Showing posts with label attachment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label attachment. Show all posts

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.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Budo Vices

Budo training is often lauded for promoting virtues like self-confidence, self-control, self-respect, determination,  and resolve. It helps people stand up to bullies and be better people and to get along better in society. Budo training is actively promoted as being good for developing these valuable traits in children and adults. It’s just an all around good thing, right? Unfortunately, where there are virtues, there are usually vices as well. There are all sorts of bad lessons and characteristics that can be learned in the dojo.

As wonderful as I believe budo training can be, it is not without pitfalls, dangers and tempting looking diversions that lead to dead ends. Just looking at the list of virtues makes me think of their closely related vices. How can self-confidence be a vice? I’ve known plenty of regular folks as well as martial artists who had such an over-abundance of self-confidence that they were arrogant. These people couldn’t imagine not being capable and correct. That’s bad enough in someone you have to deal with in a business or social setting. Now picture that in someone training in a martial art with other people.

When you train with other people, you need a relatively realistic estimate of your own ability. If you are arrogant, you’re not just socially painful to deal with, you can be physically dangerous to yourself and those around you. Arrogance gets people hurt. Even people who aren’t arrogant, but just over-confident are a danger to others and themselves. If you spend enough time around the dojo, it is inevitable that you’ll hear the fateful words “Oh, I can do that.” When overconfidence is in play, the words are almost always followed by someone crying out “Ow!”  Either a technique was attempted ineptly and hurt the person it was being attempted on, or the poor guy (why is it almost invariably a guy?) failed to defend himself from an attack he was sure he could deal with easily. Not to mention that arrogance is unpleasant to be around.

Ego is another thing that causes a lot of injuries, both to people whose ego’s are too big, and to the poor folks who have to deal with us. Ego is a special risk for martial artists, because we deal in physical power. The temptation to believe that because we can do these things makes us special is huge, and anything that denies that can trip us up. Every once in a while my ego gets out of the trunk I keep it locked in and causes me problems. It’s sure that I’m better than whoever I’m doing randori with, or that I can still keep up with that 19 year old guy, or any other fantasy that is just out of my reach.  My ego is happy to convince me, and when I go along, I usually end up slumped against a wall, holding a bottle of water and wondering who took all the oxygen out of the air, because as hard as I’m breathing, I don’t seem to be getting any. This side of ego can drive us to try things we really shouldn’t.  It’s different from arrogance. Arrogant folks often can’t imagine that they might not be able to do something.  With this particular ego problem, we are denying our own limitations. It’s fine to push your limits and to stretch them.  It’s not good to deny that those limits exist.

A different problem is getting too attached to a goal. I have seen people who were blindly determined to achieve a goal. I say “blindly” because they couldn’t see clearly the obstacles and pitfalls in front of them. Someone so attached to a goal that she can’t see what is required to get there is a scary thing to see, especially in a martial arts setting. It’s easy to damage yourself and others just from training too hard. If you keep training past the point where your body can maintain reasonable physical control, it’s inevitable that you or your training partner will get hurt, just because at that point you don’t have the fine control required to protect yourself and your partner. That’s a simple judgement problem.

Additionally, when a goal becomes all someone can see, they become blind to everything but that goal. A martial artist like this can be dangerous to themselves because they will try risky or even outright hazardous training practices. When the goal becomes that big in someone’s eyes, it can get in the way seeing your training partners as anything more than tools for achieving your goal. I’m not arguing against goals, I’m just saying goals need to be kept in perspective.

Respect is critical in a budo dojo. If someone doesn’t respect the people they are training with, they aren’t going to be considerate of them. Part of showing respect for your training partners is taking care of them, making sure they don’t get hurt. People who don’t respect you aren’t likely to care if you get hurt and can’t train anymore. Without respect for you, your training partner won’t take you into consideration. When you train together in something with as many potential dangers as budo, you want your partner to respect you so you don’t get hurt.

On top of that though, you also want their respect when it comes to your training. Whatever level you’re at, you need partners who will respect that and train with you so you get what you need out of the training. A partner who doesn’t respect you is not going to bother thinking about giving you the energy and intensity that is appropriate for your training. They will just toss off whatever they feel like. If they’re feeling sloppy, you’ll get a mushy, sloppy partner. If they are feeling annoyed or upset, you could get slammed around with more energy than you can handle. Plus you get to deal with the clear impression that this person doesn’t respect you and doesn’t think you are worthy of their time or attention. There is little that annoys me faster than someone who doesn’t respect their training partners.

One vice that I see all too often, especially on the internet, is budo tribalism. The attitude that “What I do is the real thing, and everything else is weak and corrupt and worthless to practice.” I have seen this from judoka talking about BJJ and I’ve heard it from BJJ guys talking about judo, and I hear it from from folks in Karate and Taekwondo talking about each other. I hear it from MMA people talking about everyone. The most vicious of these exchanges though are usually by people in one branch of an art talking about other branches of the same art. This true whether it’s Aikido or Karate or Tae Kwon Do or Tai Chi or just about any other art.

For too many people, whatever they are doing has to be the greatest in the world. I’m not sure why this is. There is no such thing as the ultimate martial art. Every art makes it’s own assumptions about what kind of attacks to train against and what is the best way to do so. What is it about budo that brings this sort of attitude out so strongly? So many people want to knock down the training of anyone who doesn’t train the way they do. It’s sad to see, because the people who adopt these tribal attitudes cut themselves off from one of the greatest sources for growth as budoka, outside perspectives.

I train in Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai, and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo. I love getting outside perspectives. They keep me from getting too full of myself. They also help me maintain a realistic perspective of what my arts’ strengths and weaknesses are. No art does everything, and any art that claims to do everything is unrealistic.  By talking with people in other arts, and occasionally training with them, I get the benefit of their experience and perspective.  My judo has grown immensely from interacting with Aikido and Aikijutsu practitioners. My understanding of iai has been expanded, and my appreciation for the limits of my training, through the experience I’ve gained meeting and training with people who do Hoki Ryu and Suio Ryu and many other sword arts. Jo is a wonderful weapon, but like all weapons it has limits. Those become clear when I train with folks whose background is different from mine. A little yari (spear) or naginata (glaive) practice will really open your eyes.  I don’t like to think about some of the chain weapons. They’re just brutal.

The folks who go tribal and declare that everything else is inferior cut themselves off from all the things they could learn from outside perspectives. Worse, they have to continually delude themselves that all those other guys have nothing to offer them. It’s must be tough to live like that. Every piece of evidence that someone else’s training might offer something theirs does not has to be discredited and destroyed. Nothing else can ever be truly worthy of praise. Us versus them just isn’t a good way to live, and it’s certainly not a good way to train.

The last vice I’m going to talk about in this post is jealousy. This one is pernicious and sneaky. It creeps up on you. I’ve seen people get jealous over lots of things in the dojo. Some people have natural talent (I’m not jealous of them. Really. I’m not...Well, maybe just a little). Some people have cool toys. Some people just have more time to train than the rest of us. What seems to cause the worst jealousy I’ve seen is success. Whether it is success as a student developing good technique, or success in competition, or success as a teacher, all of these things can generate jealousy. In the dojo, the worst things I’ve seen have been over success as a teacher.

Teachers are the leaders in the dojo. When one teacher starts to be jealous of another teacher, for whatever reason, the dojo is in trouble. This is one of those things I really don’t understand, even though I’ve seen it. One teacher becomes jealous because another teacher is more popular with students or is able to achieve better results developing students. Instead of doing the proper budo thing and trying to figure out how to improve their own teaching, they become jealous and upset at the other person, leading to arguments, fights and almost invariably, an irreparable fracture in the dojo. The jealousy leads to fights, arguments, accusations and end in two dojos that don’t like each other, not to mention all the students who just quit because they refuse to put up with the poisoned atmosphere before the split. I hate seeing this happen, but that green eyed monster is all too much a part of us as humans, and it happens far too often. Jealousy doesn’t just hurt the individuals involved, it hurts everyone around it, and can destroy the dojo.

Just as cultivating the budo virtues makes individuals better and improves the dojo environment for everyone, letting budo vices develop hurts you and it makes the whole dojo a less pleasant place to be. Arrogance, ego, disrespect, tribalism and jealousy can ruin individuals, groups and dojo. We all have to watch out for them within ourselves with the same sort of diligence we put into developing the budo virtues of 知 wisdom, 仁 benevolence, 義 righteousness, 信 trust, and 礼 rei.