Throughout our day we stream commentary on everything we see and do, telling ourselves stories. These stories can range from conscious rants to subtle considerations as we attempt to make decisions. Certain practices, like martial arts and meditation, can help temper that amount of self chatter…but nevertheless, it's persistently there. It has to be.
Our self filters dictate our ability to function in polite society and learn from our surroundings. If we didn't have this capacity for reflection we would be stuck in a permanent state of mental immaturity.
Understanding how we sway ourselves can be highly informative (if we know how to assess it).
Reaffirmation vs Reassurance
Decision making comes with an interesting byproduct: explanation. Sometimes we attempt to justify our behavior using contextual information, reasoning, or lying. Other times we choose to behave in a way that conforms to how we see ourselves. More often than not, each decision results in a different kind of self speak, two of which are reaffirmation and reassurance.
To illustrate these concepts and their differences, I'd like to introduce a character named Ryoko. Follow some of Ryoko's everyday activities and see if you can detect how she reacts to her own decisions.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries. She reassured herself that she had earned it with her hard days work, and that she didn't feel like cooking that night. Really, it couldn't be avoided.
Coming out of the restaurant she noticed a cart from a neighboring grocery store rolling toward a nearby car. Unfortunately her hands were full and all she could do was cringe as it made contact against the paint. She reassured herself that there was nothing she could do in time.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours.
Between the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko reassured herself that she would probably be useless anyway in training and that her time would be better spent at home.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries.
Upon arrival she remembered that there was a grocery store next door, and that she could grab salad and fruit from inside. Doing so reaffirmed that she was indeed a healthy person, conscious of the old saying that "you get out what you put in".
Coming out of the grocery store she noticed a cart rolling toward a nearby car. Despite her hands being full she ran over quickly and stopped the cart with her foot. Ryoko always believed in random acts of kindness, and stopping the cart reaffirmed her desire to be someone who didn't need external thanks for helping.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours. Despite the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko slapped her hands on the table and refused to listen to her own excuses. She ate, got changed, and made it into the dojo. It wasn't her best performance that night, but getting to class energized her and reaffirmed that she was a dedicated person.
Not Right and Wrong
At first it might seem like the stories above illustrate a simplistic state of right and wrong. Doing nice things is right, being lazy is wrong, etc etc. The truth of the matter is not so clear cut.
When speaking of "right and wrong" in the traditional sense, we are acknowledging the generally accepted human perception of proper and improper behavior. While slathered in gray area, for the most part we've come to a societal collective on critical matters of "good" vs "bad" (hence the penal system).
What Ryoko is going through is much more personal than that. She is facing day-to-day choices that reflect both the context of her situation and her own expectations of herself. Therefore, when she does something that sparks doubt in her mind, she has to reassure herself that it's ok (even if it's not). When she does something that feels right and in tune with who she wants to be, she instinctively reaffirms her path.
The slightest change in detail to the stories above could result in different decision making. Furthermore, following the "Reaffirmation" decision path won't always guarantee positive results (what if Ryoko missed her deadline due to her dojo time?).
Reaffirming Your Way
Like any higher calling, following the martial way can be extremely tricky. Getting lost and sidetracked is habitual and is simply part of the exploration. However, by using the idea of reaffirmation vs reassurance you can FEEL when you are leaving your path consistently. It's not always possible to intellectualize this sort of thing; some of it is pure gut instinct.
Therefore, it is advisable to continue studying and finding individuals whom you admire. Using that, you can build a sense of what you perceive your "way" to be. From there, you can act as much as possible in a manner that allows you to reaffirm the path you had set out on. It won't be a smooth ride the whole time, but you can push forward with belief in yourself.
I'm very happy to present this interview with Jody Paul Hanshi. Counted among some of the earliest westerners to experience karate on the island of Okinawa, Paul Sensei has a rare combination of influences. He is a senior practitioner of Seidokan and Motobu Udundi, as well as having extensive experience in Okinawa Kenpo Karate/Kobudo and Shorinji Kempo.
Paul Sensei has distinguished himself through years of military service and deligent training. Some of his accomplishments include being a part of the inaugural Seal Team Two, as well as being one of the first western students accepted by Uehara Seikichi into the previously closed Motobu Udundi system.
Paul Sensei has continued to pass on the lessons taught to him by his instructors, and brings a special energy to each of his classes.
I recently had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions about his training and theories surrounding the martial arts.
JP: I was listening to a couple of guys talking about it. Actually it was judo. Later I watched them throwing each other around and I thought that was kinda neat. I got into karate because of watching the judo guys.
MA: How old were you when you made the leap into karate?
JP: I was about 19 or 20 at that time.
MA: When did you enlist in the military?
JP: It was about 1960. Around 1962 we had the cuban missile crisis. I was involved there, and it was one thing or another for the next several years. Soon after I retired it got a little better, haha.
MA: As I recall you were involved with the Navy throughout your career, including the Seals. What can you tell me about the early days of the Navy Seals?
JP: back in 1960, around March or April, Lt. Commander Roy Boehm was the Officer in Charge of Team Two. That was right in time for the cuban crisis. Team Two was comprised of the new navy seals and the UDT teams.
MA: Were you handpicked to be part of that team?
JP: Yes, most of the guys selected were divers and UDTs.
MA: When you were stationed in Japan, because of your experience in karate, did you immediately try to get involved with martial arts?
JP: Yes I did.
MA: Who did you end up connecting with?
JP: I trained with Watanabe Sensei, who was one of master Doshin So's students. Then from there, I continued with So Sensei in Shorinji Kempo.
MA: Was the training regimented?
JP: In Japan it's a lot more regimented than Okinawa. everything is very stand in line, and so forth.
MA: How did they take to you as a westerner? Was there any friction?
JP: A little bit of…skepticism. of course. but overall fair treatment. I thnink in some instances I got more preferential treatment because they wanted to make sure I got it right, haha.
MA: What ultimately led you to transfer to Okinawa?
JP: Okinawa was the departing point to Vietnam in the early days. We staged a lot of people out of Okinawa. I didn't have a choice in that matter. My teacher (Doshin So) had trained years and years before with some people on Okinawa, and I had a letter of recommendation from him to show to Okinawan sensei.
MA: Did you spend any time in Vietnam itself?
JP: Yes, I spent a bit more than three tours there. I got to come back to Okinawa between and after.
MA: When you had your letter of recommmendation, which Sensei did you choose to go to?
JP: I went to Toma Shian Sensei and Uehara Seikichi Sensei.
MA: Was there something in particular that stood out about Toma Sensei?
JP: Ohh yes, he was very strong. His techniques were similar to what I learned in Japan and I felt comfortable doing his style. In kumite, weapons, and everything he does you could sense the power.
MA: Could you describe a bit about the Okinawan training culture?
JP: In the dojo it wasn't quite as regimented as it was in Japan. It was loose, people were warming up and training on different areas of the floor. There wasn't as much 'yes sir no sir'. There was respect of course. Another thing I noticed was the kids that would run through the dojo. You might be working out and doing kata and a little one would run under your feet. It was more of a family environment. It was like one big family. Everyone would take care of each other.
MA: Did you find that there was a lot of opportunities for cross training, or perhaps teachers visiting each other?
JP: Yes, a lot of times. For Toma Sensei, he had one kata for each weapon. if you wanted anything more advanced, he would send us over to Odo Seikichi Sensei. he would say "you need to do more weapons, you go see Odo." Odo Sensei was happy with that too. They were both of the same mindset.
MA: Speaking of Odo Sensei, could you describe your time with him? You were one of the earliest westerners to train with him.
JP: He was an integral part of my kobudo and karate training. I did a lot of the tuide for his forms and his weapons forms. It was quite similar to what Toma Sensei did. Back then a lot of it was similar to each other, there were only different nuances depending on how the person was built and how they liked to act. There were a lot of common threads. Odo sensei could show you 20 minutes of connections to a 2 minute question. And that was great because I was always asking why, how, how comes…, he was always happy to share. Odo also had a very good way of showing you new forms, he explained it to you very well.
MA: Asking questions seems to be a western approach to learning. Did they ever seem to mind it?
JP: It depended a lot on what you asked. Sometimes they minded, but other times they would jump right in to explain. Toma sensei's English wasn't too good so he usually would grab you, throw you to the mat and say "you do this way". You could feel where it was hurting, so you got the picture.
MA: Did that generation ever have big training gatherings?
JP: It was more of a "sharing students" type of perspective. Students would go to certain instructors depending on their interest and the instructor's area of expertise. but sometimes we would have a big function on the beach or something like that. It was an outing where we all brought our gis and worked out.
MA: Could you talk a bit about what day-to-day training was like? Was there a certain amount of time you trained, and was it the same time every day?
JP: The training wasn't a strict regiment of a certain number of kicks, punches etc. We would go to the dojo or beach and do some basics. We would train some punches and kicks and throws in the ocean with water up to our neck. Then get out on the beach and do some running (Uehara Sensei was always good for this kind of training). It was very very hot there, so you couldn't train for as long. We would work out for an hour and then have a beer break. It was tough for me to go back to training after one of those.
In the dojo at night, you could bring a gallon milk jug of water and a six pack of beer. You would drink the water during the class and then the beer after. We would hear a lot of interesting stories and ideas then.
MA: Uehara sensei is an interesting story because he comes from the Motobu Udundi line, which has a unique history and flavor to it. could you talk about how you met him and came to train with him?
JP: Uehara sensei is one of the people I was introduced to by So Sensei. when I got to Okinawa and started training with Toma Sensei I saw that Toma was friends with Uehara (With the rengokai coming together, Toma Sensei got a chance to learn more of the toide from Uehara Sensei). Everything fell into place then, I went to visit with Toma and began training after that. Uehara Sensei was a very interesting person. He was very close with his students, which I enjoyed a lot because he took a lot of time with his students individually.
MA: Toma sensei had a lot of power and impact with his method, while Uehara Sensei's style features a lot of flow and dynamics. Was it difficult trying to learn Uehara Sensei's methods at first?
JP: Ohh yes, every time I would punch and kick Uehara would say "ohh…you do like shorinji ryu" (back from my Japan days). He spotted me right away. It took several years for me to get used to the ideas of hard and soft. The older I got the softer I got I guess, haha.
MA: What was Uehara Sensei like as an instructor? Did he demonstrate a lot and was there a lot of conversation?
JP: Doing the toide techniques, he would demonstrate a lot. Then everyone would break up and try to do it. Uehara Sensei would then come around to each person and correct things and fix us. He didn't teach everyone the same way. I asked him this question one time – "why does so-and-so do it this way, a little bit different than me", and the answer was that my body was different than the body he had. If you were powerful like Toma Sensei, he would have you punching real strong, but the long tall skinny guys couldn't do it the same way so he adjusted what would work for them.
MA: Did Uehara Sensei ever talk about why he decided to open up his style to non-family students? This was rather unprecedented in the Udundi line.
JP: To me that was a hands-off topic. They never really discussed that with me. That was mostly a matter for the family itself.
MA: When you came back to the US, were you given instructions to begin a school or organization?
JP: Toma Sensei had requested that I start a school and association. I came back in 1970, but in 1984 we brought Toma Sensei to Pennsylvania. at that time we started our first association. We had a big seminar and formed the first USA Seidokan association where Toma Sensei appointed the different officers.
MA: Did you spend a lot of time at tournaments in the earlier days?
JP: Not that much. I went to a few of the original tournaments. To me it didn't show what the arts were all about anyway. Also I wasn't used to pulling punches and kicks which was a problem. Master Odo and Master Toma tended to fight with bogu gear and hard contact. so if you got in the "ring" you hit the other person. Here if you did that they would throw you out. That's what happened to me at least. I never denied my students the experience though. If they wanted to give it a try I would support them and go with them.
MA: With your experience across Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi, how important do you feel natural movement is to success at higher levels?
JP: Kihon, basics, and everything is set in iron because you have to learn the core of the movements. Without that you can't get into doing natural stancework and techniques later on. So it's important, but not without the earlier stuff.
MA: Do you have any tips for individuals who have good kihon but are trying to get to that next level?
JP: Sure – relax and train. When Toma Sensei would see something that's not quite right he would just say "…more practice".
MA: Modern karate tends to be a mix of business and training, the balance of which can be difficult. What do you see as necessary for keeping the Okinawan spirit of karate alive?
JP: Toma Sensei always wanted us to open schools, and if you do that you have to have some business with it too. Here in the states that's just the way it is. Uehara Sensei didn't believe as much in having a formal school where you charge money for classes and so forth, so he never did that. I think if we stay true to the art and the way that we learned, the original way that we learned from our teachers and carry on what they were trying to give us, martial arts can still go a long way.
MA: Thanks a lot for your time and insight Paul Sensei!
It’s easy to pontificate about the complexities of being a Sensei. After all, they have the ability to shape lives for better or worse. Teaching can be a daunting task once you start taking it seriously.
Less discussed is the role parents play in the development of young martial artists. The decision making of parents can drastically alter the length, quality, and value of a student’s training.
Over the years I’ve gotten to interact with parents of all variety; their priorities in the dojo have been just as varied. Some parents consider martial art training a convenient alternative to day care. After all, in martial arts the child gets physical activity and regimented social interaction. These parents will generally use the dojo as a drop off point while they attend to matters elsewhere.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are parents who watch attentively every class. In fact, some find it difficult not to interact with their child if they see any misbehavior or waning focus. These parents essentially have one foot on the training floor.
Mixed in between those two stereotypes is every gradation you can think of.
For this article, let’s focus on parents who play an active role in the martial development of their children and explore some of the heftiest hurdles they’ll encounter while participating in their youngster’s unique journey.
The Motivation Rollercoaster
It’s astounding watching students as they fluctuate between utter infatuation with martial arts and abject horror at the prospect of training.
This is true of artists of all ages and experience levels, but never is it more palpable than with children.
A parent’s job is easy when the child is enthusiastic. It doesn’t take much work to get them packed into the car and off to the dojo. However, when that enthusiasm drifts, training day can turn into an epic slew of whining, pouting, and negotiations.
The trouble doesn’t end at the dojo door either. Once the child is out on the floor their techniques and stances tend to have the precision of a wet noodle. Every drill becomes a chore and making faces in the mirror becomes a much more attractive alternative to paying attention.
The parent, seeing this, is left to wonder if the Sensei is noticing the behavior or losing patience. They then have to decide if it’s right to chime in and try to whip their child back into place.
The parent also has to wonder if they are driving their child too hard. What if school, activities, and training are just too much?
Managing the motivation rollercoaster can be daunting. As a Sensei the mission is clear – continue teaching the student for as long as the parent brings him/her, or until they are old enough to decide for themselves. For the parent, knowing when to push through resistance and when to give in is a psychological puzzle, the solution of which requires further discussion.
The Setback Conundrum
What is one of the biggest complaints about traditional training in the modern world?
The proliferation of rank.
Nowadays a black belt is something easily attained by any neighborhood 12 year old. If you pay enough and show up enough, you’re good to go.
The modern day psychology of reward-at-all-costs has created an interesting paradigm in the world of martial arts. Many schools have integrated inflated rank systems, filled with a myriad of stripes, belt colors, trophies, and patches. The purpose of which is to provide a steady stream of external rewards in order to keep students satisfied.
Of course, the fees associated with such programs also helps the profitability of the school, but that’s not our concern here.
Let’s assume for a moment that the majority of the general populace accepts the idea of steady-stream-rewards.
In contrast, let’s analyze one of the most powerful tools of an old school dojo: failure.
In many old martial circles you’ll hear the phrase “Nana korobi, ya oki”, which means “Seven falls, eight getting up”. The phrase is used to indicate a broad sense of resilience throughout life, but is acutely demonstrated in martial arts training. Not only are you literally thrown down in martial arts, but you also experience roadblock after roadblock as you attempt to improve your body, mind, and spirit.
One of the most top secret aspects of being a Sensei is intentionally setting up challenges for students to overcome. A good Sensei doesn’t want to spoon feed everything to students; instead they want to encourage effort in the right direction.
This is one of the fundamental crossroads where Eastern and Western cultures tend to clash. Eastern aloofness and Western directness can react in a destructive way, ultimately causing a student to grow agitated and quit, or they can result in a powerful combination of external knowledge with internal inquiry.
So…how do parents fit into all this? They need to be able to watch their children fail and encourage them to get back up and try again.
Certain pressures will tempt a parent not to engage in this practice. The first pressure is from the child him/herself. Failure never tastes good, and the child will want to quit repeatedly. It can be a tough slog to get them to push through. The second kind of pressure is societal and ego based. Some parents refuse to see any fault in what their child is doing, even if a Sensei does. Furthermore, if an egotistical parent sees other children progressing faster than their own they will have the tendency to accuse the Sensei of favoritism, poor teaching, or other kinds of incompetence. At that point, they can allow their child to quit without any sense of guilt or fault.
Navigating these subtle psychological factors can be challenging.
Recognizing Bad Teaching
Let’s make things more complicated. As mentioned above, a parent needs to be careful not to fall prey to their own ego and the emotional swings of their child. This includes not projecting fault onto a Sensei if success isn’t immediate.
But what happens when a Sensei actually IS at fault? Believe it or not (but believe it), there are a ton of shoddy Sensei out there.
Sometimes instructors have to be tough on students. As stated earlier, putting up intentional roadblocks can help students overcome their own perceived limitations and teach them qualities of resilience, determination, and self confidence (that all too buzzed word in martial arts circles).
But a lot of Sensei aren’t so altruistic in their motivations. Many are guided by how much money a parent has given, how many sponsored events they’ve attended, and other even more nefarious factors.
Sometimes it’s easy for perceptive parents to pick up on the difference between a tough teacher and a bad one. Let’s take a look at some common red flags bad teachers may exhibit:
- Militaristic dominance over students, including insults, injury, and abusive regimentation.
- Touching and feeling of an uncomfortable variety or in a manner that clearly isn’t related to technique.
- Explicit favoritism, providing perks to students that are above and beyond the norm of their rank.
- Probing comments about a student or parents relationship life, physical appearance, or dating life outside the dojo.
- Excessive grouping of students into pay tiers, sometimes through the addition of many special “clubs”.
Unfortunately, bad behavior often manifests itself in more sublte ways. Teachers with unscrupulous motives tend to be good at hiding it, and only after months or years of analysis will a parent catch on to the true motives of the teacher.
There’s no easy solution to this problem. Parents simply need to keep involved and keep their eyes and ears open. Most of all, they need to be honest with themselves where the problem might lie.
Most instructors hate to admit it, but some students simply aren’t cut out for long-term training. Martial arts can be arduous, thankless, and boring. Not everyone was born to fall in love with them.
As mentioned above, one of the core responsibilities of a parent is to help their child push through those times of low motivation and setback. Sometimes this can equate to literally/figuratively dragging the child to the dojo.
How then is a parent to know when it’s time to let go?
As you might have guessed, there is no easy answer. Sensei, of course, will recommend you push through any and all obstacles because they know the lofty value of long-term training. They want your child to have a life enhanced by the arts (or they want your money – remember, there are bad teachers too).
Parents, on the other hand, need to help balance all aspects of the child’s life. Kids are samplers by nature; they tend to enjoy an activity for awhile, get bored, and move on. Of course, pushing through that sampling tendency is what turns a good young student into a great mature student. But what if it isn’t sampling, and the child would be much better off elsewhere?
Of course, you can split time between martial arts and other endeavors, but then you run the risk of overwhelming an already tight schedule.
The best overarching advice I can give in this regard involves “the spark”. Development in the arts is unique for every single person that engages in practice. If a parent is observant, they might see certain shifts or sparks in a child’s development. Unexpected moments of intensity, focus, self defense skill, good behavior, courtesy, etc etc. If a parent sees these things and believes that the arts are turning their child into a better person, pushing through resistance might be appropriate. If they are not seeing any positive gains, or even negative tendencies of bullying, disobedience, disrespect, etc., it may be time to move on.
Grazing the Surface
Being a dojo parent can involve complex psychology (I’ve seen it). It can be just as complicated for the young student (I’ve lived that).
Sometimes parents can be creative with solutions, such as joining the class themselves. If they are on the floor, it’s easier for them to ‘lead by example’, and of course the child recognizes that since a parent is nearby behavior is a requisite of class. But ultimately, nothing external will be a permanent solution. The parent and Sensei can guide and inspire, but they can’t decide what’s in the heart of the student.
The problems and solutions I’ve offered here are just a hint at the broader picture. If you are a Sensei, parent, or student, the more you learn about long term success in the martial arts the better equipped you’ll be to deal with twists, turns, and roadblocks along “the way”.