Showing posts with label training. Show all posts
Showing posts with label training. Show all posts

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

 
Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.


精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

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Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.


In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.


In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Sweat The Small Stuff. And It's All Small Stuff.


What details do you look for when you see a photo like this? Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



We had a really good keiko on Saturday.  It was a regular Saturday practice.  That is to say it we worked hard, sweat a lot of details, had great fun, and occasionally overloaded someone’s mind..
Sweating the details is the essence of practice. Sometimes it’s the same detail over and over. When you see that, you know you’ve got something fundamental to work on.

I jokingly told Rolf that I was going to give him the same correction on everything he did and then I nearly did it. We started talking about grip while practicing kihon waza (fundamental techniques), and it just snowballed from there.

We always start practice by reviewing the fundamental techniques of jodo. There are only 12 of them, so this serves as a good way to get our muscles warmed up and loose, while putting in some practice on the most essential techniques. Shinto Muso Ryu is a weapons art, so the connection between the practitioner and the weapon is critical.  As in so many things in budo, there are a million ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

In jodo, power is transferred from the practitioner to the weapon through their connection at the hand using the last two fingers of the base hand.  The jo is a deceptively simple looking weapon.  That simplicity makes using it very complex, because you can move your hands anywhere along the weapon and even switch them around. Because the grip is mobile, it’s easy to start well and finish badly.

The grip is integral to every technique, and it’s easy to mess up. Holding and swinging a jo doesn’t look complicated. The grip is a small thing, like the tiny hinges on a huge door. If the hinges are just a little out alignment, good luck moving the door. Just as the hinges connect a door to its frame and allow it to move smoothly and easily, the grip is the connection between your body and the jo. In addition, it is the conduit by which power is transmitted from your body to the jo and from there into your training partner.

The grip is based, not in the thumb and forefinger as you might guess, but in the 5th and 4th fingers. The ones we think of as being the weakest, when used properly are the strongest. Using them properly is the trick. Using your fingers and palm properly is a complex task, and it’s one that you have to do unconsciously. If you have to think about the proper position and use of your fingers, you will be in trouble as soon as your attention is pulled in some other direction.

These small details have to be at the level of unconscious mastery before you can really begin working on the larger elements. Fortunately, most problems with grip are easy to identify when you see them being made. Using the thumb and forefinger instead of the 5th and 4th fingers. Or having your arm perpendicular to the line of the jo. Gripping too tightly. Bending your wrist too much. Thumb out of place.

You may have heard the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In budo we sweat the small stuff.  The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s all small stuff.  All of the big problems have their origins in small details like the grip. That’s why we find ourselves coming back time after time to the small stuff. What angle should my foot be for the entry to harai goshi? How do I squeeze the sword with my little finger for kiri oroshi? What angle should my hips be when doing kaeshi tsuki? How do I grip the jo for honte uchi? These are all part of building a good budo structure, but each is such a small detail we easily look past it when trying to understand what is happening.

Big techniques look impressive and grab our imagination. Harai goshi is a huge throw.


But it’s built on many small details. How you grip is as important for harai goshi as it is for doing anything with a jo. The angle of your feet as you enter and set your body. The position of your hands and arms in relation to your chest can determine the success or failure of the technique. Are you on your heels, or the balls of your feet. Each is a relatively small detail, and yet each one is critical enough to ruin the technique if done wrong.

When I started judo and jodo, I saw the big techniques, the huge throws and powerful strikes. They were thrilling to watch. Through practice, my eyes have learned to see the details that make up the big techniques, and it’s the small things that amaze me now. These days I may not notice which throw someone does because I’m focused on the subtle way the are disrupting their partners structure. When I watch jodo, I know where the strike is going.  What I am trying to steal when I watch senior teachers is how they are generating the power for the strike and how they are controlling it.

The small details have big effects. So when we train, we sweat the small stuff. Of course, it’s all small stuff.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp




Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Demonstration Budo Vs. Training Budo Vs. Doing Budo

 
Michi - the character for way, path or road.

Budo demonstrations are great fun. I love watching them, going to them and occasionally even doing them. If you go to some of the big enbu in Japan, you can see legendary arts demonstrated by some of the top people practicing them.  The Shimogamo Jinja Enbu on May 4 and the Meiji Jingu Enbu on November 3 each year offer the chance to see rare and great budo demonstrated. And the Kyoto Enbu Taikai every May 2nd at the old Butokuden in Kyoto is an endurance test for the spectators that can run for 10 hours of nonstop budo.

I was going to say “But they aren't real budo.  They're demonstrations.  They are for showing about budo.”  After putting in the time to think about it enough to develop the idea into a post, I realized I was wrong. Those demonstrations are real budo, especially when done with good spirit. They aren’t nearly all of budo, but they are some aspects of it.

Often we think of demonstrations as being scripted set pieces for showing off our art in the best light possible. Not really the time to go out on a limb and do things we’re not completely comfortable and familiar with. Most budo practice is scripted too though.

We do kata, scripted exercises, with a variety of purposes and goals. Granted, in practice we never approach an exercise with the goal of making the audience go “Wow!” but that’s just one more thing we try for in a demonstration.

What else might be going on in a demonstration?  Beside the obvious goal of trying to impress the audience, there are lots of other possible goals. When we demonstrate modern arts such as judo, aikido or karate one goal is often to show the fundamental principles principles of the art, such as kuzushi or blending or power generation. Being able to manifest the fundamental principles of your art at any moment is clearly part of doing budo. If you can’t manifest the principles, there is no way you can do the art, regardless of whether it is practice, a demonstration or in the midst of a conflict.

When demonstrating an art, you want to show it at its strongest and most powerful. Except when you don’t. Koryu budo systems from Japan, arts founded before 1868, have a tendency to be profoundly suspicious and untrusting. Historically, practitioners of many arts wanted to keep the essence of their art secret because facing someone who had seen one of your demonstrations was a real possibility. For these folks, deception was an essential part of any demonstration.  Do a distinctive kata, but in such a way as to lead anyone watching to an incorrect understanding of how your art handles timing or spacing or other essential elements of the ryuha. Deceiving your opponent into unwise action is found throughout budo training. Using a demonstration to do this is just an extension of training into a practical application.

We also conceal our weaknesses during demonstrations. Just as the classical ryuha might change their kata slightly to deceive potential opponents who are watching the demonstration, they wouldn’t have students demonstrate things they aren’t fully competent at either. It makes no more sense to reveal your weaknesses than it does to show all of your strengths. Demonstrations are scripted in part to avoid displaying weaknesses that could be exploited. Students demonstrating things they do well and with confidence shows their strengths without exposing their weakness at aspects of the art they are still learning.

Modern artists don’t generally worry about the potential of facing members of the audience in a fight. For us, often the concern is presenting an interesting and impressive demonstration that might attract a new student or two. It’s also a chance for students to display what they have learned, regardless of their level. The world has changed, and in this case I have to believe it’s for the better. Where once a major concern was not revealing too much about the strength of the art and the weaknesses of the students, modern arts can show nearly everything. Judoka can demonstrate their most impressive and powerful throws. Aikidoka can show off their most subtle and sophisticated blending techniques. Karateka can demonstrate not just their kata, but also the bunkai of the kata, as I saw at an Cherry Blossom Festival a couple of weeks ago. 150 years ago these would have been closely held secrets. Now those secrets are the very things we put on display. I’m thrilled the world I live in is peaceful enough for this to be.

I’ve often seen people distinguish between “budo training” and “doing budo” as if what we do outside the dojo is somehow more real than what goes on in the dojo. Budo training is practicing all the elements budo, not just the ones that we are confident enough to put on display.  We learn the techniques and the kata. Really learn them. Soaking them into our skin and absorbing them into our muscles. In the dojo I am always working at, as my friend Janet Rosen so eloquently puts it “sucking at a higher level.” I can’t think of a day in the dojo where I didn’t work on things that I’m not good at. No matter how long I’ve been on this path, there are still parts of it that are rough going for me. Certain techniques I need to learn (anyone want to help me with my uki otoshi?). Principles I still have trouble expressing on a consistent basis.

Changing ourselves and moving us along the path of budo is what practice and training is all about.. This is where we grow our understanding of budo and develop ourselves as budoka. We learn about spacing and timing and good structure. We practice how we move and learn that we can choose how we respond to a particular situation  instead of just reacting. It’s not “doing budo” in that the practice may not be spontaneous application of budo techniques and principles to life. It is “doing budo” because we are working on changing and improving ourselves, becoming better grounded in the lessons and more fully internalizing the principles of our art.  That certainly seems like “doing budo” to me.

Doing budo is all these things. We don’t practice or demonstrate every aspect of budo at the same time. Budo practice involves choosing what aspects of budo you want to work on polishing on any given day.  Budo isn’t something that only happens in the midst of violent conflict. Budo is a path, a Way, and the principles of that Way should be applicable to anything. Talk to me about cooking, and we’ll be discussing timing. Talk to me about work and perhaps we’ll be talking about using breathing to control our mind and maintain calm under pressure and threats. Talk about play and I’ll surely be talking about a recent round of randori at judo practice.

Budo is the whole path, every place and every footstep along the journey is “doing budo.”  Practicing budo technique and kata is doing budo. What else could it be? Each time you do a technique or a kata you are working on manifesting the fundamental principles of your art. When you do an enbu, a budo demonstration, you are are doing budo. Whether you are showing the highest expressions of your art, or purposely deceiving your audience as to the true nature of what you do, you’re doing budo.

Artificially limiting what budo is becomes an easy trap to fall prey to.  We think “Budo is martial arts, so it’s only budo when I’m fighting” or something similar. But budo training involves the optimal ways to stand and walk and breath, so when we are doing any of those things according to the principles of budo, we’re doing budo.  It’s not just when we’re in a fight. It’s all the other time too.  If budo was only about fighting, it wouldn’t be near to worthy of the devotion and time we invest in it. Budo is about how we do everything. It’s all budo.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Budo Thoughts During Jet Lag

 
Teacher, Friends And Peers
Photo copyright Kumiko Yamada 2015


I wrote most of this while recovering from my most recent trip to Japan.

I’ve got jet lag. I was lucky enough to spend the last two weeks in Japan visiting friends and teachers, but now I’m home and until my body adjusts to the different solar schedule, I’ve got a few hours in the middle of the night where I’ll be awake.

Jet lag gives me some time to think about things.It’s always great to visit everyone in Japan, and these past two weeks were no exception. I have been going to Japan to train for 25 years. I still see myself as the young guy who just started. All around me in Japan I can see how everyone there has aged and changed. I’m not the young guy without a clue anymore. Kiyama Sensei turned 90 this year, but he still has the most powerful koshi I know of.  Inoue Sensei hasn’t changed much. He was a 7th dan with smooth, strong iai when I started, and his technique has gotten smoother with time. There are a number of folks around who hadn’t even started iai when I moved back to the US from Japan, and they are already 5th dans.

Budo is a path that goes on and on. It’s not just a solo path. We travel the road with our teachers and the other students around us, and the journey will continue even after we no longer can. For ourselves, we journey along the road seeking skill and maturity. For our students, we are part of the road itself. My teachers have formed the bed of the road I’m journeying on. Particularly early on in my journey, they were the road. If they branched left, so did I. If they turned right, I followed. Their direction was fundamental to how I saw budo and what parts of it I was able to explore.

As I’ve gained in experience and understanding, I have more ability and freedom to explore the path of budo and all the side roads that branch from on my own.  There are exciting and flashy trends that turn out to be little more than swamp gas. You can get completely lost trying to chase them down. Of more value are the simple things. Just going to the dojo and training.  Having a partner who trusts you and herself enough to attack so that you do get hit if you don’t move properly.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp

These are important parts of the journey.  There are many Ways that don’t require another person. Shodo and kado (calligraphy and flower arranging) leap to the front of my mind. No on is required to make shodo or kado practice complete.  The practitioner need never share her work with another person.  The calligraphy and the flower arrangement are complete even if no one else sees it.

Budo isn't a solo path though. All budo, even iai, is about interacting with the world. Our teachers and partners are important parts of the world, often providing immediate feedback on the quality of work. Our greatest adversary is always ourselves, but it is through practice with our partners and teachers that we find the flaws within ourselves to be addressed. That’s one of the tough things about having good teachers and peers on the path. They won’t lets us ignore our own faults. They point us towards faults we would happily ignore, and help us improve beyond them. This is never fun, but it is one of the great things about good budo practice with good teachers, good partners.

Not all budo training and learning happens in the dojo. Photo copyright 2015

Learning to fight without learning anything else is a fool’s path. Along the Way of budo training, there is a lot of learning beyond just the techniques. We won’t get that without our teachers, without our training partners. One of my students, an accomplished teacher in his own field, has been critical in helping me recognize and start dealing with some of my own weaknesses. He can sense when I don’t take some aspect of training as absolutely seriously as I need to. He also happens to have a brilliant eye for spotting issues with an individual’s structure. He is a wonderful companion for all of us traveling on this particular path.

I wouldn’t have made any progress in budo without my teachers and partners. They’ve taught me, gently and sometimes not so gently, about timing and spacing and ukemi and so many other things. Budo is an endless path, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without my teachers and partners. Thank you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Are You Training?


I know many people who scoff at the idea of budo for personal development. They see dojo training as strictly a means for honing technique. They laugh at all the mamby-pamby talk of personal development.  For them, Budo is strictly a place for becoming a better fighter. Which is exactly why they are completely wrong.

Marc MacYoung recently wrote

The act of physically killing someone is easy.
What is hard is having the judgment to know when to do so or when not to.


Yes, you’re learning how to use techniques. That’s fundamental to the process. You have to learn the stance and postures first. These are are your alphabet. Only after you’ve learned the alphabet can you learn to spell whole words. Once you’ve got your basic postures, stances, grips, etc, you can start learning techniques.  But learning techniques is like learning to write individual words. There are lots of people who can spell, but like many people I deal with by email, still can’t write a coherent sentence.

Budo doesn’t really start to become budo until you’ve got enough control of these basic building blocks that you can begin assembling them into simple sentences. In judo these look like the Nage No Kata, with basic attack and response patterns.


Even in the relatively simple budo sentences of the Nage No Kata, complexity starts sneaking in. There are techniques that require multiple steps to set up. Others are attacked, blocked and the defense is circumvented. Start with a simple sentence like “He attacks me with his fist.”  Learn to reply with “I drop and throw him.”  Simple budo sentences. Like simple sentences in a grammar school reader, are not very interesting.

Once you start learning to put together stances and techniques, you can have a conversation. Mark Law talks about this a little in his book FALLING HARD. Judo randori, or any kind of sparring, is a chance to have a budo conversation where questions are posed in stances and techniques, and then answered with other stances and techniques.

Just like in writing class, even after you learn spelling and basic punctuation there is a lot to learn about creating sentences and then paragraphs and stories in the language of budo. Early on we don’t have too many words in our budo vocabulary, so our sentences aren’t very subtle or interesting.

As we progress along the Way, we learn to choose more and more precisely appropriate techniques. We learn that uchimata is probably not the best technique for us to use on the goliath at judo, but that it works pretty well on the guy close to our size. Against that small, fast lady, the one who’s always catching us with taiotoshi, we’re going to need to polish up our foot sweeps.

We have to learn to recognize these things. The same is true in weapons training. The best technique against the tall, strong foe may be entirely inappropriate against the quick, light one, and the techniques that work in those situations may be utterly ineffective against someone short and solid.

Then, just like at dinner with the family, we learn that sometimes the best reaction is none at all. When we train, we have to consider that not all threats and attacks are equal.  I spend a lot of time working with students getting them to make serious attacks. Often I can see that what they think is a serious attack won’t reach me. I can stand there and watch them swing. Their bokken whistles by me. I’ve learned not just how to deal with an attack, but how to distinguish between something that will hurt me and something that won’t (I’m a slow learner, so I got hit a few times before I figured out the real difference).

Knowing the difference between an attack that is dangerous and one that can be ignored isn’t just about technique.  Most of the attacks we deal with in life aren’t physical. They are attacks on our mind and ego. If you never train anything but physical technique, how will you develop a spirit sturdy enough to ignore attacks on your ego?  Are you learning the control necessary to ignore verbal attacks that don’t need a response of any kind? That’s budo too.

What good is all this budo training if you never train anything but technique? Without training the mind and the spirit you will be a servant of the techniques, applying them without discretion (sounds like most brown belts in randori).  You have to have control and discretion about when to use which technique, and when it’s best not to use any technique at all. If all of your training is about how to apply the techniques, you risk applying one when you shouldn’t.  In the US, that can put you in jail very quickly.

Truly mastering techniques means that you control the techniques. You decide when a response is necessary, and when it isn’t. You decide what level of response is appropriate and which technique meets that requirement. You decide when a situation is escalating so you can leave before you have to decide what level of response and which technique is most appropriate.

This means you have to work on the mamby-pamby stuff too, not just the cool techniques. You have to learn to self-control, to know that some attacks can be ignored because they won’t hurt you, and that other attacks should be absorbed and ignored because the damage that reacting would do is worse than the damage the attack will do. Do you learn these things? They are part of the strategy of applying martial arts training. Learning the techniques is just the first step.  Learning when not to use them is a lot tougher.  To be able to know when not to use a technique, first you have to do the tough work of training your mind and spirit to be greater than your ego. If you thought that iriminage or uki otoshi were tough to master, try mastering your own ego.

Are you training technique? Or are you training you?


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Good Dojo Isn't A Comfortable Place

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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