We study martial arts. That should mean we’re here to learn. How we approach learning, the attitude we carry with us in the dojo is critical to what we learn. Sadly, all too often when we get advice the thought barging through our heads is not “Thank you. I will work on that.” Instead we’re thinking “I know that. Don’t bother me with stuff I already know.”
It’s easy for me to write that we should always receive advice with gratitude, but what does that really mean? It seems pretty obvious we should appreciate and be grateful whenever someone helps us. That’s a lot harder to do than it is to write. So often people, especially peers, or people who think they are our peers, will give us advice that seems pretty worthless.
Advice and instruction can be broken down into 3 categories. The first, and best of course, comes from our teachers. They are giving us advice from their deep experience and knowledge. This is usually easy to receive with gratitude and an open mind. After all, we go to our teachers for instruction on how to do the techniques right, so whenever they share their knowledge and experience, we are happy to receive it. Except sometimes.
Sometimes teachers are telling us something we already know. Do we really know this stuff though? If we really knew it, would our teachers feel the need to tell us again? For me, the most common direction I get is to relax. After nearly 30 years in the dojo, you might think I know I should be relaxed and that my shoulders shouldn’t be pulled up tight next to my ears. In one, limited, sense I do know this, and it’s the correction I most often make with my own students. In a deeper sense though, I don’t know it. If and when I truly know how to maintain a relaxed state, it will manifest itself in my movement all the time. Kiyama Sensei won’t feel the need to remind me because I won’t be tensing my shoulders and tugging them towards my ears.
Another direction I get frequently from Sensei is to use my hips better. Well, what he actually says is “Koshi ha yowai.” “Your hips are weak.” Sensei has been telling me this for years. I’m working on it. I have made major improvements. I can see it in video of me training in years past compared with now. Sensei still pushes this. It’s something I know quite well. Sensei reminds me often though. Should I feel annoyed with him for always harping on this one thing? Should I be frustrated and resentful that he never lets me forget this?
Annoyance and frustration aren’t a part of this. Koshi 腰 (really the whole region of the lower back and hips) are fundamental to everything we do in budo. They are what ties together the foundation provided by our feet and legs with the floating mass of our upper body and head. If this connection isn’t solid, my balance with be weak and I won’t be able to transfer the power of my legs to my upper body. It’s absolutely critical. I’ve made a huge amount of progress in this area, so why does Sensei keep coming back to it? I’m working on it after all. Then I watch guys like this, and wonder why Sensei doesn’t spend more time pushing on this point.
I approach anything Sensei has to say with gratitude and a desire to figure out how to apply what he is telling me. Sometimes this is pretty tough. I don’t always make the connections immediately, so I spend a lot of time wandering around trying to figure out what I’m missing. I learn a lot this way. It makes me think about things from different perspectives trying to understand what Sensei is getting at, and why it’s important at that moment.
It’s tougher to take the same advice from someone of equal or lesser skill. Having one of my training buddies tell me to relax or to use my koshi could really annoy me. Sometimes this annoyed me badly enough that I got busy being annoyed and I completely lost the point of my training that day. These guys have no right to be telling me what I need to work on! Especially someone who’s only been training that long!
Then one day a thought walked over and smacked me in the temple. If someone with that little experience can see how much I need to improve something, maybe I should be paying attention to it. It really doesn’t matter how skilled they are. I can take what they say with openness and appreciation and gratitude. If they can see it, then there may be a very obvious weakness that I need to work on. The one thing I am 100% sure about my budo is that it’s not perfect.
I also understand that not all advice offered by juniors is good. Sometimes I have to explore it. I’ll ask “What do you mean?” or “Why do you see that as a problem?” Then we can talk and explore their concern together, and if it’s a valid point, I’ve got another item to add to my already long list of things to fix, or they learn why their understanding may not be as strong as they thought. Either way, we learn something.
If we are honest with ourselves, our budo becomes a search for improvement and not an ego building exercise related to how much more we know than someone else. I’ve reached the point where I’ll take help improving myself from anywhere I can get it. I’m a slow learner, so if I’m going to accomplish much of anything before I die, I’ve got to take all the help and assistance I can get. Even if it’s from my own students.
Recently, I’ve started doing something new.. I ask my students to sit down. Then I demonstrate something. Their job is not to look at it and think about how they can emulate what their teacher is doing. Their job is to look at what a fellow traveler on the budo path is doing, and help him. I ask them to tell me about anything they see that I should correct. It’s a lot of fun and we all learn something from it. The more senior students are quite capable of telling me in detail about a lot of things I should work on. Often these are the same points I’ve just finished bringing to their attention in their own practice. At first it’s embarrassing to have a student call you out for the same problem you were helping them with 15 minutes before. I had to work at not being embarrassed by this and just accepting their help. If I’ve just pointed something out to them, they are hyper-aware of it, so if I’m off by one degree they see it.
After a few run throughs though, I’ve gotten past most of my ego issues (if I ever transcend them all, you’re invited to my investiture as a living Buddha). At first my goal was to take advantage of my senior student’s ability and knowledge to help improve my practice. Now I’ve begun to see some other benefits. All my students gain from this. They really focus on trying to see more clearly in my practice what I have been asking them to do in theirs. Even the beginning students begin to see better because they are looking for things at higher levels and advancing their understanding based on what other students are saying and what I am doing.
Once I fold up my ego, put it in a bag, stomp it thoroughly flat, and kick it to the back of the closet, we all win. I get progressively better and more subtle critique from my own students. In turn, they become more discriminating about their own practice. They begin to understand what they are trying to achieve, and they can see where they want to go. Then we can work together to get there. We all advance.
That’s the spirit of learning that I love to see in the dojo. We are all there trying to improve. Ultimately, there is no perfect in budo. There is only progress. Once I put aside my ego, I know I can learn from everyone. Now I’m teaching my students how to critique me so I can improve at the same time they are learning to see with clearer understanding what some of the goals of practice are. Enter the dojo in the spirit of learning, and you can learn from anyone, not just they people you address as “Sensei.”