Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Spirit Of Learning

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.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Student Responsibility

The responsibilities of teachers gets a lot of discussion, but I rarely see anything about the responsibilities of students.  As adult students of the martial arts, what are we responsible for?   Are we as students responsible for something more than showing up, being respectful and doing what is taught in class?  
    Yes, we are. Students’ first responsibilities start the moment they walk into the dojo.  They are responsible for being aware and paying attention to what the dojo is like. What is the atmosphere in the dojo?  How does the teacher treat the students?  Does he treat them with respect and dignity?  Or does he belittle and demean them?  Does he yell at them?  How do the students treat the teacher?  Is he treated with respect, or is he treated like some sort of princeling, with students groveling and debasing themselves before him?   Do the students seem afraid of the teacher?  Does the teacher seem to take advantage of his position?

    Being aware of things like this and checking on them are part of our responsibility even before the we join the dojo and become students..  These are things we should be looking at when evaluating whether or not to become a student somewhere.  When you join a dojo and begin studying, you will learn not just the physical techniques that are being taught, you will also learn from the way people interact with each other.  Do you want to learn how to be disrespected, verbally and possibly physically abused?  Do you want to learn how to stand and absorb yelling?  To learn how to accept being demeaned and belittled?  You are responsible for what you are learning.  If it looks like this is part of what is being taught, your responsible for making the decision to not attend classes where abuse is part of the lesson.

We, as students, are responsible for ourselves.  Teachers and sempai have responsibilities, but the ultimate responsibility for what we learn resides with us.  We have to go in with our eyes open and our minds alert.  This remains true after we’ve found a teacher and school that we feel we can trust.  Students’ responsibilities don’t end just because they found someone they are comfortable learning from, can respect and who offers them respect in return.

I was in the Judo dojo on Tuesday, my first practice after being away for several weeks because I’d been traveling in Japan (practicing other stuff) and then I was sick.  As a student there, I’m responsible for being aware when I’m sick and contagious and not exposing the teacher and my fellow students to whatever crud I’ve got.  I stayed away for a week until I was better.  I wasn’t 100% yet though, and it was my responsibility to be aware of my condition and adjust my training appropriately.   I knew I didn’t have my usual stamina or strength that night.  In one way, this was a great training opportunity for me, because when we did some newaza drills, I had to do them correctly.  I didn’t have the strength or stamina to muscle my way through the practice with weak technique and a lot of muscle.  In the other direction, I had to be aware of my physical limits and know to say “enough” if I got too close to those limits.

Towards the end of the evening we did some newaza randori, and I got through that without getting too winded or worn out.  A little later though, we started some standing randori sets.  When Sensei offered one set to me, I passed on the chance. I could have gotten out there and mixed it up with some of the strong young guys, but I didn’t.  Not because I didn’t want to; I love randori.  There is little in life that has the intensity, immediacy and complete mental and physical involvement of judo randori.  I’m first in line, though, to be responsible for my safety and my training partner’s safety.  I knew that without adequate stamina, I wasn’t physically strong enough to safely work with my partner.  If I can’t count on my own strength, I can’t protect myself or my partner.  Randori is high speed, high intensity, free fighting.  If I get tired and make a mistake because of exhaustion at a critical moment, I can easily get hurt.  I’ve seen it happen to people in the past.  They push themselves too far, and when they need to protect themselves with a good fall or a quick reaction, they are too tired to do the technique properly, and they end up with an injury.  This hurts their partner too.

Every person training should feel some responsibility for their partner’s well being.  I know that I do, and on the couple of occasions my partner has been injured, I have felt horrible that it happened.  Afterward I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I could have done to prevent the injury.   The partner of nearly every person I have seen injured during practice has felt the same way.  We are working together, so part of my responsibility is to see that you don’t get hurt.  The few times I have run into people who truly don’t care about their partners, I’ve stopped working with them.  The only time I ever saw my first judo teacher truly furious was when a guy was condescending and uncaring towards a partner’s well-being.  That guy didn’t stick around very long.  One of the fundamental principles of Kodokan Judo is “Jita Kyoei” 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare.”  If someone can’t be bothered to concern themselves with his partner’s well-being, I don’t want them training with me or anyone I care about.  My teacher at the time felt the same way, and let this guy know it.  The guy couldn’t be bothered to care, and ended up leaving instead.  

We train together and we have to take care of each other.  If for any reason you aren’t certain you can train safely, it’s your responsibility to stop.  Any responsible teacher will respect that decision.  

Students are responsible for the dojo. Yes, the teacher leads.  We often say that it is “Sensei’s dojo,” but without students, there is no dojo; there’s just a guy in the corner practicing by himself.  In any good dojo I’ve been in, whether in Japan or the United States or Europe, the students have taken a lot of responsibility for the dojo. It’s their place and their practice as much as the teacher’s.  As a student,  before and after practice I run to make sure I get to a broom Sensei does.  We make sure the dojo is a safe, clean place to train.  This means a few minutes of care before and after practice, and keeping an eye out for things that could go wrong during practice.  Everyone is responsible for making sure there is nothing out of place in the dojo.  A belt or a bokken in the wrong place can trip someone doing paired practice and have all sorts of unhappy consequences.  We students are responsible for keeping an eye open for things out of place.

I also help make sure new people in the dojo understand the etiquette and expectations of our dojo.  As part of the dojo, as a member of the dojo, I’m partly responsible for the atmosphere in the dojo.  I’m one of the people whose job it is to make sure people don’t do anything that could be dangerous. Nearly every time I’ve had to say something to someone, they’ve apologized and thanked me for telling them they were doing something potentially dangerous.  People, including me, don’t always realize we’re about to be in the way.  A polite, respectful word of safety is part of everyone’s responsibility.

We students are responsible for our training, for what we learn and for how well we learn.  This is a tough one, and comes back around to the first part.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and the group we will train with.  We remain responsible for our training every second after that as well.  As my high school English teacher used to say “I can lay out the banquet for you, but I can’t force you to eat it.”  She was talking about the beauty and wonder of English literature, but it’s just the same with budo.  

My teachers have all sorts of wonderful things to offer me.  It’s up to me to study what they offer, practice it, and internalize the lessons so they are a part of me.   The first thing this means is that practice doesn’t end when class does.  It is my responsibility to think about, study and practice the lessons outside of class.  Even in Judo, which is all about working with a partner, there are plenty of things for me to practice and study outside class.  I can work on individual movements.  I can read books about applying techniques and about the principles of Judo.  Today, unlike the dark ages when I started training, there are millions of videos of good martial arts available for free, 24 hours-a-day on Youtube.  For any popular martial art, and a surprising number of very small ones, the biggest problem a student has who wants to study something on video is wading through the bad budo videos to find the good ones.  There are plenty of great videos of Judo, Karate, Aikido, Iaido, Jodo, Kendo, Jujutsu, and nearly any other art you’re interested in.  If obscure koryu budo is your thing, you’re still in luck.  Go check out Gudkarma’s Youtube channel and you’ll find stuff on obscure arts you didn’t know existed.

There are plenty of books on budo out there too.  There is a lot of really bad misinformation around, but it’s still our responsibility to educate ourselves about our art.  If Sensei recommends a book, that’s a clear sign that we should read it.  The book might help us put things that we do in class in perspective.  It might teach us something of the history of our art or maybe help us figure out techniques on our own.  Sensei can’t do it for us.  We have have to read the book and find out.  It’s also our responsibility to read more than just the stuff our teachers recommend.  There are lots of good books out there.  If you’re not sure, ask Sensei and other students.  They might even be able to loan you a few books.  I know my wife would be thrilled to have me loan out two or three hundred books and not be able to get them back.  Read.  Learn.  Get some additional perspective on your training.  Additional perspective and information will help you ask better questions during class.  

As a student, it’s my responsibility to learn.  Sensei teaches stuff; he puts it out there, but I have to learn what he’s offering.  I have to go home and practice.  I have to work at what I’m studying.  If I go to class and I haven’t practiced during the week, Sensei can see that.  It’s my responsibility.  If this is important enough for me to show up to class regularly, it’s important enough for me to take some time and practice at home.  Whether using the sword or the jo or tying a belt to a post so you can practice throws or whatever point that needs work, it’s the student’s responsibility to work on it.  My big thing right now is engaging my koshi.  Kiyama Sensei says I’m not using my koshi as effectively as I should be at my level.  So that’s what I’m working on.  I know I look silly when I’m practicing, because it’s just me slowly moving across the basement focusing on keeping my koshi under my shoulders.  Sometimes I’m doing it from my knees.  Sometimes I’m standing up.  This is what I work on.  Sensei fulfilled his responsibility.  He identified my biggest weakness for me and told me what I need to do.  After that, all of the responsibility is mine.

If my problem is a lack of stamina or upper body strength, you’ll see me in a gym working on that.  I mention those, because they have both been issues for me in the past.  If a student recognizes a weakness, her job is to start correcting it.  Sometimes a teacher or senior student will alert us to a point that needs special attention.  Sometimes we can identify those on our own.  Either way, our responsibility is to give those points attention and make the improvements ourselves.  That way, when we go to class, Sensei can teach us something new instead of repeating herself for the 900th time.  

Our training is our responsibility, not our teachers’.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and fellow students wisely.  Once we’ve done that though, our responsibility doesn’t end.  We are still responsible for the dojo, the safety of ourselves and our fellow students, and what we learn.  That means that we help in the dojo, we watch out for each other, and when class is over, we go home and work on our weak points.  We don’t stop learning because someone said “Class is over.  Have a good night.”  That’s when the real learning begins.  Don’t abandon your responsibility for yourself and your learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Way Of The Sword

Here's a beautiful short video about Japanese sword arts, practice and the mind you want.  It's about Shozo Kato Sensei, 8th Dan Kendo, 7th Dan Iaido.  The cinematography is lovely, the budo is excellent and the ideas fundamental to practice.

Shozo Kato - Way of the Sword from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rory Miller on Training Costs and Why You Should Train

I love Rory Miller's stuff, and recommend to everyone without reservation.  He is pretty much the complete artist.  He has a judo background, does some wonderful koryu budo, 17 years in corrections work, plus lots of other stuff.  I get something out of everything he writes.  And this time he wrote something that I agree with a lot.  A while back, I wrote a blog asking "Is Martial Arts Training For Self-Defense A Good Idea?"  Now Rory Miller has taken a crack at the subject, and I love the way he answers the question.  His post is on his Chiron Training blog, and is just titled "For Love"   Go read it. And then read some of his other stuff.  It's all worthwhile.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Laughter And Joy In The Dojo

                Budo practice is intense and serious business.  After all, we are practicing techniques for hurting and killing each other.  There aren’t many things that serious.  Practice is filled with opportunities for accidents where people get bashed with sticks, their arms broken from an overzealous joint lock, seriously injured or even killed by a poorly executed throw.

               The vision of grim,dour martial artists facing off with wooden swords, giant naginata and whipping kusari makes a lot of sense.  Pure focus on your training partner so you can understand her movement, and make sure you are not where the strike lands is important.  When someone is earnestly trying to hit you with a very large piece of wood, cracking a joke probably isn’t a good idea.  

               The only problem with this image is that it’s false.  Koryu budo dojo can be filled with laughter.  A couple of weeks ago I was at a big budo gasshuku, and we were working on some fairly advanced kata.  Some people had quite a bit of experience with the kata and others among us were learning them for the first time.  We were all working out details in the kata.

               This is not to say there are any huge surprises in the kata.  They still use all the same principles and techniques everyone in the group has been studying for years and decades.   The advanced part is the subtle interplay between the partners for control of the timing and spacing.  You’d expect every brow to be scrunched into furrows with the effort of concentrating on these subtle applications.

               Sometimes you’d even be right about that.  As the teachers demonstrated various points, everyone was silent and focused.  Then we’d pair up and start working through the kata, slowly at first, and gradually picking up speed as we felt more confident in the basic patterns.  That’s when the laughter started to break out.  People would be working through the kata and some bit would go sliding out of control just as the teachers had warned.  Our best efforts would result in slips and misses and we began laughing at ourselves.  We would take turns trying to do what the teachers were patiently showing for the umpteenth time, and as the kata again slipped out our control, we would begin laughing, and the teachers would be laughing along with us.

               When we are exploring something, trying to push our understanding of things, even in something as lethally serious as koryu budo, we are playing with the techniques and the principles and the timing and the spacing.  Whenever we blow the maai or the timing, especially when practicing with someone much more accomplished, that’s when the laughter and smiles will break out.  If I blow the spacing, instead of attacking the teacher with my sword, I am likely to find the tip of his sword just past the end of my nose, and a few feet behind that, a huge grin on his face.

               We’re working on figuring these things out.  There is plenty of room for playfulness in those moments.   As we try different ideas and approaches, working to grasp the points being taught, most of our ideas will fall short and it’s easy to laugh at our own attempts.  This is particularly true when an idea’s weakness becomes apparent part way through the execution and we can see why it won’t work, but it’s too late to stop.  You know you are about to blow it, and there is nothing you can do except laugh at the results as your position collapses.

               The smiles when we figure something out are big and gleaming too.  The kusarigama has bedeviled me for years, and honestly, I think it will keep bedeviling me for years to come. For all that, when I finally made a couple of mental and physical connections recently, I was laughing with joy, and my teachers were smiling along with me.  They were thrilled I’d finally gotten at least a little of what they have been patiently trying to get through my thick skull.  It was moment of happy celebration for all of us.  And then we dove back into practice and I promptly whacked myself in the face with the leather ball we use in place of an iron fundo on the end of the chain.  This time I smiled and my teachers laughed.  Not too hard though, because it seems to be a common hazard of learning to handle the kusarigama in our style. A little gentle laughter though takes some of the sting out hitting yourself in the face.

    Koryu budo is serious.  That doesn’t mean that practice has to be serious all the time.  Any good dojo, filled with solid, mature students and confident, experienced teachers, will also be as full of smiles and laughter as it is with with quite concentration and focused practice.  In fact, if you don’t see frequent smiles, and hear occasional laughter, I would be worried about the quality of the dojo.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Budo Teacher - Student Relationship

I write a lot about my teachers, how important they are to me, what they teach me and our relationship.  With a few exceptions though, you don’t see me using their names.  I wrote about a big Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku recently, and never said who was teaching it.  I don’t usually publish my teachers’ full names either.   That makes it difficult to check and see if I really do some of these things or if I’m just blowing smoke.

In the budo I practice, the teacher-student relationship is very strong, very important and central to the nature of the budo..  The classical ideal for relationships in Japan is that of the parent and child, and many aspects of the budo teacher and student relationship resemble that.  The teacher is ultimately responsible for what the student does and says in public, just as a parent is responsible for what a child does and says, and the student is expected to look to the teacher for direction and to support the teacher publically, even when there are differences of opinion.  This is quite different from the way teacher-student relationships work in the USA, where I grew up and did my initial budo training.
Everything I say and do will be seen in classical budo circles as a reflection on my teachers. If I’m behaving badly or making ignorant or foolish comments, people in the budo world will complain to them and ask about the kinds of things they are teaching me.  It’s my responsibility to be a good representative of my teachers, and to do nothing that might embarrass them or cause them problems.  If I say something, it will be seen as being authorized and approved by my teacher.  My teachers will be held responsible for cleaning up any messes that I make.  The classical budo world in Japan is small, and you’re almost never more than a couple of degrees away from someone. 

My teachers each took a risk in accepting me as their student, but they didn’t do it lightly or quickly.   No one makes you sit for weeks by the temple gate in a typhoon before they accept you as a student, but you don’t become someone’s student just by signing the roster and paying your monthly dues.  Wayne Muromoto has a nice story about people who go to a teacher but don’t get taught the real thing.  These people aren’t real students, the teacher doesn’t trust them, doesn’t teach them genuine art, and takes no responsibility for what they do when the leave.

When I came to Japan, I joined a great local Judo dojo, paid my monthly dues and went to every practice I could.  I wasn’t a student though. I was guest.  I wasn’t a student until I had been there at least a year.  After that first year I started getting invited to dojo social events and trips, and most notable for me, my name appeared on the dojo member board.  The teachers were taking public responsibility for me.  At that moment my status went from being another guy who trains there, to Yoshikawa Sensei’s student.  Up until then, if I did something stupid in practice or at a tournament, well, I was just a guy who was passing though.  After that, I was Sensei’s student and if I did something wrong, I wouldn’t be told directly.  Sensei would get chewed out for not having taught me properly and he would be responsible for the consequences of my actions.  I would only hear about whatever pain and embarrassment I had caused after Sensei had started cleaning up the mess. 

If things work this way in a gendai budo like Judo, they are even more intensely personal in a koryu bugei.  Koryu bugei are not openly taught public entities like Judo or Aikido or Kendo.  They are more like family treasures shared with just family and close friends whom you deeply trust.  It takes a long time to really earn that, and it’s not always an easy relationship.  The responsibilities and expectations can be quite high.  I have on occasion made mistakes which my teachers have taken me to task for, whether it is something simple like doing a poor job during a demonstration (I now hate and fear youtube.  Any mistake I make in public will be preserved and broadcast for eternity!) or something more serious such as how or what I am teaching.  I learned early on to be really careful about public behavior so I don’t embarrass them.  They worked really hard to teach me the ins and outs of navigating the budo world so I won’t embarrass them or anyone, myself included.

I first entered the koryu budo world by invitation of a sword smith, an artist of the first rank.  Knowing Nakagawa Sensei lead me to my first iaido teacher, who introduced me to others, where I encountered a Shinto Muso Ryu student who introduced me to her teacher who introduced me to his teacher, who accepted me as his student and who introduced me to his teacher who graciously welcomes me into his dojo as a student of his student.    There were a lot of introductions along that path, and many people who stood to suffer if I didn’t behave well and respectably.  Now that I have been accepted as a student, everything I do reflects directly back on my teachers.

The responsibility isn’t just a one-way street though.  As I said, if I make a mistake or cause a problem, I may not hear about it until after Sensei has started cleaning up the mess.  If I’m responsible for being a good representative of my teacher, he is responsible for teaching me well and taking responsibility for any problems I may cause.  The closer the student-teacher relationship, the bigger the responsibility this becomes.  Initially this responsibility is only within the budo world, but it can grow to include all sorts of aspects of life outside the budo world.  Teachers have been known to help people find jobs and arrange marriages and secure loans.  Teachers accept a lot of responsibility when they accept a student.

Just as the teacher accepts responsibility for the student, the student accepts responsibility for the teacher.  Teachers are not ultimate paragons of humanity.  They have been known to drink too much, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and engage in feuds, just like everyone else.  Once you have passed beyond that probationary period and are really someone’s student, that’s all your responsibility too.  If Sensei drinks too much somewhere and makes a mess, it’s his students who make sure he gets home OK and clean up after him.  If Sensei has a fight or a feud with someone, you are automatically included on Sensei’s side.

The web of relationships and responsibilities extend far beyond just the teacher and student involved in the core relationship and can have wide ranging impacts.  It’s no wonder teachers take a long time before they consider a student to really be “theirs.”  Students should really be spending that probationary period looking very closely at the person they are considering studying with as well, because the responsibility is a two way street, and just as the student’s public behavior reflects on the teacher, the student is judged by who their teacher is.

All of this is to say that, for the most part, I don’t freely publish my teacher’s names and contacts.  I have friends whose names have been used without their permission to gain access to their teachers, and I want to protect my teachers from people like that.  A fraud will eventually be discovered and treated appropriately, but it’s my responsibility to make sure my teachers don’t have to deal with one to begin with.  So if I don’t go putting my teachers’ names out there, please forgive me. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Budo Training Is Exhilarating!

Budo practice is exhilarating.  I’ve been searching for the right word to describe how I feel about practice and how it makes me feel for years.  Obviously I’m kind of slow if I’m just now figuring this out, but hey, after more than 25 years of exhilarating budo practice being thrown around, choked unconscious and beaten with sticks, maybe there’s a reason it’s taken me so long to figure it out.

People always ask if budo is fun, as if it is a game or a sport.  Some bits of it are fun, but they are an awfully small portion of my budo practice.  It’s difficult to call long practice sessions trying to master the proper swing of a sword, or the best way to unbalance someone, or the proper technique for sweeping someone’s weapon out of the way “fun.”  They are challenging and intriguing and full of learning, but fun is not the word to describe them.  That feeling when the sword flashes through the air and feels like it is doing the cutting itself and you’re just along for the ride?  Exhilarating.  The moment when you touch someone so their balance vanishes and they don’t even know you’ve done it and the throw happens as if they had jumped for you?  Exhilarating.  When you get the sweep just right and your partner’s weapon effortlessly whips around and behind them and maybe right out of their fingers?  Definitely exhilarating.

Even when I don’t make those great leaps in understanding or technical ability though, budo is exhilarating.  The focus it requires and teaches is wonderful.  Getting every part of my body and mind to act as one, coordinated whole just feels fantastically exhilarating.  Iai is certainly one of the least exciting forms of budo to watch.  When done properly it is every bit as intense as any of the paired practice forms such as kenjutsu or jujutsu.  Everything comes together and drives forward with an intensity and force that blocks out the rest of the world and leaves me panting with exhaustion in minutes.   The ability to focus like that on something, even for a short while, is an amazing feeling.    It’s certainly not fun, and it’s definitely not relaxing, although it does seem to drive the tension and stress out of my body and mind.  It’s exhilarating.

Then there is paired practice like kenjutsu or jodo or any of the other delightful weapons we train with.  You and a partner are actively trying to bash each other with big sticks, and getting hit is a real possibility if either of you makes a mistake.  There’s just no way to call this “fun.”  What it is, is fabulously focusing and energizing.  The rest of the world vanishes as you focus on your partner’s intent and your own.  There is no room for your mind to hold onto anything else.  If you try to, you’re going home with big, beautiful bruises.  All you have room for is the awareness or your partner, her weapon, the range at which that weapon is dangerous and where yours is, and how she is moving.  She attacks filled with the intent of smashing you into the ground and yet your movement is just enough to avoid being struck while your counterattack steals her space and leaves her dangerously off-balance and unable to move, all in a single heartbeat of action.  Absolutely exhilarating.

The free practices, known as randori in judo and aikido (though they are quite different) and ji-geiko in kendo, are deeply intense, energetic, powerful practices with you and your partner both giving everything to the training, whether you are focusing on developing and refining specific techniques in an unstructured situation, or going at it full-on to dominate and master your partner.  It’s not “fun” in any sense of the word that I’m familiar with, but it is wonderful.  Often it’s quite uncomfortable, especially when then bruises are tender.  Still, the feeling, from the moment someone says “Hajime!” until well after the randori has ended, is one of exhilaration.  I’m out there working with my whole body, and trust me, when those small muscles all over your body ache they next day you know you were using the whole thing.  You’re also using your whole mind trying to figure out the puzzle your partner is offering you.  Some days you figure out the puzzle in front of you, and some days you are the puzzle that is being figured out.  Either way though, it’s exhilarating.  When I take a really big fall, thrown by that 275 lb (125 kg) guy who sends me flying half way across the dojo and then lands on me, and I get up without any pain or problem because the ukemi was good, it is exhilarating knowing I can survive something like that.  It’s even more exhilarating than when I throw him, although that is a different kind of exhilaration, the exhilaration of achieving something I really wasn’t sure I could do.  When it’s all over and someone yells “Yame!” and we all bow and thank each other, the feeling of exhilaration continues.  It lasts out the door, all the way home and often well into the next day.  That feeling of doing things that are truly difficult, both throwing and being thrown, succeeding and failing, is exhilarating.  

               Budo is not fun.  Fun is too small a word for what I feel when I train.  Fun is a game of euchre at lunch, watching a baseball game with friends.  Fun is pick-up basketball or a tea party with your kids.  These are worth doing.  They are fun.  But they aren’t exhilarating.  They don’t leave your body and mind flushed with the intensity of focusing completely on one thing and directing all your energy to one target.  They don’t leave you exhausted, wrung out and relaxed from the work of gathering all your energy into one focused mass and throwing it at your target through the budo.

That’s the feeling I get from budo practice, exhilaration.  At the end of practice I’m wrung out and exhausted, with my brain dribbling out my ears from the effort to do everything well, to analyze what I’m doing to and try to improve it a smidge every time I do it.  How else can you describe the feeling of someone genuinely trying to beat you with a stick while you block and dodge and control his attacks without getting hit?  The feeling of getting that 275 lbs guy up in the air and flying, or the joy when someone makes you fly and go slamming into the ground and it doesn’t hurt is just amazing.  It’s exhilarating.  Now I know what to say to all those people who ask if budo is fun.  I tell them “No, it’s exhilarating.”