breathing, posture and movement.  Budo practice also teaches us to relax our minds and bodies and to respond to the world as it is rather than as we want it to be.

Mastery of the kata, no matter how beautifully it can be demonstrated, should not be the goal of budo training.  The kata are teaching tools.  The question then is, what are they tools for teaching?  Kata are tools at the most basic level for teaching us skills useful in a particular sort of combat.  They are not tools for learning to do kata, though I admit, simply learning to do the kata well is a wonderful experience and feeling.  The skills necessary to perform the kata well should be the same skills necessary for success in that particular type of combat. They are also skills that are wonderful to have in regular day-to-day life.  It is not what we express when performing the kata that is goal for me.  

For me, the goal of budo training is to be able to express what budo teaches in the kata in everyday life.  At the physical level this means that I move in a manner that expresses the principles of my budo all the time, not just when I am in the dojo.  I want to move with the same control over every bit of my action, with the same fine balance and controlled, relaxed power that I use when I am in the midst of a Shinto Muso Ryu or Shinto Hatakage Ryu kata.  I want to eliminate the unnecessary tension from my body and present the world with a presence that expresses and displays all that my budo is.

At a mental level, I want my everyday mind, my heijoshin 平常心, to be as relaxed as my body.  I don’t want to meet the world with a mind that is stiff with preconceived ideas and expectations,  rigid with assumptions of how things are.  I want a mind that is calm and peaceful as a forest stream.  I want there to be not a ripple the surface of my mind that will distort how I perceive the world.  My goal is to be as peaceful and calm in my readiness to greet the world as I am standing in tsune no kamae as I await the actions of my partner in the dojo.  

I don’t want to keep my budo in the dojo.  The dojo is where I practice what budo is.  Outside the dojo is where I actually perform it.  I know I’m not very good at it, but I try to express my budo in my everyday life.  Most of the time I don’t need the extreme level of readiness that I train at in the dojo, but there are times when even in everyday life I reach moments of intensity similar to the levels I reach when I am training in the dojo.  I’ve been in intense negotiations with people pounding on the table and trying to intimidate me.  I’ve had to deal with crying and screaming and yelling.  If I can draw upon my budo training at these times, and keep my mind calm and body relaxed, then my budo training is showing signs of success.  If I lose my temper, or become rigid with tension and stress and aggression, than my budo training hasn’t been successful yet, and I need to spend more time working on it.  

For me, what we do in the dojo is always practice, even the big demonstrations.  Budo only happens when I am outside the dojo, moving in the world.  It is in the world that I think of myself as a work of art.  In the dojo, The Rogue Scholar is entirely correct.  In the dojo, I am an artist, working to craft my heart, mind and body into something beautiful.  In the dojo I am working on learning to calm my mind, to respond as things really are rather than as I would like them to be.  I am training my body to stay relaxed under the pressure of having someone far more skilled than I am trying to hit me with a really big stick.  The dojo is the place to practice and refine, just as the ballet dancer practices and refines in the dance studio.

The difference between a classical Western artist and an artist of the Way is that the art of the Way is what we do all the time.  It’s how we sit down and how we talk to people and how we eat dinner and how we are gracious and gentle to someone who is verbally attacking us and how we walk down the street and how we eat breakfast and how we deal with that unpleasant fellow at work and how we treat our family even when we aren’t feeling very nice and the million other things we do throughout the day, every day.  Budo is the martial way, but it is only really budo when it informs and transforms every aspect of who we are and how we interact with the world.  If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not budo.  It may still be bu, martial, but it lacks the Way.  This is what I mean when I talk about being a work of art.  Since this is a Way, and not a destination, we are always works in process, but hopefully we become more refined and more polished with each day.

We go into the dojo to train.  What are we training? Our self.  We are using budo to train and refine and polish our self.  In the dojo we sculpt and and polish and refine ourselves.  Outside the dojo that incomplete work of art that is us is on display for the world to see and interact with.  The better the our budo, the more beautiful the mind and body we show to the world.  We are the artist and the artwork.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Creating A Work Of Art Part 2

2 hours on a flower marble and my arms are about to fall off... let's hope the kiln gods are kind... I kinda don't think i nailed this one, but maybe... if you wonder why great marbles are worth the prices they are fetching, this is part of the reason... I can't tell you guys how much work I do that you never see... try... try again... tweak this... ponder a solution to that... try again... repeat as necessary... it truly is a journey through numerous processes to get things dialed in... great marbles and glass doesn't just happen... every single one of us has to put in the blood, sweat and tears... the best part is, once I dial something in, I get to start the grueling process all over again with something new my brain has conjured up... I don't need bondage in the bedroom, because I torture myself all day long in the shop... and I wouldn't have it any other way! LOL
Brent Graber

In my last post, I talked about adding on to ourselves, adding techniques and skills.

The other side of all of this I find more difficult to describe.  It’s the process of taking away, of removing that which isn’t necessary and may actually be a hinderance.  A sculptor removes material to make a sculpture, chiseling and polishing, and in budo we do the same.  We are constantly refining our technique to remove all the unnecessary movement.  It’s interesting that when learning a new skill, we engage all sorts of muscles that aren’t necessary to do whatever it is we are trying to do.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to pull my shoulders down away from my ears when I’m learning something new in the dojo (or even when I’m having trouble figuring out how to write something well).

Around the dojo the admonitions to “relax” and “use less muscle” are so common that everyone expects them.  What are we doing when we relax and use less muscle?  We are refining our technique, removing what is unnecessary.  On the first day we learn what the technique is and how to do it.  After that becoming good at it seems to be mostly a matter of removing the excess effort and unnecessary inputs.  

This goes for the rest of what we are as well.  Most of us have images of what we want to be, but getting there is awfully hard.    

Just like in budo, we have to work on removing that which is unnecessary.   We all have traits we’ve picked up that are unnecessary or prevent us from being what we want to be.  Just like all the practice that goes into making a good sword cut or a nice tsuki or a beautiful throw, it takes practice.  Learning to swing a sword is a good example.  On the first day we grip the sword hard with all ten fingers.  Sensei says to do all the work with the last 2 fingers of the left hand, but just because we know what he said, convincing those other 8 fingers to relax and let the remaining 2 do all the work doesn’t happen on the first day.  Each day we get  a little better at relaxing 8 fingers and not putting all that excess energy into the technique.  This is good because that excess energy put into the sword at the wrong place throws the angle, speed and effectiveness of the cut out the window.

As a person, there are lots of places in life that I put energy and effort into that would undoubtedly be better if I would just relax and not work so hard at it.  My ego is a huge example.  It gets all worked up over whether I’m right or wrong on minor issues, and I can put a huge amount of energy into a discussion (I’m trying to convince myself that I’m above mere arguing) that doesn’t need to happen at all.  I can grip my opinion so hard that my knuckles turn white even though I’m not holding anything.  

Over the years I have run into many people who say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change it.”  I admit to being unable to understand this way of thinking.  Who we are is constantly changing.  Each day we are a tiny bit different from the day before, and when enough days and their changes have piled up, we are a very different person indeed.  I look back on myself and can’t believe some of the ways in which I have changed.  The question is, do we take an active part in shaping what we become, or do we passively let the world change us?  If we passively let the world change us, we may not like who we become.  We always have the option of choosing what changes we want to make in ourselves.

In an earlier post I wrote about adding to ourselves. For all that,one of the most important ways we refine ourselves, transform ourselves into more wonderful people is by removing parts of ourselves that hold us back or prevent us from improving.  In iaido practice, I am working to let go of some bad habits that prevent my budo from being as good as it could be.  I am trying to carry less with me in my budo so that I can be better.  Outside the dojo I have a host of habits that I would be better off without as well.  The trick is to continue refining myself as a person in the same way that I refine myself as a budo practitioner.  I want to let go of the unnecessary tension and effort and bad habits that color the way I live and act.  Many of these habits make me less of a person than I would like.  As a budoka, I know that I’m never finished practicing, that I can always be better.

This applies both within the dojo and outside of it.  The lesson is learned in the dojo, but the lesson has truly been learned only when it is applied in the world outside the dojo.  I am never finished becoming me.  I am responsible for who I become from here.  As we are are growing up we don’t always have a lot of input into what lessons we are exposed to.  As budoka though, once we have learned the lesson of continual practice and refinement, we aren’t truly treading the Way until we start applying the lesson to our lives.  

Many of the lessons we learn growing up are negative lessons.  Sometimes we learn to be rigid and always fight when challenged.  Sometimes we learn to protect our ego.  Sometimes we learn to be cynical or bitter.  Sometimes we learn to be angry.  There are any number of negative lessons we can learn and apply to our lives.  Just like learning to relax our grip on the sword so that only unnecessary fingers don’t get involved, we have to learn to take the energy out of these lessons and let go of the bad habits they engender.

This isn’t any easier than learning to do things properly in the dojo.  In fact, the training time frames for budo give a good perspective of how refining ourselves will work.  We have a point we know we need to work on, so we start working on it.  Over weeks and months we show improvement on that point.  Then we start working on some other point and slip back a little on the first point.  Eventually we come back around to working on the first point.  By now at least a year has gone by since we started the process, and we’re just in the middle of it.  We’ll keep coming back to the same point, refining how do it, removing some of the tension and relaxing into the technique more and more, until we do it in a relaxed, easy way every time.  This will take years.

Improving ourselves and getting rid of excess and wasteful energy in our day-to-day lives is similar.  We focus on some aspect of ourselves, a habit that we need to stop wasting energy with. Perhaps we want to stop treating everything as a challenge that must be fought.  We’re not going to fix that right away.  At first we’ll be doing well when we realize we got stiff and tense over something that didn’t deserve all the energy that getting stiff and tense took.  With a little effort, we’ll begin to notice when we are getting stiff and tense unnecessarily while we are doing it instead of after that fact.  With more time and effort we can learn to not tense up so much in those situations.  Gee, does this sound like budo practice?  We identify a problem, and the usual goal is to relax and not tense up during the technique.  We do this in a constant cycle.  Over time what was a good level of relaxation will become unacceptable and we target further improvement.

This is part of improving ourselves and treating our whole being as a work in process.  We’re unfinished.  Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we’ve stopped learning and growing and refining ourselves.  It’s really the opposite.  As children we are growing and being molded by those responsible for us, parents, teachers, religious leaders and others.  It’s only when we have learned enough to choose what sort of person that we want to be that we can really start developing ourselves.  Until then we are being developed.  Taking responsibility for who we are is a huge step, and perhaps more than a little scary.  If I say, I’m not the person I want to be, and I am responsible for becoming that person, from that point we have to accept the responsibility every time we do something that doesn’t live up to the person we want to be.  It’s a lot easier to say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change who I am.”  

The process of crafting ourselves is never ending.  It may be worse than budo practice in that sense.  At keiko, we can rely on teachers and fellow students to help us spot our issues and find ways to correct them.  Outside the dojo we rarely get that kind of feedback, especially if we’re doing something that really puts people off.  In life, we most often have to rely on our own evaluations, though if we are lucky we have some good friends who will help us be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings.

Every day I try to be a better person than I was yesterday.  I’m happy to report that the feedback from my family and friends is that over the years I have improved and that I’m a much nicer person to be around than I was.  Over the years I’ve had to let go of a lot of things that at some point I was proud of, but eventually realized made me less than wonderful to be around.  I’m still working on that.  The same stillness, the same sense of accepting the world as it is, the same relaxed confidence that my teachers display in the dojo is what I’m working on.  I would like to have that as the basic face that I show to the world, and let things go from there.  I’ve identified the goal, now I have to relax a lot of habits (I’m sure my friends can make quite a list as to which ones need to go).

Budo is a Do 道 because it challenges us to apply the lessons everywhere, not just in the dojo or in a conflict.  Part of the challenge is to learn the skills and practices that make us better.  The other half is to get rid of the things that inhibit good action in the world.  We’re both adding to ourselves and stripping things away at the same time.  The challenge is to put as much effort into being a finer, nobler, more wonderful person as we do into a swinging our sword correctly or making that throw effortless or the strike absolutely precise.  Only then do we begin to become a work of art of our own creation.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Creating a Work Of Art: Part 1

2 hours on a flower marble and my arms are about to fall off... let's hope the kiln gods are kind... I kinda don't think i nailed this one, but maybe... if you wonder why great marbles are worth the prices they are fetching, this is part of the reason... I can't tell you guys how much work I do that you never see... try... try again... tweak this... ponder a solution to that... try again... repeat as necessary... it truly is a journey through numerous processes to get things dialed in... great marbles and glass doesn't just happen... every single one of us has to put in the blood, sweat and tears... the best part is, once I dial something in, I get to start the grueling process all over again with something new my brain has conjured up... I don't need bondage in the bedroom, because I torture myself all day long in the shop... and I wouldn't have it any other way! LOL
Brent Graber

A friend showed me this quote, and my first thought was, this is how budo training should feel.  After all, the piece of art you are working on in the dojo is yourself.   What we are doing in the dojo is working on ourselves.  We are are refining and perfecting what we are.

Budo training is a process of both adding on, and taking away.  From the first day in the dojo, we are adding to ourselves by actively trying to learn new skills, ideas and ways of thinking.   We are creating a new, better self by adding skills and confidence, strengths and flexibility, and we are acquiring power.  When you learn a martial art, you are literally learning ways of power for dealing with the world.  Some budo, such as judo or aikido or karatedo are clearly about forms of power that can be immediately applied to the world around us if we wish, while others such as iaido or kyudo are more distant from the world outside the dojo.  They are all about the use and application of power.  

Each day in the dojo, especially in the early years of training, we are working to add to our store of techniques, our ways of dealing with physical conflict.  We have to work really hard to get the steps for the technique down, to overcome ingrained instincts and reactions and to train new instincts and new reactions in their place.  At the end of a good practice, the body should be sweating, sore, and exhausted from the work learning and polishing new skills.  The mind should be just as sore and exhausted from working on new ways of thinking, and from pushing itself to learn lessons that sometimes require giving up old ideas and beliefs so we can grow beyond them.

Early on we are learning to respond fluidly to a threatening situation rather than with blind instinct.  We learn to move out of the way of a strike calmly and smoothly, instead of flinching away.  We spend time learning proper footwork and posture for best moving out of the way, and then we practice putting our hands in the proper position for receiving the strike depending on how we want to deal with it.  This takes time and sweat.  It also takes restructuring how we see the world.   If we are used to being strong and unmoving and letting the world crash into us and standing against it’s force, we have to learn to be soft and pliant and let the things go flying past us.  On the other hand, if we are accustomed to ducking and avoiding conflict, we have to learn to be strong enough to stay close so that we can actively deal with the conflict.  

In the dojo, we should be constantly working on lessons like this.  And it should make us tired.  It should also prepare us to practice these lessons outside the dojo in the world where we live.  It is here that the practice is the most difficult.  We have all learned many lessons about how to act in the world.  Some of us are very good at letting the world crash into us without being moved, like a huge boulder on the seashore.  Some of us are good at diving out of the room or giving in at the first sign of conflict.  Others push too hard, or attack when it’s not necessary, or any of the other traits and strategies that can be taken to an extreme.

Training in the real world is really hard and takes a level of effort that can make training in the dojo seem easy.   These are the attempts that no one realizes you are making as you develop yourself.  So you’ve learned to get out of the way of the attack without fleeing or giving up your own position of strength in the dojo.  You are strong, but you’ve learned that you don’t have to meet every attack head on.  Or you are not strong, but you have learned that you don’t have to avoid conflict by fleeing, but that you can control how you move and where you go.  Now that you can do that in the dojo, can you do it in life?  When the office bully comes looking for a fight, and knows that you are always ready to stand unbending and give him one, can you flex enough to not meet him head on, but to let his arguments go rolling on past you without expending any more effort than it takes to step to the side?  Or, can you have the strength to stick around and not be driven away or simply acquiescing in order to get him to leave?  Can you learn to move to a position that he can’t easily attack, and to push back at his weakness?

This is the tough stuff, and this is the training that counts.  Because this is the training that applies every day at every level.  Conflict is all around us, at all different levels.  In budo we are learning to deal with conflict in the most fundamental way possible, with someone trying to hit us.  But it’s budo, bu-DO.  We are training ourselves for life, not just some sort of physical fight.  This is why it’s so hard.  We’ve got patterns and ways of doing things that we have learned, but one of the fundamental lessons of any Way is that we can always be better than we are now.  My teachers still train, they still work to polish their technique and themselves.  They haven’t stopped learning and improving themselves.  Just because Kiyama Sensei is 88 years old, don’t think that he is only teaching and not learning anymore, only training others to become better and not training himself.

We are working on perfecting ourselves and the lessons go on and on.  Once the strong and stiff has learned to be more flexible and mobile his training may circle back.  He may find himself working hard at learning to apply his strength as effectively as possible.  And the timid one may develop enough skill and confidence that he has to work on not deploying that skill every time, and sometimes just get out of the way and not connect with the conflict.

I spent the morning alone in the dojo today.  I’m trying to polish some techniques that require more patience and less speed.  Part of me always wants to fly through these techniques because, well, this is budo, combat, and if I don’t move fast, I’ll be defeated.  My teachers have shown me over and over though, that speed is not the key to great technique.  The point I am struggling with is that the key is not strength or speed.  The key is to do the right thing at the right time.  I’m work on being aware enough, calm enough, relaxed enough, and confident enough that I don’t rush in, but wait and fill the opening as it occurs.   I’m sweating through this, swinging the sword, swinging the staff, pushing my legs until they quiver with effort so that I can do this without effort.

Now I’m applying this same effort to being me.  There are things that I want to do better.  I want to interact with people in a better way.  I used to have a deep seated need to be right, even when being right was wrong thing to do.  I had to learn to let go of the argument, let the conflict fade away by not holding on to it.   This is something I’m still working on, though I believe I’ve gotten better at it over the years.  One of the lessons of budo is that you can lose by putting too many of your resources into one course of action.  You might even succeed in that action, but then lose because you don’t have any resources for anything else.  I have been working practicing and applying this lesson to myself, learning a new skill, and hopefully I am a better person, a nicer work of art to be around than I was.