Monday was suspiciously nice outside. For those of us in the Northeastern U.S., warm weather has only visited once or twice in the last five months. Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I took a step outside in order to get the mail a block away.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be t-shirt weather, with a slight breeze and hint of Spring in the air. I started off for the mailbox using my “winter speed walk”, but before long slowed down to a leisurely pace. It was midday so there were no cars buzzing through the lot nor children ambling about. All I could hear was the faint clacking of my shoes against the pavement.
After arriving at the mailbox I decided it might be appropriate to take the long route back to my apartment; a winding stretch of macadam that traces the treeline and wraps around a few extra buildings.
While traveling the path I fell into a comfortable rhythm, not mindfully set…just natural. I observed which trees had decided to push toward blooming, and which were still suspicious of impending frost (not unlike myself a few minutes earlier). I also passed my gaze over nearby apartments, decorations, birdhouses….anything that came into view. Not analyzing anything, just recognizing them as they slipped in and away.
I was enjoying this soft no-mind when suddenly I was invaded by an uncomfortable feeling. Guilt. Back at the apartment I had bills waiting, a lunch to make, and dishes to do. Before my walk I had heard about more struggles in Japan and Syria, not to mention a nearby house that had burnt down (as reported by the local news).
All of those misfortunes…and I was out strolling about.
For a moment it seemed unfathomable that I would be so negligent of the world and my responsibilities.
My loss of focus, or perhaps loss of conscientious non-focus, is not surprising. Indeed, the mind is a complex network that can sometimes work against it’s own benefit. We, as modern humans, seem to yearn for simplicity and quiet; yet when those rare moments arrive our minds fight back and remind us of our duties and concerns.
As a society we’ve adapted a few methods to combat this issue, the most prominent being ‘vacation’. A lot of people can temporarily suspend their guilt and give themselves permission to relax. Even so, usually after a few days the ‘real world’ creeps back in steadily. Most parents I know don’t experience much vacation even when on vacation.
On a day to day, week to week basis it can be extremely difficult to find ways to push out the world at large and find time to reset the mind and spirit.
That being said, let me ask: how often do you worry about bills during kata training? What about the kid’s soccer practice while sparring?
My guess is that those external matters rarely creep in on you. In fact, those few training moments are probably your most focused throughout the entire day, or even week.
To perform a kata even remotely well, you need to pay exacting attention to what you’re doing. Eventually you can even experience mushin. But the benefit of kata is that it maintains your focus and consistently draws you back into the moment. If you drift into other emotions (like I allowed myself to do during my walk) your kata will crumble. Naturally you don’t want that to happen so your odds of course correction are much higher.
Good martial arts training can suspend time for you. It’s often said that your training shouldn’t stop at the dojo door, which is true. But it’s certainly permissible to leave your troubles at the door when entering.
Read More / Comment
During some random internet task I stumbled onto a fairly common image. It’s certainly nothing unique or even interesting, and yet I feel like it possesses a special quality for martial artists. After all, could anything be more aptly descriptive of the process of following a martial way?
You’ve probably seen the ‘work in progress’ figure attached to websites, work sites, etc.
As we continue to endeavor in our martial arts,we realize the endless cycle of self analysis and improvement that comes with training. That mindset of laborious persistence is key to long term success in the arts, and we must therefore always be a work in progress.
Perhaps simply emblazoning this figure across our gi might be a more worthwhile patch than any modern sponsorship, advertisement, or world championship logo…
I thought this was a pretty fun concept, but then a few voices of wisdom on facebook took it a step further. They suggested martial art specific versions! So without further adieu, for your viewing pleasure:
One of my instructors, Ann-Marie Heilman, has a rather intense day job. She has to guide children with autism and other special needs in a classroom environment. As you might suspect, her job entails slower lessons, more attention per student, and emotional understanding. But it also comes with random bouts of violence and sporadic launching of bodily fluids.
The real challenge of this job is the bureaucratic freeze placed on teachers and administrators regarding what they can do to defend themselves and control the children. Teachers must essentially cover-up and take beatings handed to them (don’t underestimate the angry violence 11-13 year olds can dish out). Luckily Mrs. H has years of training to guide her in protecting herself while caring for the children and keeping them safe. Other teachers are not so lucky and have been choked, clawed, and hit with blunt objects to the point of unconsciousness.
I have a few other dojo-mates who are teachers in the public school system. Luckily for them things aren’t often as severe as Mrs. H’s encounters, but they face their own special obstacles.
In public school, children are forced to attend. This can create an innate resistance which becomes even more acute when things get difficult or boring.
Teachers, therefore, are in an interesting position where they must rely on the educational infrastructure combined with personal creativity. They must figure out ways to engage students, even during times of resistance. Unfortunately, many teachers are too lazy or fearful for their job to chance unique ideas. Even if they do try something special, the educational institution frequently squashes that which doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘bigger picture’. Furthermore, too many parents are ready to hand off complete responsibility for their children to teachers, but then complain about anything that doesn’t fit their sensibilities. The parents won’t spend the energy to understand the teachers motives, allowing easy ignorance to make their choices for them.
Fear and laziness are a very real and potent combination in this world.
Tools of the Sensei
Different from both of the roles discussed above is that of the martial arts teacher. The “Sensei” is a unique figure in modern culture, as he/she is not a school teacher, nor a coach, nor a guidance counselor. The Sensei is somewhere different, with an intriguing mixture of tools and responsibilities.
- One of the most powerful assets of the Sensei is a student’s commitment. Martial arts are voluntary, which means there is a higher probability for emotional investment on the part of the student. Therefore, the Sensei needn’t fight the constant uphill struggle presented to public school teachers. Unfortunately, this can also breed laziness in an instructor. When the burden of creativity isn’t forced it can be forgotten, to the great detriment of the students.
- The Sensei possesses the ability to ‘expunge’ any student or parent who is belligerent or intolerant beyond repair, unlike school teachers. If a parent refuses to allow his/her child to bow because he/she is too lazy to understand the true meaning of a bow, then that parent can take their business elsewhere.
- Dojo ownership has the added concern of business. Just as public school teachers have to worry about ‘teaching to the test’ in order to appease the higher-ups, so are Sensei compelled to give a ‘product’ as desired by the paying clientele, be it in the form of ranks, achievements, quantity of material, etc etc. All too often Sensei find themselves in moral conundrums where they are being pressured to offer what will sell vs what they believe to be true art. While it is possible to reconcile the two through creativity and hard work, instructors are often too lazy or scared to engage in such a task (opting instead for easier and safer blueprints of martial business).
- A martial arts instructor has the right to make physical contact with students, as it is inherent in the curriculum of the place. This can be highly beneficial as an out-of-control student can be more easily, and even more gently handled with physical restraint. Unfortunately this same right can manifest itself in very negative ways when instructors choose to abuse students or enforce ego superiority.
- Senseiship comes stock loaded with a bit of mystique and trust. Due to the cultural heritage of the position, students and parents are more inclined to take a Sensei’s word and suspend disagreement. While this can be a great benefit, if misused the Sensei will likely be the recipient of a barrage of disparaging verbal attacks and public defamation.
The added freedom of Senseiship brings with it added potential for abuse.
Becoming a good educator requires an understanding of the framework you operate under as well as an intense desire to do the best you can for the charges under you. If you find yourself in the role of Sensei or educator, what tools do you have at your disposal? What limitations? What’s holding you back from doing an even better job?