One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.
This is the third article in Reader Week II. In this somber post, author Helen Cawley examines the state of her martial arts after losing not just one but two Sensei. These influential men led their style (Ryute) and passed away in close succession. Now Ms. Cawley faces the burden of honoring those instructors while trying to figure out how to carry on.
Adapting and Adjusting (How to Carry On After Losing a Sensei)
This past year, two of my teacher’s passed away, Taika Seiyu Oyata and Tasshi Jim Logue, and I have found it more difficult than just mourning the death of two people I loved dearly. The first months were about getting used to the fact that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and say “Hi”, among other things. Training was very difficult. I kept thinking, what was the point? How could I really improve with out their guidance? How would our organization stay together? Would we continue to train as a group? Who would teach us?
I always tell people that I started studying martial arts by accident. I say “I wasn’t looking where I was going and tripped and fell into a class”. I really didn’t know what it meant besides the Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies. What really sold it to me was seeing how I, as a small woman, could have a fighting chance against a much larger man. I wasn’t looking for a fight or MMA, or scoring points for trophies. I enjoy the empowerment I feel by knowing I can stand my ground if I need to. At some point I discovered that martial arts training becomes part of your daily life, like drinking a cup of water, and you never think about not doing it.
Then, I met Taika Oyata, and I was exposed to a level of martial arts that I had never dreamed of. I saw a grace and sophistication that was beyond any silver screen, green screen or televised fight. Small angles had dramatic effects. A slight twist of a wrist with a bend in the knee could send a six foot, 200 pound man flying across the room. And then I realized what the “art” in martial arts meant. There was no divine channel being tapped to magically slam his opponents to the ground. There was no magic wand behind a curtain. Taika was a man. He was a man who studied and thought and practiced and practiced again. It was not one month or one year or 100 repetitions that set him apart from anyone I had seen before; it was 10,000 or maybe 100,000 repetitions and an unbelievable mind. I am thankful that I was able to spend 20 years going to his seminars and learning fascinating details from him. Many of the drills and concepts he gave us could not possibly be learned in a 4 hour seminar. We usually got a study plan that he expected us to practice and show him how we improved when we saw him again in a few months. He often said that he can show us what to do, but we have to investigate each technique ourselves; we have to train our own body. We were often chided for talking too much and training too little.
He wanted us to be professional in our study, professional in our technique, and he wanted us to know his culture and his family history. This was important to him because he wanted us to know that he was passing down his art to us from his teachers and that what he learned from them was from their teachers, and their teachers before them. It is hard to have these lessons in my memory only. It is hard working with a group of people and only hear in my head that booming voice yelling “No, godamit” across the room at me. I want to be able to have that voice telling me if I am getting it right or wrong and implicitly trust that the answer is true.
And now they are gone and I am not and I can’t stop thinking about punching, blocking, adjusting, and practicing. So, where do I go from here? My only analogy that I can hold on to is that I have been given a gift; his students were all given a gift. We have been given ideas and drills and methods of study to follow. If this gift had been an ancient porcelain vase of the finest quality, how would I treat it? This I can answer: I would cherish it, feel responsible for its preservation, and share its beauty with my friends who could appreciate it. So now, how do I do that with memories and old lessons? The cherish part I can do, but preservation and sharing are more difficult. What if I remembered something incorrectly? I don’t know if I will be able to preserve, accurately what I was taught. What if I’m doing a drill and I forget a step or a block? I might start an exercise on the wrong foot and it might come out as a cheap carbon copy instead of true technique. Maybe I need to share with my friends and together our memories will be more accurate. If five people all remember the same motion the same way, it has to be right, doesn’t it? But what if we argue instead of share and we twist around the truth in a lesson we were given? What if everyone remembers something slightly different, because we are different and the right way to do a technique is relative? Who is going to tell us which one of us is more right, and if someone does, will we believe them? I guess to move on I will have to take that risk. This idea is a big adjustment for me, but I’m going to give it a try, anyway. I do feel responsible to preserve what I know I know and to pass it on. It is what Taika really wanted us to do.
Secrecy is a long standing tradition in the martial arts. When you analyze how most arts developed, it's easy to understand why.
Take kenjutsu (sword arts) of the Samurai for example. A kenjutsu headmaster was in charge of training his disciples with the deadliest skills he could. Those men would then take their techniques to the battlefield and fight for their daimyo. Unfortunately, during the Warring States Period, backstabbing and side switching was so common it was almost unremarkable. The daimyo changed allegiances depending on what elevated their status or saved them from annihilation. They also intermarried among clans, which shifted the power of alliances. The Samurai were often doomed to follow along, even fighting against clans they once considered allies.
These switches could happen in a hurry, even in the middle of a war. The outcome of one of the most famous battles in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, was significantly influenced by a few properly persuaded commanders right before the battle took place.
Imagine now if a skilled kenjutsu instructor was wide open with his teachings, sharing all he knew with anyone who came to him. How soon would that information be used against him?
This secretive behavior persisted even after the Samurai were less needed on the battlefield. Sword schools transitioned from focus on large battles to more individual development. It was at this time musha shugyo became more popular. Roaming Samurai desired to test their skills against headmasters and make a name for themselves. If a headmaster was loose with his knowledge and word of his tactics got out, it could mean an early demise.
Karate and kobudo also posses a history of secrecy. After the invasion of the Satsuma warriors, quite a bit of tode and kobujutsu training was conducted away from prying eyes. The Satsuma had roving metsuke (armed informants) who would be all too happy too report or outright extinguish suspicious behavior.
It wasn't just threat of death that kept the lips of instructor's tightly sealed. Both Japan and Okinawa developed under Confucian philosophy. In Confucianism, there is little tolerance for questioning of those in higher stations of respect than oneself. Further, it is expected of seniors to maintain a certain level of aloofness above those below them. The result was a lot of show with little tell.
Our modern era has it's own excuses for secrecy. Luckily the amount of "roving fighters" has gone down (but not disappeared thanks to the everpresence of ego), so it's not a particular need for tactical secrecy that keeps teachers quiet. More often than not, it is a need to retain students. If a modern teacher with limited skillset teaches everything they know, then students will inevitably grow tired of the training. Some may have the natural ability to surpass the teacher and go beyond their lessons, but then the instructor may become concerned about the student opening a school nearby and taking students away (or just becoming better, which hurts the ego). One safe bet to keep students interested and at a comparatively low skill level is to institute varying degrees of witholdance and secrecy.
The Wayward Student
There's one reason for concealment that we haven't discussed, and it's perhaps the most important. Whether in the early days of karate or today in a modern dojo, the possibility of "wayward students" exists. Despite a teacher's experience and intuition, some people are capable of hiding what's in their hearts. On the surface a student might seem dedicated and cautious and honorable, but deep down they could be manipulative and devious. Some of the most important martial artists in recorded history have fallen prey to charasmatic "disciples" who have siphoned power and influence from them.
One or two of these deep burns is enough to make any teacher pack his/her belt away for awhile.
Aside from the political aspects, teaching a wayward student the most debilitating, deadly, and effective aspects of an art is not only regrettable but dangerous to society as a whole.
Truly, wouldn't it be safer just to teach the bare basics and not risk it?
Giving the Bleeding Edge
The task of finding an honorable student and helping them to higher levels is a monumental task. After getting to a certain point, the instinct and tradition of letting things "coast" is very strong. After all, it's been done that way for generations.
However, in this modern era, it is appropriate (and even vital) for teachers to draw students to the edge of their own understanding***.
Today, it is very unlikely that martial artists of the same school will ever appear on opposite sides of a battlefield. Nor is it likely they will face other martial artists who have received inside information about their tactics. Instead, students are probably going to encounter street violence. Technique foresight is not an issue; the training will work or not work based on quality, not on secrecy.
Therefore, it is the duty of an instructor to give all they can in order to help students protect themselves and their loved ones. After years of getting to know each pupil the instructor can make an educated decision about sharing deeper knowledge in the hopes the student will carry on the desired "way".
Teaching to the very edge of skill level is also critical for an instructor's growth. "Toping out" in regards to skill and knowledge while strategically keeping students at a lower level is a very effective way to never grow. If, however, a teacher actively pulls students up as far as he/she can, the teacher will then be challenged to improve even more in order to continue sharing and helping the students.
Personally speaking, a lot of new ideas and developments in my own training begin as feelings. I sense that something is coming within reach and manifesting into potential improvement. However, it isn't until I attempt to verbalize and demonstrate what I'm thinking that it takes ahold in my own skillset and becomes available to me in a more complete way.
This very blog post is part of that process. If I don't truly understand it, then I can't help others understand it. So in order for me to understand it, you have to understand it.
See, now you know all my secrets! (or do you??).
***(please keep in mind I write this as an instructor with limited understanding and experience. Kyoshi and Hanshi level practitioners may possess a different perspective given their experience, but I do currently believe this advice applies forever in one's training).