Sunday, February 10, 2013

Budo Etiquette and Courtesy

I was reading a piece about Emily Post, the great master of etiquette, and the profound effect her book, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, has had over the decades since it was first published in 1922. Generations of people have used it’s advice and principles to become more adept at negotiating society’s and life’s difficult situations.  Etiquette is fundamental to everything we do, even, or perhaps especially, how we handle conflict.  Many people imagine etiquette to be ritualized and stuffy, but etiquette done well can express everything from great honor and respect to cutting disgust, all while being impeccably proper.

In budo we often hear this phrase 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru).  “Begin with rei, and end with rei”.   Rei often gets translated as “bow”,  perhaps because budo practice literally does begin and end with bowing.  In this case though, “bow” is not the best translation.  The Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gives the following meaning, “etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility”.  A better translation would be to use the first word there, giving us “Begin with etiquette and end with etiquette.”  This is still pretty stiff though.  I think a more useful, clear, and faithful translation is “Begin with courtesy and end with courtesy.”  Courtesy can encompass good etiquette, but as I noted before, you can express all sorts of negative feelings while still having proper etiquette.  Courtesy though implies an entirely positive activity, and I believe that is what is intended with this aphorism.

Robert Heinlein noted that “An armed society is a polite society” and this is certainly true of medieval and early modern Japan.  There were layers and layers of etiquette classical Japan, and even the language has layers of formal etiquette.  What you wore, and how you talked to people were all covered by detailed rules of etiquette.  There were different ways of conjugating verbs depending on your relative social rank to the person you are talking with, or even the person you are talking about!  In a society awash in weapons (Japan up to the 1600s), or where a significant portion of the population was pretty much required to be armed (Japan from about 1600 to 1868), being overly polite wouldn’t have just been about social rules, it would have been about not upsetting someone who could hurt you.

A lot of this formal etiquette continues to hold sway in modern Japan.  The number and variety of formal verb conjugations to express relative social rank and respect have dwindled so now there are only 4 or 5 forms that are used with great regularity, but many of the social rules are still there.  In Japan, etiquette is not a rigid system for keeping people in their place (there are other social mechanisms for that).  Etiquette is communication.   How you bow to someone communicates a host of information to the recipient of your bow and to everyone who sees it.   The depth of your bow and how long you hold it express your respect for the person you are bowing to, and their bow to you expresses the same thing.  The bows also express your relative social positions.  This makes reading the meaning and intent of a bow in Japan both important and complex, and the act of bowing becomes both important and subtle.

A properly done bow expresses respect and humility.  A bow that is too shallow or quick can express arrogance or thoughtlessness.  A bow that is too deep and slow can look sarcastic and insolent.  All this comes from a simple bow.  I have been honored by elite teachers when they have given me the briefest of nods that sincerely recognized me, and insulted by people who gave me a deep bow that implied I had no idea what a real bow meant and really didn’t deserve one.

These expressions of respect are the first level of communication in the etiquette we use in the dojo.  “An armed society is a polite society” is a wonderful description of a dojo. In a martial arts dojo everyone is armed, whether the weapons are visible or not.   You almost never see a weapon in a judo dojo, but everyone there is armed with martial knowledge and skills.  In dojo for other martial arts, there are likely to be lots of weapons around to go with the knowledge and skill.  You really don’t want to antagonize anyone in such a situation, even inadvertently.  There are always those who have acquired dangerous weapons without acquiring the emotional control and wisdom to know when not to use them.  Etiquette gives us a tool for communicating respect and politeness.

All that bowing in the dojo communicates a lot more than just respect and politeness though.  In the dojo the etiquette also lets us know when it is ok to use our weapons and when not use them.  It tells those around us what we are going to do and when we are done with it.  We bow at the start of class to express respect for our teachers and our fellow students and for the art we are studying.  We bow when we begin practicing with someone, and we bow when we are finished training with that person.  We bow to seniors and teachers when we want their attention and when we are done speaking with them.  We bow at the end of class to show respect and thanks again to our teachers, our fellow students and the art we are studying.

That’s a lot of bowing.  It can become very stiff and formal, I will admit.  It is possible to take all this etiquette and make it as stiff and rigid as military unit on formal parade.  There really isn’t any need to though.  The bowing is there for many reasons, all of them good.  It’s really helpful to be able to know by just looking that someone is about to start an intense bit of training with a partner, and to be able to tell when they are finished.  This is true whether you are teacher waiting to give them some correction, or a junior who just wants to get past them to the bathroom at the other side of the dojo.  In Japan, bowing is usually only stiff and formal at stiff, formal events.  To quote a lovely little piece on bowing, “Firstly, bowing should be natural.”  

This goes for all etiquette, not just bowing.  It should be natural.  In the dojo, the bows to our partner when we start practicing together are not rigid salutes.  They are invitations to train and study together, to share something that you all enjoy.  If you are rigid and formal when you bow, what does this say to your partner about what you are about to do?  礼に始まり礼に終わり。 What if we stop calling it etiquette, and start calling it courtesy?  Think of your bows when you start practice with someone as a way of expressing courtesy to your partners and a way of welcoming them into your practice and saying “Let’s share this wonderful training.”  

We are being courteous when we use good etiquette.   People who are really good at it move so naturally and easily in whatever they are doing that they are make those around them comfortable.  A big part of being courteous is being sincere.  If you are doing something mechanically, just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” that feeling will be clearly communicated to everyone who sees you.  Doing it because it is a good thing to do, and because you are expressing your respect and care for those around comes through to the people who see you as well.   If your etiquette makes people feel stiff and formal, maybe you should give some thought to why you are doing it that way.

I travel a lot, so I’ve been in a lot of different dojo for different arts and styles in a variety of countries.  Etiquette really is courtesy.  By acting with courtesy and sincerity, even if the details of your form are not exactly what people expect, they will still understand your intention.  This got me through many events when I first moved to Japan.  I was a typical Westerner, bowing far too deeply all the time and not really understanding what I was doing.  I had learned a little about bowing at the judo dojo I trained at in America, but most of our bows were very deep and very formal because none of us had any experience in Japan.  The dojo was the only place we used it.  This wasn’t bad, it just meant that there was a lot more that I could have been communicating than I had been.

I came to Japan expecting everyone to be very formal and always bow deeply like I saw in movies and in the dojo.  I thought the etiquette would be very stiff and formal and difficult and cold and all about how proper and correct you could be.  I was wrong on every point.  The social courtesies are fluid and relaxed and simple and warm and about making sure you fit into the social situation properly.    The bows, once I learned to read them, told me when I was welcome, when it was a bad time to talk with someone, when someone was unhappy about something and if that something was directly related to me or not, and they gave me a sense of where I belonged in the social environment.

In the dojo we can learn a lot of things, and while I didn’t learn all about bowing in Japan while I was in the judo dojo in Kalamazoo, I did learn enough about basic etiquette and courtesies that I was able to make a generally good impression on the people I dealt with.  I knew the proper way of sitting in seiza and getting up and down, so that at formal events I didn’t feel out place, even if I was often clueless about much of what was going on around me because my Japanese was still quite weak.  I knew enough to be sincere and to show my appreciation with a proper bow.  At first, like most Westerners, I bowed too deeply.  This was actually bad etiquette, because the deep bow showed excessive respect and formality and made my Japanese hosts feel unusually formal.  The excessively formal bows also expressed a degree of social distance between my hosts and myself that didn’t exist.  Instead of the Japanese being overly formal and stiff, here I was the one being rigid and coldly formal.  The irony makes me laugh even now.   More quickly than I expected, friends and experience taught me how to interact with people using the appropriate courtesies.  Deep bows are mainly in the dojo, and for outside the dojo I learned to adjust the depth and length of my bow to the situation so my friends and colleagues would feel at ease with me.

The etiquette, I discovered, is a courtesy for everyone.   It welcomes people and lets them know that they belong, that they are in the right place.  Dojo courtesy is just the same.  My actions in the dojo should speak eloquently of my respect for my teachers, my fellow students, and the art we are studying.  My actions should speak just as eloquently of the warmth of my love for my teachers, my fellow students and the art we are studying.  By being appropriately courteous, I can also express humor, regret, joy, appreciation, anger and all of the other emotions that might come up.

In the dojo, where we are learning a Way, is a wonderful place to learn courtesy.   I’ve been in overly formal, rigid dojo, but these have all been outside Japan.  In Japan the etiquette is much more an art of courtesy.  We all bow deeply to Sensei, and we bow to each other.  There are a million little courtesies that take place in the dojo that could be stiff formalities, but in a healthy dojo are joyous ways of saying to each other “We appreciate you and want you here.”  When I come in the bows I receive are welcoming, making me feel at home.  When we bow to Sensei at the start of class it is with a genuine feeling respect and affection.  Not only are we learning something from him, but we really like him as a human being, and our etiquette expresses this.

There is a lot of etiquette in budo, numerous courtesies that are there for politeness and safety in arts that are frankly, dangerous if not practiced in a careful environment. The etiquette of a dojo will tell you a great deal about the rest of the training. In the koryu dojo I am familiar with, the etiquette is quite veried. The opening bows are deep and respectful. Bows to training colleagues can be inviting and welcoming. But some of the bows are quite different. In many koryu arts, there are bows between partners at the start of certain parts of training that give you the chance to practice the less positive aspects of etiquette as well. In styles like Shinto Muso Ryu and Tendo Ryu, the bow can also express deep suspicion and distrust. The bow at about 0:25 here shows a very brief bow that expresses distrust and dislike and very intense connection, which is quite appropriate given the seriousness of the exchange between the two well armed people that follows. All of this is part of etiquette.

The etiquette, the formal courtesies of Japan are the courtesies of budo.  The etiquette can’t be separated from budo without destroying both. Etiquette and courtesy get their meaning from the context in which they are used. Good budo training teaches a lot about how to behave and treat people with honor and respect. The etiquette and the courtesies learned are just as much lessons of budo as the techniques and skills of combat. They are very real parts of the Way you study.
I’ve seen dojo with stiff, militaristic atmospheres, but always outside of Japan, and always in modern martial arts.  This stiff formality is not a characteristic of the budo in Japan that I am familiar with. Budo teaches a way of living. That way must be flexible enough to adapt to any situation. If the etiquette is stiff and rigid, it dead and cannot be used for anything. If the etiquette if relaxed and fluid, it can be adapted to any situation.

礼に始まり礼に終わり. Begin and end your practice with etiquette. Begin and end your practice with courtesy. Make not just your bows, but all of your greetings sincere. Show your respect for everyone in the dojo. Let your etiquette express your appreciation for the kindness and teaching that you are receiving from your teachers and fellow students. Let your actions speak of your joy at being able to train together. Not just the scripted courtesies of bowing in and out of the dojo and to your teachers and partners. Let your courtesies include the unscripted actions as well. Courtesy and etiquette aren't just the scripted activities. Real courtesy and etiquette about about those unscripted parts of life where we decide how to treat one and other. The scripted parts of practice in the dojo are just that, practice. They are lessons in how to treat people all the time. The various courtesies of bowing, serving drinks to seniors, cleaning the dojo, and a hundred other little things, are lessons in being courteous throughout life.

Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari. Courtesy is how we begin, and how we end.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A little more on awareness

On aspect of the awareness and mindfulness I was talking about in my last post in mentioned and described in Natalie Coughlin in this piece.  Training Insights from Star Athletes

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Staying Aware: Zanshin

気 を付ける、残心、中心する、意識, 無心、ki wo tsukeru, zanshin, chushin suru, ishiki, mushin, paying attention, staying alert, being focused、awareness.

These are terms that everyone has come across in budo training.  Some, like ki wo tsukeru and zanshin are heard regularly, others aren’t heard as often but are just as important.  Budo is all about physical technique though, so why should we spend our time on mental areas like these?  Physical technique is great, but it is the mind that is the true weapon and how we train that is even more important than how we train the body.

Many of the things that change average technique to great technique are not technical.  They are mental.  Doing things like controlling timing and spacing begin with mental awareness and focus.  I don’t care how good your technique is, if your timing or spacing are off, the technique is worthless.  Understanding timing and spacing is mental.  It’s about awareness and focus.  This is where practice gets interesting.  Learning another armbar variation, or another way to do kiriorshi frankly doesn’t teach you very much that can be applied anywhere except in the very closely defined realm in which it is learned.

Learning to let go of all the stuff cluttering up your mind so you can pay attention, stay alert, be focused and aware of the world is tough stuff.  I’m still learning how to do it.  One of the nice things about budo practice is that the correction is usually really fast when you lose focus and let your alertness, your awareness, go.  I’ve gotten hit in the head more than once because I wasn’t paying proper attention.  The physical practices should lead us into the mental ones.  

In budo we often talk about zanshin 残心 and mushin 無心。  You’ll notice that the last character is the same in both words.  It means heart/mind and represents “the psyche; the mind; the emotions” (definition form the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary).  In zanshin, the first character is for something that remains, that is left, that stays.  The idea is one of staying aware, staying alert, your mind remaining on the situation at hand.  In koryu bugei, as well as in kendo and many other modern budo styles, the idea is that the kata doesn’t end when the action ends.  

You have to stay aware and focused even after the fight is finished.  Even though you have ostensibly won, you can’t just relax and let  your focus go rushing away.  The action might not be over yet.  What if your adversary has friends who come along suddenly?  Or what if the adversary isn’t quite finished? If  you just relax, drop your guard and start thinking about how glad you are that the fight is over, you will be surprised by anything that comes next.  The Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu kata called Yaegaki is a great example.  The kata assumes an adversary directly in front of you.  Once she has been dispatched, you start to sheath your sword.  When it’s almost all the way back in the saya, the adversary rallies to take a swing at your leg.  If you have relaxed, you won’t be able to respond in time to save your leg.  If you are still aware, if you are practicing zanshin, you can.  

All koryu bugei kata that I am aware of require that the student practice maintaining awareness, zanshin, even when the action is over.

Really though, the training is to be aware from well before the action starts.  In kneeling kata like Yaegaki or the much less complicated Mae, the kata doesn’t begin when the action starts.  It begins at the moment you start to kneel.  In paired kata, such as in  kenjutsu, the kata starts as soon as you bow to your partner, and it doesn’t end until you’ve moved apart and bowed to signal the end.  I have memories nearly as vivid as the bruise I got one day when my attention wandered after the action of a kata was finished and my partner, the instructor, recognized this and caught me in the solar plexus.  I had dropped my attention because we were “done”.  Except that we weren’t.  We were still close enough together to be immediate threats, and I should have been maintaining zanshin.  I wasn’t, it was clear to my partner, and he gave me a gentle reminder.

Zanshin is focused awareness, but it’s not so narrowly focused that you forget about the rest of the world.  You have to be aware of what is around you at the same time that your attention is focused on your adversary.  This is the mental extension of the metsuke that I wrote about previously.  With metsuke, you want to keep you keep focused on your adversary, but you can’t lose your peripheral vision and awareness of your entire opponent.  If you only look at his weapon, you miss what he’s doing with his body.  If you only look at his face, you don’t know what he’s doing with his weapon.  The saying in budo is enzan no metsuke 遠 山の目付, or roughly, “looking at a far mountain”.  The idea is that your gaze is focused on one point, but your peripheral vision is still active and taking in the whole of the scene.  In budo, the idea is that you are focused on your partner but you can still see his entire body and weaponry in your peripheral vision.

This focused awareness, in my experience, is something like this.  Your attention is fully focused on your partner, but you are still aware of your surroundings as well.  In the dojo you don’t want to move into the way of another group who are also training, you don’t want to run into a wall, and you don’t want to hit anyone you aren’t training with at that moment.  I first experienced this type of awareness at judo practice.  During randori (open grappling practice in this case), the mat would be filled with grappling pairs, most standing, and a few on the ground.  I had to be completely focused on what my partner was doing while at the same time being aware of the people around me on the crowded mat.  

At first I had trouble just keeping my attention on my partner. I would drift back into my own mind thinking about what to do and immediately get thrown.  I didn’t have enough awareness to encompass my partner and the rest of the people on the mat.  Fortunately, my partners generally did.  Gradually my ability to focused improved, and then my awareness started to expand.  I learned to be aware of the world around me without taking my attention off of my partner

This is a part of zanshin. You have to maintain your focus on your partner without losing your awareness of the rest of the world.  In solo iai practice, the reasons for this can be made explicit; they adversary may not be finished, or there may be other adversaries still around.  It’s more difficult to model this in paired kata, but the aikido training technique of multiple attacker randori can do a good job of this.  You have to remain aware.  Zanshin.  残心.

This whole line of thought was kicked off by a piece I read in which the author talked about trying to make a list of things to do while she did dusted the dojo.  Since dusting didn’t require her focus or real awareness, she tried to do other things like make to-do lists with her awareness.  One of the long, slow lessons I have taken from studying budo is that whatever I am doing, just do it.  I don’t have enough awareness to spread it out to multiple activities and do any of them well.  The more I practice just doing one thing and being aware of what I am doing, the better I get at it.  

This is a lesson that is not unique to budo, but is fundamental to any of the Ways.  In fact, it’s one that is probably better taught in other Way traditions such as shodo and sado than in budo.  In calligraphy and tea ceremony, the practice of focusing on what your are doing, and only what your are doing, is right out in front.  In budo it’s awfully easy to get tied up in the cool techniques and dealing with an opponent and forget to be focused and aware of what we are doing.  

Zanshin is helpful in just about anything we do, even simple, mundane tasks such as dusting.  I find that the simple tasks get done faster and better when I am mindful of what I am doing.  If I let my mind go flitting wherever it pleases, I miss details of what I’m doing and end of doing a poorer job than I can.  But the other benefit of doing simple tasks mindfully is that I am practicing being mindful and aware of what I am doing.  The more I practice this with simple tasks, the easier it becomes with more difficult, complex tasks (like trying to catch the tsuka of sword while the swordsman is trying to hit me with the sword).  And as I get better at mindful awareness in the dojo, the better I am at applying it throughout the rest of my life.

That’s the thing about training a Way, whether it is budo or sado or shodo or kado or any of the others.  The training is not just about the particular isolated skill of fighting or making tea or writing pretty characters or arranging beautiful flowers.  It’s training for all of life.  In this case, it is training our mind how approach and deal with any task, to be focused and aware of what we are doing, but not so absorbed that we forget the whole world.  We have to remain aware.

Friday, January 18, 2013


A friend of mine was commenting on someone’s metsuke, and how she really wouldn’t want to cross it.  I’ve known a number of teachers like that.  My iai and jo teachers are particularly fierce.  Just their glance is enough to make any sensible person back up and rethink their options.  Their whole being seems to fill their eyes and their gaze.  

But what is “metsuke” 目付? Checking in the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gets you a meaning completely unrelated to the term’s use in budo practice.  There, it is “lower superintendent officer (in the feudal age)”.  Great, a profound budo term has its origins in a bureaucratic title from the feudal age.  Doe this mean it’s really about having a gaze like a low level bureaucrat?  I’m pretty sure that’s not the meaning we’re looking for.
The kanji that make up the term metsuke are and .  is pronounced “may” in this case and is pronounced “tsoo-kay”.   is the kanji for eye, while is the kanji for to attach, to apply (and many other uses).  In this case, it is means something like “sticking eyes to ~” or “attaching your eyes to~”.  That’s what we get from the kanji.  The lesson we can take from this is that reading kanji and trying to understand the meaning without knowing the context won’t give you a useful meaning.

In practice, metsuke is really about what you’re looking at and how you’re doing the looking.  Kendo teachers are fond of the phrase enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, which they use to describe how to fix your gaze in kendo.  The idea here is that when you look at something in the distance, you perceive things close by in your peripheral vision without focusing on them.  This counters the all too natural tendency to stare at your opponents weapon, or just as bad, your intended target.

Where you look is pretty fundamental.  We humans are exceptionally visual creatures, and for anything beyond the grappling range, seeing is our primary means of connecting with our adversary.  We have to connect with the whole of our adversary, not just the tip of their weapon, or our own.  Beginning students have a habit of staring at the part they think is going to hurt them, whether it is a hand, sword, staff or giant peanut butter spreader.  If they think that’s the thing that’s going to hurt them, they stare at it, and forget all about the person it’s connected to.  Do this, and what you are staring at will hurt you, because you won’t be able to respond in time to what your partner is doing to avoid getting hit.
If you’re looking at your partner’s eyes, you’re going to have the same problem, only worse.  Not only can’t you respond to what she is doing in time, but you can easily be led to even further weakness through eye feints and bluffs. If you’re staring at their eyes, you’ll react when they do something besides look back at your eyes.  The worst part is that staring at your partner’s eyes really won’t tell you anything about what they intend to do if they are any good at all. Kiyama Sensei has quite clearly corrected me on this point.  He says develop the strength and look your partner in the eye.

Enzan no metsuke is a good starting point for developing metsuke, but in the koryu budo I study, my teachers have pulled my metsuke in a lot closer than a distant mountain.  My teachers have me looking at a point a little above the bridge of my partners nose.  They are very clear that I am not to be looking in anyone’s eyes.  With this gaze, I can see my partners whole body at most distances, and I can sense intentions from subtle changes and shifts in posture.  I can respond to attacks without taking my gaze away from this point, so that I don’t become locked onto the attacking weapon, leaving me unaware of what’s coming next.  

This is important.  You can start out well but then have your focus stolen by movement or attack.  Even when the attack comes from an angle, you must maintain your focus on your whole partner and not let it slip away to something peripheral.  The video here is a good example.  While the weapon may come from straight ahead, the left or the right, both people maintain their focus on their partner.  The partner is the adversary and real source of danger.  The weapon is a tool and gains all of its direction from the wielder.  If our focus slips off the person wielding the weapon and gets stuck on the weapon we open ourselves up.  If we are following the weapon and we knock it to the side, we will follow the weapon to the side, leaving ourselves wide open to the opponent who is still in front of us.

It takes a tremendous practice, and often not a few bruises, to learn this focus.  Great practitioners have incredible focus.  You can almost feel the weight of their concentration on you when you face them.  This is what my friend was talking about.  I remember the feeling when I was first studying jodo and training with one of seniors, Kohashi Sensei.  Kohashi Sensei is a tiny woman, maybe 4’ 11 inches (148 cm).  She looks like someone’s kindly grandmother, at least until she picks up a weapon and prepares to attack you.  Then you become the focus of her entire being and the world is blocked out by the strength of her focus.  She is really, truly frightening, so much so that her metsuke becomes a weapon of its own.

Kohashi Sensei’s metsuke is exceptional, but all of the experienced budoka I have met have strong metsuke.  The power comes from their well-developed and practiced concentration.  You are the subject of their focus, and that focus is pure.  There is nothing distracting them.  There is no part of their mind that is wandering about wondering what they will have to drink after they have reduced you to a grease spot on the floor.  There isn’t even a part of their mind thinking about reducing you to a grease spot.  They aren’t thinking about their sword, or yours. They are purely focused on you, and you can feel this.  There is no room in them for distraction.

A person with a developed metsuke has a powerfully honed mental focus, and the strength of their gaze is an outer manifestation of this.  The focus and concentration of their gaze is a mirror for the focus and concentration of their mind.  They are seeing you as the only thing in their universe.  A person who has mastered their metsuke can shut out all the distractions around them and maintain focused concentration on just one thing.  As a student of budo, this regularly means that senior teachers are bringing all of this focus and experience to bear on you.

Over time, as you become proficient enough that you stop thinking about which foot goes where, and what is the proper stance for this situation, and you remember to breathe regularly without having to tell yourself to breath, you begin to be able to focus on your teacher.  To me, this is when you really start learning budo, when you can stop focusing on yourself, and start focusing on the conditions you are dealing with, without letting them overwhelm you.  It’s not something that comes full blown.  One day you’ll have it for half a kata, and then from time to time you’ll manage to hold your focus together through an entire kata.

Metsuke, and the underlying mental focus and concentration takes time to develop.  Without it though, you can never really be proficient at any form of budo, even if what you do doesn’t use the term.  I study metsuke everytime I go into the dojo.  I’m looking at what my teachers are doing, and what my juniors are doing, and trying to figure out how to improve my own.   I’ve also noticed that my peers, the people I started with, have improved their metsuke tremendously over the years. I’m still in awe of the focus and intensity of some of my teachers.  

I’m particularly impressed by those who can project this intensity when doing iaido.  With no partner to provide a focal point, and no weapon actually attacking them, they have to generate 100% of the intensity and concentration from within.  This level of focus is something I’ve only recently come to think I am getting a handle on.  When I first started iai it was all I could manage to move my hands and feet at the same time and not stab myself with my own sword.  Now I’ve learned to visualize my adversary well enough to be able to bring some of the focus I have in paired arts to my solo iai practice.

It’s still a work in progress.  It’s very easy to start looking at your own weapon during iai, since it’s the only thing in your field of vision that’s moving.  Keeping focused on the adversary is always difficult, but when she only exists in your mind, it gets really difficult.  Watch people when they do budo, whether it is solo kata, paired kata, or some sort of sparring.  What do they do with their eyes?  Where are they looking?  Are they giving away control by looking at their opponent’s weapon or eyes?  Are they distracted by something else going on in the room?  Do their eyes move in coordination with their body (this is a tough one to describe.  I’ve done whole practices on this).  If they are doing solo kata, can you tell exactly where their adversary is from the way their eyes, body and weapon work together and focus?  If they are working with a partner, does the combination of their focused attention, body and weapon all come together to create a single barrier between them and their adversary.

Those are some points I’m working on for myself, and I always notice when I see video of myself.  I’m never completely satisfied with what I see in my own practice.   Some of them I get fairly consistently and some need a lot of work.  But that’s budo, and maybe a bit of mental metsuke as well.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Budo, the Mental Side

People talk a lot about the physical technique of budo. Budo is obviously a physical art, with techniques designed to handle the very real and serious business of violence.  Depending on the martial art you could be learning striking, throwing, joint locking, or any of the myriad of weapons that are taught in the various martial arts.  Before one can use those techniques in a real way however, development of physical technique must be paired with development of mental technique.  If you mind is not properly prepared and ready, the technique will not be there.  You can’t be thinking too much about what you are doing, and you can’t blank and forget everything either.

Ironically, the mental state that is the goal in classical Japanese martial arts is mushin無心、most often translated as “no mind”.  Better writers and far greater martial artists have written numerous treatises on mushin, so I’ll just say that it is a calm, quiet mind that reflects what is around it without imposing assumptions.  Good practice will help develop this mental quality, but I would say that that mushin is much harder to develop than good technique, and frankly, much more useful.  Violence is a rare occurrence in the industrialized world, but we need our minds all the time.

This is the mental side of what is ostensibly a physical practice.  It’s also the head fake of good training practices.  When we start our training, we are so excited by the physical techniques, and so busy trying to master them, that we hardly notice that we are training our minds at the same time. The mind and the body are really one, so what is happening with one is always reflected in the other.  If we are training and forging our body, we are necessarily also training our mind.  The question, and what sets budo and other michi apart from mere sports, is “Does our training have effects beyond the dojo.”  The answer, certainly, is yes.  Martial artists and other teachers have been talking about this in Japan for hundreds of years.  Yagyu Munenori, Miyamoto Musashi, and Takuan Soho are just a few of the older, and greatest writers on the subject. 

When we train physical technique, whether it is kata or freeform, we strive to master our breathing and to keep our mind quiet and relaxed but as ready as our muscles have to be.  This is often hardly treated in regular practice, hidden within kata that we repeat and repeat until we no longer have to think about the physical movements.  (And if you think your art doesn’t include kata, what do you think those repetitions of structured exercises are?).  As we become more familiar with the movements, we strip away more and more physical input from them.  When we are first learning the motions, we stiffen and tense our whole body, activating muscles that have nothing to do with the motions being practiced.  As we train, we strip more and more of this excess input out of technique, becoming faster, more efficient and effective.  Each time we stop activating unnecessary muscles, we reduce counterproductive activity.  When we activate muscles that aren’t necessary, at best we waste energy and at worst we are actively working against ourselves, weakening the effect of the necessary muscles, causing unbalances in our posture, and ruining our technique.  Is it possible training could help us do that same thing mentally?  That we could learn to deactivate the unnecessary, wasteful parts of our minds?

Practicing recently, I was working on an iai kata that assumes 3 adversaries.  You have to move your attention from adversary to adversary without becoming stuck on any of them.  When I would allow my attention to stick to the middle adversary, the quality of my cuts to the sides became so bad I’m not sure they would raise bruises, much less actually cut.  Your attention has to be fluid, but not scattered.  In this particular kata, the three adversaries are ranged in front of you.  You approach with open attention, aware of all of them without strongly focusing on any one. The first cut and your attention go to the adversary on your right.  The next cut is to the adversary on your left, but while moving your attention from the right to the left, you must allow your focus to strike the adversary in the middle, to make him react to the possibility that you are coming for him and to allow you the chance to react if the middle adversary is able to attack you already. You can’t let your attention stick to him though.  It has to strike him and move on. This has to be accomplished in the time it takes to sweep your sword around to the left so that you can transfer your attention to the adversary there.  If you don’t get your attention moved, you won’t have ki-ken-tai icchi 気剣体 一致, or unified mind, body and sword (I know, I’m taking a liberty translating as mind in this case, but if you have more effective translation, please share it).  If your attention sticks to any of the adversaries, the lack of focus in your mind is immediately reflected in your body.  

On this occasion, that means my cuts fell apart completely.  I swung the sword, but it was a poor imitation of the movement I should have been making.  The mind guides the body, and once my mind was tuned to something besides where it should have been focused, my body’s integration and technique collapsed.  Once the mind was no longer guiding the body, there was nothing to integrate my movement and make it effective.  The speed with which this was reflected from my body as my technique fell apart, back to my mind for the third cut, was amazing.  By the third cut my mind was completely rattled from the poor performance of the second cut and I probably would have been better off not even attempting it.  My mind was busy trying to reorganize my body structure and integration so I could make a good cut, but because it was focused on my body rather than on the project of cutting, my third cut was even less effective than the second. 
The next time through the kata I kept my focus moving.  As I swept the sword from the right to the left I let my gaze slam into the middle adversary but didn’t let it stop there.  When I swung the sword to the left my gaze and my mind were right there with my body and the sword, moving together.  When the cut was done I immediately moved my focus back to the middle adversary and the sword followed.  When I did the cut it was completely on my terms and fully integrated.  It felt great. The trick now is to keep that sort of mind and body integration all the time, not just when I’m swinging a sword.

When I’m training regularly the control of my breathing and the mental stillness that I strive for in the dojo become habits that I automatically reach for and use when I’m out of the dojo. I know that I’m calmer when I’m training regularly.  In the dojo I work to breath and stay calm while people are trying to throw me or to hit me with sticks.  In Judo if I don’t stay calm during randori I get winded quickly and find myself focusing on getting another breath rather than what my partner is trying to do.  In Jodo I have to stay calm and control my breathing or else I find myself trying to take a breath when I should be getting out of the way of someone who is trying to whack me in the head.  This is a fairly stressful environment in which to practice these things, but that’s good.  It means that when you are in a stressful environment outside of practice you’ll be accustomed to dealing with the stress.

The breathing practice and mental stillness that are required for effective budo are great things outside the dojo, just as much as being in good physical condition is.  We spend some time in our society teaching people how to hold their body and we value good physical posture and movement. We spend no time at all teaching people how to relax and control their mind and take effective metal postures. In the dojo, the mental “Do” side of practice is just as important as the physical training.  It may be more important, since we don’t have business chains all over the place offering to develop our mental strength and posture.  Practicing the calm, clear, placid, reflecting mind that is required of any “Do”, martial or otherwise, and that is especially important for effective responses in “Bu”, is also tremendously useful outside the dojo.  It’s wonderful to be able to remain calm and unruffled while everyone around you is losing control.  

When my focus fell apart during the kata, all it took was a breath to relax me and pull my focus and my body back together.  In the grand world outside the dojo, all it takes for me to pull my mind and body together and bring them into a relaxed, unified posture is a breath or two as well.  The most difficult thing sometimes is remembering to take that calming breath.  It’s easy to get lost in the emotion of argument, especially when someone is attacking you.  The longer I train though, the more likely I am to be more disturbed by a disorganized mind/body state than I am by the argument, even if I’m busy trying to defend myself from a verbal attack.  The great side benefit of this is that when someone is verbally attacking you, they want you to be intimidated. They will be looking for the physical cues of intimidation or of defense.  If you take that breath and relax your mind into your body, you become physically relaxed.  Once you are relaxed, you are in control of yourself, and you can choose how to respond.  If you are relaxed in mind and body, you can respond to the situation fluidly without getting stuck on any part of the interaction.  Being relaxed, you have the possibility of being confident in your response because you are choosing it, not just reacting.  You are relaxed and responding as you see fit, rather than being herded by someone who is expecting a tense, off-balance response.  Often this failure to react as expected to their script is all it takes to make a verbal aggressor back off.
This is one of the more extreme day-to-day applications of budo training, but the basic technique is available to a budo practitioner throughout life, whatever she is struggling with..  Tension and lack of focus attack all the time, usually without as clear a source as someone yelling at us.  The more we train, the more quickly and easily we can reintegrate our mind and bodies, relax them, release unnecessary tension and activity from our awareness and move forward to clearly respond to the world as it truly is, rather than as our tension filled minds would like to view it.

This may be the greatest benefit of budo training.  As we learn to relax our minds, we learn to release our preconceptions so we can see the world as it is, rather than as we think it is.  This is the mind like a calm, smooth pond.  It clearly and properly reflects the world around it without distorting anything.  If the pond is disturbed, it moves this way and that distorting the reflection of everything.  As we practice budo, we work to keep our bodies calm so that we can respond accurately and appropriately to anything our partner does.  As we do this, often without being aware of it, we are also training our minds to be calm like that pond so we can respond to anything appropriately without the activity of our own mind distorting our vision or our actions.  The first big step is when we can consciously recognize that we are upset need to relax, and we can choose to take that breath or two that is necessary to restore our calm, placid mind.  The next big step is when we take that breath before we are aware that we need it.  When we start doing that, we may be starting to master a portion of budo.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Value of Bu and Do

I train in budo.  I admit it, I love budo training.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It’s intense in a way that nothing else I do even comes close to.  I could happily spend a lot of time every day training.  Learning attacks and defenses from sword and staff and kusarigama and empty hand, and, and, and, I never seem to get my fill of training and learning.  Budo is great.  In addition, because it’s not a sport you play for amusement, but training in skills that can be applied in the world outside the dojo, I can easily recommend that everyone get some sort of budo training, whether it is their passion or not.  It’s a useful skill set to have.   

But how valuable is that skill set?  The value of “do” 道、is that it is a way of looking at the world, of approaching the world and the way we live in it.  The Taoists and  Buddhists have written quite a lot on the value of “Do” 道、so I want to look at the relative value of “bu” 武。  In a society where physical conflict is rare, and the vast majority of people get through life without any training in budo, just how valuable is the “bu” half of budo?

If you have a job that places you in the line of physical conflict, of course budo training can be useful, but that sort of job is rare.  So, thankfully, are instances that might require physical responses in modern, industrialized societies, particularly when compared with pre-industrial periods.  But we do still have conflicts.  How we handle conflict has clearly gotten more peaceful over the centuries, but we still have conflicts.  And occasionally these conflicts become violent, so there is still a slim chance that someone might have a literal need for the skills learned through budo training.  Outside of a few, specialized professions though, that need is rare.

So for those of us who can’t get enough of budo practice, how valuable is it really to our lives?  What can it contribute?  The easy one is that budo practice can be great physical activity in an era when we spend more time sitting in front of screens than is healthy.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a very compelling reason to do budo, since there are lots of things that can provide physical activity.  Lots of them are much better overall forms of exercise than budo.

That brings us back to budo training for dealing with violence.  Even though violence is relatively rare, there plenty of reasons for training.  I want my daughters to learn effective “bu” even if they don’t ever embrace my love of budo.  I want to protect them by teaching them to protect themselves.  Many of the facets of budo training that are not directly violent can protect them.  They can certainly use the awareness and confidence that comes with budo training to avoid and handle potentially violent situations so they never become violent.

The above logic though forces me to face one aspect of the value of budo’s primary focus of dealing with violence.  Budo is valuable for what it can protect, not for any inherent value that it possesses. I value budo training for my family because I value my family, and not because I value budo.  I want my children to deal with the world from a position of confidence and personal security, and I think budo is one of the best tools to help them achieve that level of confidence and personal security.

And there it is.  Budo is a tool, not an end in itself.  Budo is valuable for what you can build with it and what it can defend.  Budo is not a beautiful house to be lived in.  Budo is the hammer and saw used to build the house.  Budo, like any “Do” 道 is a method for perfecting the practice of some particular activity, and through the proper practice of that activity, for helping to perfect the practitioners.  

“Bu” 武 alone is not much to practice.  In fact, it’s rather gruesome to spend a lot of time week after week studying ways to control, constrict, disarm, disable, cripple and kill your fellow man.  That’s what we do in budo practice.  It’s not beautiful, and if we are training ourselves honestly, we should not flinch from saying it publicly or to the mirror.   If we don’t start with an honest understanding of what we are doing, there is no way we can honestly value it.

I value a lot of things from my budo practice besides the physical conflict skills that are the foundation of the practice.  I value the understanding of physical limitations, both mine and a potential adversary’s, that make it nearly impossible for me to be physically intimidated in an office situation, even though people frequently try.  I admit it, I find it amusing when the office bully tries his tactics on me and gets confused when they utterly fail.

I appreciate the understanding of spacing that allows me to control distances between myself and people who might actually be dangerous.  If I understand the distances involved in violence, I can prevent it from happening by not allowing the spacing to develop that makes violence possible.  That’s a nice one.

Ultimately though, these are all applications of budo lessons using budo as a tool for protecting something else.  So this leads me to the question of what the proper value and place budo training should have in my life.  When I was in college, it filled huge sections of my life.  I spent hours every day at the dojo training.  I built my life around budo.  It was huge fun and I made friendships that still sustain me.  I know now that these friendships are much more important than the budo practice that nurtured them.  The dojo was like fertile ground where the friendships grew.

Budo is a fabulous tool for my life, both the “Bu” and “Do” portions, but it is a tool and I have to be careful to value it as such.  The dojo is a wonderful place for me, and there are few places where I am more comfortable and completely at ease than in a good dojo.  One of the lessons I’ve had to take away is that being comfortable and at ease is not how I want to be all the time though.  I have used the dojo as an escape and release from stress in my life, and it would be easier than I care to admit to hide in the dojo all time.  

That would require sacrificing things that I find valuable for themselves alone.  My family, my friends, the people I love.  These people are what makes budo such a valuable tool.  It’s great value comes from what it can do for them.  I have to remember that when I want to escape to the dojo every night.  When I go a few times a week, my training benefits everyone involved; me, my wife, my children, the rest of my family, my friends.  An appropriate amount of training is good for me physically and mentally.  I get a great, intense physical workout in the dojo.  It’s amazing how much and how fast you can convince yourself to move when someone is trying to throw you, choke you, or hit you with a stick.  I could get that exercise in a gym, but I like the efficiency of getting exercise and honing skills at the same time.

Then there are the mental benefits.  I’m calmer when I’m training regularly.  The breathing practice, and mental stillness that are required for effective budo are great things outside the dojo, just as much as being in good physical condition is.  We spend some time in our society teaching people how to hold their body and we value good physical posture.  While mental training that is part of the “Do” side of practice in the dojo is just as important as the physical training.  It may be more important, since we don’t have business chains all over the place offering to develop our mental strength and posture.  Practicing the calm, clear, placid, reflecting mind that is required of any “Do” and is especially important for effective responses in “Bu” is also wonderfully useful outside the dojo.

I love being in the dojo, and there are few places where I feel as comfortable and completely at ease as I do in the dojo.  I could easily spend my time escaping from all the pressures of life by spending every available minute in the dojo. If I start spending too much time in the dojo, and sacrificing quantity and quality of time with the people I love, I’m showing with my actions that I value budo over the people in my life.  I’m showing that I value the tool more than the relationships with wonderful people that it can help build and protect.  It’s nice to want to spend my time where I feel comfortable, but that excessively values the tool of budo and undervalues the rest of life.

Budo is wonderful.  It’s a part of life that I love.  It’s only a part of life though.  We have to value it appropriately.  If we allow our love of budo to let our practice take over our life and blot out many other difficult but wonderful things that are part of life, our budo is taking a place in our lives it doesn’t deserve.  I’ve seen people over value their practice and they pay the price in all the other aspects of life.  Budo is not life.  It is a tool for life.  It is a little “Do” pointing at the big Tao.  Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.