Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Efficiency, It's Not Just For Judo

Kano Jigoro realized that efficiency of movement is one of the highest principles. He enshrined his insight in this maxim of Kodokan Judo, “seiryoku zen’you”  精力善用, most often translated as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” Seiryoku zen’you is probably better translated as “best use of energy” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” This is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s technical curriculum, just as jita kyoei 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare” is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s moral and ethical principles.

The principle that Kano Shihan so succinctly clarified in just four kanji characters has always been a critical part of martial arts.  Kano’s genius lay in clearly elucidating that principle and building his entire system around it. Even though it took until the 1880’s for the principle to be made explicit and public, it has always been essential in weeding out techniques and practices in the martial arts. Anything that doesn’t contribute to success in conflict will eventually be eliminated because those who rely on it will lose.

Making the “best use of energy” seems like an obvious good idea, but things like this often seem obvious in hindsight. Even if the idea wasn’t explicit, it has always been implicit within the martial arts. The universe is ruthless, and during the long centuries of civil war in Japan leading up to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa Period, anything that wasn’t efficient for teaching, learning, practicing or applying the martial arts was culled simply because anything that wasn’t efficient would get its proponents killed.

Look at pretty much any koryu budo. They aren’t filled with endless lists of techniques. They have a few techniques that are polished like treasured gems, and then are practiced in a variety of kata so students learn the real foundations of the art and how to apply them spontaneously. Effective budo has to be efficient. 

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That’s the secret reason why koryu budo generally don’t have extensive curriculums with endless lists of techniques. It’s not efficient. Instead, a basic principle or two are embodied in the fundamental technique of the system which are then explored through a limited set of kata result in that teaching the plasticity of the main principles.

Sword systems are often based around one fundamental cut, with the entire system expanding on that. Sasamori Takemi talks about the kiri otoshi of Ono-Ha Itto Ryu. Kashima Shinryu kenjutsu is built around the a fundamental cut practiced in the Kihon-tachi. Arts that teach other weapons are similar. Shinto Muso Ryu calls its fundamental jo technique hon te uchi, or “fundamental hand strike.” Judo has a large syllabus by comparison, with five basic principles for throwing expanded into the  Gokyo, or “Five Teachings.”  Aikido also breaks up it’s main principles into 5 techniques, called ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo, or “teaching 1, teaching 2, teaching 3, teaching 4, teaching 5.”  In both judo and aikido, there are numerous expressions of the five teachings, but they all start from the same fundamental principles.

It makes sense when you consider it. Which is going to work better under stress, one technique that you can apply to a thousand situations, or a thousand techniques each of which is good for only one situation?  

Efficiency shows itself in myriad ways. Learning one technique well takes less time than learning one thousand techniques to mediocre level. This why in Olympic judo, the competitors don’t spend their time trying to master all the throwing techniques of Kodokan Judo. They focus on two or three techniques and develop their understanding of the techniques and their principles so they can apply them in any situation.

Within those fundamental techniques is another level of efficiency. Techniques have to work with as little effort as possible. This is true of any effective martial art. Efficiency of energy is a key component of effectiveness. If a technique requires a lot of raw strength to perform, it will be useless when you run into someone bigger or stronger. The more efficiently the principle uses your strength, the greater the situations you can deploy it in. I was in Japan recently practicing with one of the shihan from Shinto Muso Ryu, and he kicked my butt over this. I was doing kuri tsuke ( a technique for catching a sword attack and binding the sword to the attacker’s body) and it was working, but Sensei pointed out that I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. He resisted my technique and I was able to muscle through his resistance. He then showed me how to do the technique with minimal modification so that I didn’t have to dig in to muscle past his resistance. If I got the angles right, I left him without a stable platform from which to resist.  I had learned a more efficient way to perform the technique.

He didn’t use the word, but the term that floated through my head was from Kodokan Judo. Kuzushi”  崩し. Don’t attack strength to strength. Maneuver your adversary to a position where they cannot apply their strength and attack there. In other words, attack where your opponent’s strength is minimized and your own is maximized. Seiryoku zen’yo in action.

Our strength is limited. I might be able to muscle through Sensei’s resistance because I’m a lot bigger than he is. I know plenty of people who are bigger than I am though, and there is no way I could muscle through them. But, If I do the technique efficiently, strength is no longer a concern. The efficient technique is the effective technique. This is true no matter what you’re doing.

Here are a couple of videos that have been floating around the web. One shows a little girl screaming and flailing around with a sword with great effort. The other shows a little girl cutting with no effort at all.  Efficiency gets the most out of the energy being expended. Which one better embodies seiryoku zen’yo?


Flailing little girl

Efficient and effective little girl

Efficiency is a critical component of any martial art. Just because Kano Jigoro enshrined seiryoku zen’yo as a maxim of Kodokan Judo doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in other arts or that you can ignore if you don’t do Kodokan Judo. Making the best use of your energy is always a good idea.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Budo As An Everyday Activity

Budo practice is special. We set aside particular times for practice. We have special rooms and buildings dedicated to our practice. We have special clothes that we only wear when we are practicing. There are particular rituals to perform when entering the space and when leaving, as well as at the beginning and end of practice. We make budo practice into something special and separate from our everyday lives. The problem with this is that budo should actually be part of our everyday life.

Budo practice isn’t something that sits outside our regular lives. It’s a part of who and what we are. The things we work on during keiko are supposed to change us and how we live. If we go about building barriers to keep our practice separate from our regular lives, how is it going to help us change and move towards the person we want to become?

Budo is a Way, a michi 道. It’s a path we travel.  We start out trying to master the techniques and kata, but in a short while we discover that before we master the techniques and kata, we have to begin mastering ourselves. In order to master ourselves, we have to take what we are doing beyond the dojo 道場 and out into the everyday world.

When I started judo, it didn’t take very long before bits and pieces of my training in the dojo began to leak out into the rest of my life. At first it was trying to fix my posture and get rid of the slouch I’d acquired as a teenager. Then I began to modify the way I walked and moved. It was gratifying when people commented that I was standing straighter or moving better.

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No matter which budo ryuha, or school, you study, I’m sure your teacher would be sad and disappointed if the only time you do it is during formal practice. Like any of the non-martial ways in Japan, these are supposed to cultivate the whole person, not just teach a few discrete techniques and forms. Sado 茶道, better known outside Japan as “tea ceremony” isn’t just about learning an archaic method for preparing and serving tea. It is supposed to teach good movement, as well as train and refine the mind and spirit of the practitioner.

In that way, the various budo ryuha are no different from sado, or any of the other ways practiced in Japan.  Their practice is supposed to transform and refine the body and mind of the student. That’s why we expect senior teachers and exponents to be wise and understanding.  They are supposed to have learned this wisdom and gained their understanding through diligent practice of the art. Each koryu ryuha, each system of modern budo, has different lessons that students are expected to learn.
As a young judoka, I spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out what seiryoku zen’yo 精力善用 and jita kyoei 自他共栄 meant and what I was supposed to do to achieve them. Seiryoku zen’yo and jita kyoei aren’t all deep mystery. Some aspects of them are remarkably simple and easy to manifest.  Seiryoku zen’yo means roughly “best use of energy” while jita kyoei is usefully translated as “mutual benefit and welfare”. “Best use of energy” starts with not wasting my effort on doing things the hard way. That was a place even I could start at. I’m still working at not wasting my energy on foolish projects and ideas. “Mutual benefit and welfare” I think I’ve done a little better at, even though it was harder to grasp initially. How do I go through life doing things that are always good for the people around me as well as for myself? I like to think that I’ve become a kinder, more considerate person throughout my life, and not just in the dojo with my training partners.

Just as I’ve worked to make these principles of judo part of my everyday life outside the dojo, so I work on the principles of all the arts I practice. Budo isn’t something special and separate. Many aspects of budo are as mundane as can be. I’m still practicing my breathing and walking. I don’t know how much more mundane a practice can get. I work at breathing correctly, from my abdomen, rather than from my chest and shoulders. I find that a lot easier to be good about than some parts of sitting, standing and walking. Not slouching my shoulders and not sticking my chin out don’t come easily to me. For some reason, I feel like I want to slouch and stick my chin out. I know that moving is more difficult when I do, and that it puts unnecessary stress and strain on my body, but a dozen times I day I discover that I’m slouching with my chin stuck out. Again.

The physical parts of budo easily become everyday training points. I’m always working on them. But the other aspects of budo training need to become part of everyday life also. The mental side of budo, as well as the values and ethics of budo. These are supposed to inform even the most boring and mundane parts of life. Budo training at one level is about physical conflict. As you advance beyond the physical level, you discover that it is also about mental conflict. How do you deal mentally with your partner’s aggression? How do you project your will into the situation?

I find the mental training to be far more difficult than the physical training. Learning to deal with someone trying to choke me or throw me into the ground or beat me with a stick in a calm manner, without letting my partner disturb my mind or raise my emotions, is tough. I have to be so mature that even if I get smacked or injured during training, I don’t get upset, I don’t lose my calm, and I don’t get angry with the person who hit or injured me. Implementing this in my daily life means not getting angry at the jerk who cuts me off in traffic, or letting the angry guy who yells insults at anyone available make me feel angry or insulted. When I’m negotiating with someone at work, I don’t let them mentally off-balance me with whatever surprise or verbal assault they use.

My budo training impacts my day-to-day life in a million little ways every day. I breathe, stand and walk differently. I’m much calmer than I would be otherwise. I act with more caring and consideration of the needs of those around me, and I don’t let other people’s emotions and actions off-balance me. These are things that we can all use training in. I have yet to meet someone who didn’t feel they had progress to make in how they deal with the people around them. It’s clear to me that I need a lot of work on this, and a big part of how I work on it is by going to the dojo and training, and then leaving the dojo and applying my training.

What’s counterintuitive about all of this is that we see budo training as aggressive and violent, but when we are applying that training in our daily lives it is about being peaceful, calm and caring. Good budo training takes us beyond the edges of aggression to outright physical attack, and through this training we somehow find ourselves becoming more peaceful, gentler and calmer. Some parts of this transformation are simply a result of becoming comfortable with violence and confident that we can handle it. We don’t get upset because we can clearly see the difference between a genuine physical attack and one that is just verbal. Beyond that, even if things escalate and become a genuine physical attack, we are confident that we can handle it.

This expanded confidence is great for explaining martial artists reactions in tense confrontations, but what about how a martial artist handles other stressful situations, or how she becomes calmer and gentler all the time? With practice, how to apply her training in just about any situation gradually becomes clear. Breathe. Maintain a stable posture. Maintain a stable mental state. Understand the fear and pain that can drive others to do foolish things. Treat everyone with the respect and care with which you treat your training partners, even when they accidentally hurt you. Perhaps especially when they unintentionally hurt you.

If all our effort studying budo is for something that never comes out of the dojo, we might as well be playing tiddly-winks. The lessons of budo are for our whole lives. Not just the dojo. Not just those rare occasions in life where violent conflict is a possibility. The lessons of the dojo are meant for the whole of our lives. We should be learning to handle every situation in a calm, relaxed manner. It’s great if you learn to handle physical conflict that way, but it’s better still if you can handle the rest of life like that. Budo is meant for the everyday. It’s up to us to make it an ordinary part of everyday life.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Focus and Tunnel Vision




We didn’t make a sound as we stared at each other. The room around me faded as I focused on my partner. I advanced into combative ma’ai and swung my sword at her head. She dodged and counter attacked, driving my sword down. I pulled back and away, trying to re-establish an effective spacing for using my sword. She punched me in the gut with her staff as I pulled back and then came in hard with a strike to my head. I dodged back and to the side.

Which isn’t quite the way the kata is supposed to be done. However, if I had done the kata the orthodox way and moved straight back, I would have stumbled over a chair and some bookshelves.  Being focused on my partner didn’t mean that 100% of my attention was consumed by her attempt to make a large dent in my skull. I still had to be aware of my surroundings. Many of the dojo where I have trained are in multipurpose rooms, and several are rather small.  I’ve trained in dance studios (watch out for the piano at the end of the room), gymnasiums (be careful because the folks playing basketball on the next court lose control of the ball from time to time - if the ball  doesn’t hit you, the players might run you down trying to get it back), church meeting halls (pianos, chairs, bookshelves, carpet and the odd church member wandering through on some other business), and don’t forget all the back yards and parks with trees, lawn chairs, free range kids and dogs). There are lots of things you have to be aware of besides your training partner.

We all know that not being focused is bad. Let your attention wander in the middle of kata or sparring and you can find yourself being whacked over the head with a large stick. But too much focus is just as bad. When everything fades from your awareness but your partner, you can easily run into a wall or furniture, that piano in the back of the room, hit someone training alongside you, or worst of all, hit someone who isn’t even training and doesn’t realize that it’s not safe to walk close to people swinging swords and big sticks.  (It’s incredible how many people think it’s perfectly safe to run in front of someone practicing with a sword or staff.)

Like so much else in budo, there has to be balance. You focus enough to handle your partner, but your awareness must be broad enough to deal with the rest of the combative environment. Too much or not enough - either can lead to disaster. Focus is a great thing, but too much focus becomes tunnel vision. Kendo people talk about enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, “focusing on a distant mountain”. Don’t get so caught up by the detail in front of you that you lose sight of the whole picture. 

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If you are busy watching any particular detail, it’s difficult to see anything else. Focus on teki’’s sword and you lose sight of her feet. Focus on her feet and you lose track of her hands. What do you look at? What do you focus on? Nothing? Everything?

The whole point of enzan no metsuke is that you don’t let your vision become stuck on any particular point. By focusing on a distant point, your focus becomes softer and wider, taking in the whole of teki without being stuck on any particular point. With your focal point so distant, your peripheral vision takes in everything near to you. You can see her movement and the tip of her weapon and know what her hands are doing all together because you are seeing all of them.

The reasoning here is similar to that of fudoshin 不動心; if your mind stops on any one point it can’t entertain what happens next, creating weakness. If your eyes are locked on any one thing, you can’t see anything else that might be coming at you. In addition, if your eyes are stuck on something, your mind will be stuck there as well.

Under stress, we can develop tunnel vision. In this natural reaction to stress, we lose awareness of our peripheral vision, resulting in a tunnel that only shows the object of our focus. This level of focus might be useful in extreme circumstances, perhaps when you’ve been wounded and need to ignore the pain to continue fighting. It kicks in a lot lower level of threat than that, and opens you up to getting taken from behind or tripping over obstacles you would otherwise avoid. Teachers of martial techniques were aware of this long before anything that could be called “budo” arose. Practicing to not get stuck looking at your opponent and missing everything else became a part of martial training and continues in both classical and modern budo traditions.

The broader lesson is that excess focus is also dangerous in life outside the dojo and beyond the field of combat. Life isn’t all about any one thing. Life is about a lot of things; family, work, personal development, friends, hobbies. It’s easy to get caught up in what we are doing and forget the rest of the world, whether what we are doing is budo, or chess, or work, or a beloved hobby. Too much focus on any of those and you will start to neglect other important parts of your life.  Budo teachers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the dangers of tunnel vision, but they are among the few who practice not having it.

In the iai style I train in, Shinto Hatakage Ryu, there is an action at the end of each kata that, among other things, helps break tunnel vision if it develops. At the end of the kata, after the action is completed, we shift our body to one side, stand, and then purposely shift our point of focus. Other iai schools have similar practices.

Do you get tunnel vision when you train? Do you have tunnel vision in some other area of your life? How do you break away from it and keep your focus balanced?