Luohan, courtesy of V&A.
There has been a lot of discussion about what makes a good teacher or a good Sensei; and people have found value in preparing and training the new generation of teachers/Sensei; and rightly so.
But I have a feeling that maybe we need to also look at it the other way round and perhaps teach people to be good students?
We typically think of our students as the raw material; the clay from which we mold and create; the blank slate to be written upon. Oh, we nod politely towards the idea that not all students come to us as equals; but then proceed to blithely continue on as if the opposite were true.
Can we teach people to be good students?
But first we have to think that this cuts both ways. For are we not also students? Or at least we should be. We as teachers should lead by example as ‘life long learners’. As a teacher, never underestimate the student’s ability to put you under the microscope and observe how you learn and take on new material. So, while I pursue my theme, I have to cast a glance over my own shoulder.
At this point I feel I have to mention my own (additional) credentials in the area of teaching and learning, having recently retired after thirty-six years of teaching in UK secondary schools. Some of that experience boils down to very simple principles; key among these is that you are engaged with an unwritten two-way contract, or at least that’s the way it should work; the teacher gives and the student gratefully receives, in an active way (students also teach you!). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way because one side of this contract sometimes welches on the deal; either actively or passively. The contract states that from the teacher’s perspective you are not doing your job if the student who walks into the room at the beginning of a lesson is the same person who walks out at the end. Something positive should have happened that results in the student growing – admittedly it might be small; it might be cumulative, but it is still growth.
Of course, this is very simplistic and there are many other factors involved. As in the Dojo, the environment has to be right to build an atmosphere conducive to development, with a positive encouragement of challenge and change; but not in a coddling bubble-wrapped way. I am reminded of commentator and thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of ‘Antifragile’, put briefly the concept that systems, businesses (and people) should aim towards increasing their capability to thrive by embracing stressors such as, mistakes, faults, attacks, destabilisers, noise, disruptions etc. in an active way. The antithesis of this is ‘resilience’. Resilience will protect you to some degree but it is not enough, it’s just a shell, potentially brittle, that given enough time and pressure is eventually breached.
Here is my personal take on what I think are the prerequisites of a good student:
- Empty your cup.
- Pay attention – martial artist Ellis Amdur says that progression in the martial arts is easy, all you have to do is listen. I am reminded of that very human inclination when involved in discussion; sometimes what we do when listening to someone is to fixate on one thing they have said, work out our own counter-argument in our heads while failing to listen to the rest of what they have to say. I have seen this with students in seminars, where the student asks the Sensei a question that they already know the answer to. At one level they are just looking to have their ideas endorsed, at another level they want everyone to see how clever they are – not the right place to ask a question from.
- Linked to the above; Open-mindedness. Nothing is off the table, but everything in its right place and in the right proportion.
- Understand that knowledge is a process that is ongoing; the sum of what you know is infinitely outweighed by the sum of what you don’t know. There is no end point to this.
- Self-discovery is more valuable to you than having something laid out on a plate for you. The things you achieve through your own sweat, pain and frustration you will hold as your dearest discoveries. I have seen times where a really, really valuable piece of information has been given to student and because it came so easily they dismissed it as a trifle.
- Leave your baggage behind. You may have had a lousy day at work, a fight with your partner, your kids have been ‘challenging’, but, check all of that at the door, you are bigger than the burdens you have to carry. Acknowledge that they are there but put everything in its right place. Personally, I found that troubles shrink after two hours of escape in the Dojo; distance gives you perspective.
- Avoid second-thinking the process; or, transposing your underdeveloped thinking on top of something that already exists. A blank slate is always easier to work with. I once spoke with a university Law professor who said he personally preferred the undergraduates to enter his course without having done A Level Law, he preferred the ‘blank slate’.
- Avoid making excuses in challenging situations. Nothing damages the soul more profoundly than realising that in fooling others you are often lying to yourself; it’s a stain that is really difficult to wash off. If you fail, fail heroically; fail while trying to give it your very, very best. That style of ‘failure’ has more currency than actually succeeding; not just from the perspective of others, but also from your own perspective.
- Put the time in! The magic does not only happen when Sensei is in the room. Get disciplined, get driven. Movement guru Ido Portal probably takes it to the furthest extreme by saying, ‘Upgrade your passion into an obsession’, that’s probably a bit heavy for some people, because obsessive individuals tend to be overly self-absorbed, and as such cut other people out of their lives. Whatever passion/obsession you have it is far richer when you bring other people along with you. Other people add fuel to your fire, and the other way round.
The list could go on, because teaching and learning are complex matters, much bigger than I could ever write down here. And besides… what do I know?
Currently algorithms tend to be the fall-guys for all that is wrong in the world. People always leap towards the worst possible examples, like; would you every want a computer algorithm deciding who gets medical intervention, or is refused based on a calculated outcome? To some people algorithms ARE Skynet!
But, taken in the broadest definition we use some form of algorithm in many areas of life. In a nutshell it is ‘A’ leads to ‘B’, ‘B’ leads to ‘C’ or options branching off from any of the stages and it is really useful.
I ask this question in the context of martial arts because I have noticed a growth in algorithmic-style explanations of how some martial art systems work.
I can see the appeal of algorithms; they are accessible, predictable, understandable and communicable, all excellent things for a martial arts system to aspire to – the only weakness I see in terms of martial arts is that it’s really hard to make them measurable; but that’s for another discussion.
Building an algorithmic martial arts system is what you would do if you only had a very short period of time to prepare someone. A simplified system, stripped down, discarding all the inessentials (now where have we heard that before?). Four or five techniques repeated over and over until they are excellent would do the job. There are a number of obvious downsides to this; one being that its marketability is undermined by the boredom factor and the irony is that the ‘stripped down’ system has to build in greater complexity to make it interesting (more funky takedowns, armbars, gooseneck wrist locks etc.), and it turns into the one thing it was trying hard not to be.
In a way this follows on from a previous blogpost I had written; ‘Is your martial art complicated or complex?’
There are alternative approaches, but it depends on what your aspirations are – in fact it depends on a whole raft of things, including, how much time do you have available to invest in this? Where do your priorities lie in terms of what you want out of your martial art training? What system suits you both physically and mentally? (No, they are not all the same).
Something that is close to an algorithmic approach might be akin to taking a course in CPR or First Aid. In that instance you might be motivated by the worry of how you might be able to cope if you were unfortunate to arrive on the scene of an accident; would you be able to do the right thing? Lives might be at risk.
But let’s say you really wanted to dig deeper into this area, really wanted to become actively and positively involved in the saving of lives and human physical welfare. Surely then, if you had the opportunity and the inclination to do so you would study medicine? To do so would be to plunge deeply into what lies beneath the skin; even to looking at what operates at cellular level, with all the hours of dedication and years’ work that this involves. And for that to happen (as with all complexities) you have to go backwards before you go forwards, you have to turn over everything you thought you knew. In reality, this is a description of martial arts as a ‘Way’, a non-algorithmic ‘complex’ system; this is Budo.
Why would you want to put yourself through the long painful slog of a Budo system, one that is so arduous that you feel you are moving backwards instead of forwards, one where you are actually significantly weaker, structurally confused, coordinationally muddled and intellectually perplexed; in other words, not all that dissimilar to a first year medical student. Why would you do it?
To be clear; martial arts and everything associated with it is a physical conundrum that is engaged in by humans, not robots; fighting is not mechanistic, it is organic, it is a ‘complex system’. It is like swimming in the ocean, it’s not a two metre paddling pool.
A question that is often asked; just how do you engage with martial arts as a complexity; how does it actually work? I will have to be honest here; to answer that question I feel I really don’t have the qualifications, but I might offer some pointers. There are definitely guiding concepts that act like a map to keep you on the right road. But make no bones about it; knowing the concepts only in your head is about as useful as land swimming; this has to be done by the body and in as live a situation as is possible, while still remaining within civilised constraints of course.
To explain further:
The ‘complex’ martial art system differs from the algorithmic approach the same way that the chess computer AlphaZero was from its nearest rival Stockfish 8. For Stockfish all possible chess combinations were programmed in manually, while AlphaZero only learned the rules of chess (it took a mere 4 hours), AlphaZero then played itself through a phenomenal number of games to build up its stock of possibilities. It subsequently played a challenge match against Stockfish 8 and in a 100 games it never lost a single one. AI people say this is how human intelligence works. I would argue that this is how the ‘complex’ martial artist works. In algorithmic martial arts it’s pretty clear that you have to slip between modes, a bit like changing gear, but with a ‘complex’ Budo martial arts you are always in gear, because it’s built around a fundamental integral core of Principles, this is the nucleus of what you do, everything spirals out from that point; anything else is just nuts and bolts; even the funky takedowns, the armbars and the gooseneck locks.
The bad news is that you don’t read this stuff in a book, you don’t see it on YouTube and, unless you’ve got the eyes to REALLY see what’s going on, you certainly won’t find it in a one-off seminar.
Postscript: As an afterthought, Budo, like Medicine is not solely about the visceral stuff, both disciplines are underpinned by ethical, philosophical and moral considerations (in medicine it is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath).
Random reading during lock-down lead me back to a theme that had interested me for some time. In the past I had picked up a number of books on the history of the martial arts in the west. (I will give a list at the end of this post if anyone is interested).
What always intrigued me was the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. I was particularly interested in the civilian arts, how they were developed, how they were taught and how they were commodified.
This is a complex story but I will give a couple of examples that surprised me, and sometimes amused me.
I learned that historically the English did what the English are always prone to doing, i.e. despising the foreigners and always holding themselves up as the best. If you are interested read up on George Silver, whose book ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ written in 1599 took a swipe at the cowardly foreigners use of the rapier to stab with the pointy end instead of the slashing action of the ‘noble’ English backsword. The Italians and the French bore the brunt of Silver’s ire and he aggressively sought to make his point stick – literally. He had a hatred for immigrant Italian fencing masters, particularly Rocco Bonetti and Vincentio Saviolo. He challenged Saviolo to a duel, but Saviolo failed to turn up, which caused George Silver to crow about his superiority to anyone who would listen.
Fast forward nearly 200 years and the fencing master is still in demand. There was a market for slick Italian and French ‘masters’. Many of them taught horsemanship and, surprisingly, dancing (thus proving an observation I made in an earlier blogpost; ‘a man who can’t dance has got no business fighting’). The demand did not come from the hoi polloi, the proles – no, it came from the aristocrats, and for good practical reasoning.
From the 16th century onwards the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’ was all the rage. Wealthy young bucks were sent abroad to widen their horizons and soak in the classical antiquities around Europe and the Mediterranean. Although there was some effort made to chaperone these entitled and indulged young men (almost exclusively men) there was an expectation of expanding not just their minds but their… worldliness. This often resulted in an awful lot of bad behaviour (see, one of my particular heroes, Lord George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord Byron). Unfortunately, quite a number of these heirs came significantly unstuck. Sometimes whole fortunes were lost through gambling, or they fell under a robber’s blade or some equally dastardly misfortune.
Hence preparation for the ‘Tour’ was deemed necessary, and not just preparation of the mind, but the skills of defence, and often of fighting dirty. It was here that masters like Bonetti, Saviolo and in the 18th century the wonderful Domenico Angelo (more of him later) came in. These masters were paid well to teach sword and rapier, left-handed dagger and, intriguingly, skills like ‘cloak and lantern’; put simply, the cloak was used for defence and sometimes ensnarement, and the directed light from the lantern was used to dazzle or temporarily blind an opponent to allow the use of the sword or left-handed dagger.
But to return to Domenico Angelo (1717 – 1802). Angelo was sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke and later the dowager Princess of Wales; this patronage did him huge favours and boosted his reputation enormously. He was astute enough to build a business from his arts and turn it into a dynasty, three generations of Angelo’s thrived in their property in Soho Square and other premises. Angelo was an excellent example of early marketing, publishing a fencing instruction book, L’École des armes”, in 1763. He is said to have single-handedly turned the art of war into sport and health promotion; where have we heard this before?
But it is the issue of publication that intrigues me. This dissemination of martial skills through whatever means possible had been around for hundreds of years. There are medieval European fencing manuals still in existence. These are pored over by enthusiasts, researched both intellectually and physically by obsessives who enjoy nothing better than swinging two-handed blades at each other in full armour – the medieval version of Fight Club.
The manuals served a number of purposes. Expert in the field John Clements proposed eight possible motives for the creation of these books, all of which have resonance with recent discussion regarding how we access and archive martial arts material in the 21st century:
- To preserve the instructor’s teachings.
- As a private study guide for selected students.
- As a primer or reminder for students when not in class.
- To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage.
- At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art.
- To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students.
- To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters.
- As a means of acquiring a pension through recognition or appreciation of years of service and dedication.
What motivated medieval masters and swords masters right up until recent times to publish and present is pretty much the same as it is now. If we look at Japanese martial arts a similar pattern can be seen.
From the ‘patronage’ perspective I will cite a few examples:
The Yagyu dynasty of swordsmen from the 17th century, sponsored by the Tokugawa clan.
The 20th century sponsorship of Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido by various well-connected individuals.
Also Funakoshi Gichin, who worked hard to establish karate on mainland Japan in the 1920’s, something he could not have done without courting the right kind of sponsorship.
In the far east books and ‘master texts’ on martial arts have a long history; whether it is the ‘Bubishi’ or ‘Karate-Do Kyohan’. But they are never all-encompassing; it has to be said that it’s a virtual impossibility to give the complete body of information through the printed or written medium.
In line with the above list these publications fall into various categories; crib books, catalogues, visual cues, or in the case of Koryu Densho, transmission scrolls with opaque lists meant to be decoded only by the initiated. What surprises me, in this age of digital curation, archiving and future-proofing is that the old technology of printed paper versions have held up so remarkably well.
Some martial arts are better supplied by these various types of repositories. If your fighting method is comprised of only a handful of techniques, as can be found in some military manuals, then all you need is a few diagrams and a basic description. But if your art is more refined, with nuances and subtleties it is impossible to put these across in anything other than face to face encounters. The founder of Wado Ryu karate Otsuka Hironori is said to have expressed his frustration with trying to put his ideas into printed form. As this extract from a 1986 interview with Horikawa Chieko, widow of Daito Ryu master Horikawa Kodo tells us;
“On one occasion… an expert in Wado-ryu karate by the name of Hironori Otsuka happened to visit the dojo. He and Horikawa got on quite well. He was a wonderful person, and very strict about technique. He was talking with Horikawa and he said, “I’ll never write a book either” for example, there are many ways to put out one’s hand, but in a book all that can be conveyed is the phrase “put out your hand”, which misses all the subtleties. Both he and Horikawa agreed that techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words.”*
This is a discussion that could go on and on, and it is clear that the market place hasn’t so much become crowded as to have almost decamped altogether to the online world, where clamoring voices and slick marketing compete for our attention, almost to the point of overload.
A debate as to how this could all work out in the 21st century, with the involvement of new technology, can be found in an excellent slim publication by Matt Stait and Kai Morgan called ‘Online Martial Arts. Evolution or Extinction’. Ironically available in printed form and download from Amazon.
*Pranin, Stanley, ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu’ 1996.
‘By the Sword’ Richard Cohen 2002.
‘The English Master of Arms’, J. D. Aylward, 1956.
“When incompetent people are too incompetent to realise they are incompetent”, is only part of the story of the Dunning Kruger Effect. There is a lesson here for all martial artists (as well as anyone involved in any areas of the development of skill/knowledge).
The Dunning Kruger Effect is a graph or timeline explaining our perception of our own competence.
The Effect was first described in 2000 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. At the extreme left of the graph is a statistical pinnacle, this describes the supreme level of confidence that a person with very little skill tends to have. The timeline then turns into a cliff face and as the true nature of the specific skill reveals itself and the level of confidence plummets. Then comes a long pit of despair; followed by a gentle rise towards a modest level of confidence.
I wouldn’t presume to ask anyone to try and locate their own position on the Dunning Kruger graph line; that would be a wonderfully ironic contradiction, particularly if they are near the beginning of the graph line. As martial artists given enough time we may be able to look over our shoulder at our younger selves and remember our own ‘cliff face’ moment, but all I would say is, be thankful for it, and be thankful that you had enough fortitude to soldier on.
I am not naïve enough to think that the Dunning Kruger Effect is liable to be as neat a curve as the diagram suggests; but taken in general it is liable to follow that path.
But what about the ‘modest level of confidence’ at the end of the graph line? This is another part of the story; Dunning and Kruger also revealed that when people do develop their skills to a high level they are also inclined to score low in confidence, because they believe that those around them may also possess similar skills. This stands to reason in some ways because if your world is populated by people of a similar advanced technical background then you are likely to be only making comparisons with people like yourself.
The ‘modest level of confidence’ may sound like taking a position of being overly modest or humble but it also may be a symptom of what is known as Imposter Syndrome. Although not classified as a mental disorder ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a frame of mind whereby a person feels that their success is fraudulent, or that they’ve just been lucky. An author once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think ‘Uh oh, they are going to find out now; I’ve run a game on everyone and they are going to find me out’”, the author was Maya Angelou.
There is a basic checklist for Impostor Syndrome; it is;
- If you exhibit signs of being a perfectionist.
- If you find yourself overworking.
- If you have a tendency to undermine your own achievements.
- If you have an unreasonable fear of failure.
- If you are inclined to discount any praise you receive from others.
I suppose for senior martial artists there is another negative tendency, best summed up by a T-Shirt slogan I once saw for elderly bikers, “The older I get, the faster I was”. For martial artists one of the symptoms of this unacknowledged condition is the illusion that your belt is weirdly getting shorter day by day!
There are lots of Japanese terms relating to martial arts that in the West have become either talismanic or even fetishised. I am certain that there people out there who are non-Japanese speakers who may even collect these terms and phrases.
For me, they are interesting because when you examine them and try to get a handle on what is going on you really have to figure out how they fit into the whole of Japanese culture both historical and present, and that is a challenge in itself.
One phrase that cropped up recently in a conversation over beer (as most of these types of conversations seem to be recently), was ‘Shugyo’.
I remembered an explanation by Iwasaki Sensei about three types of training; ‘Keiko’, ‘Renshu’ and ‘Shugyo’. Keiko was explained as just hard physical training, it could include all the supplementary stuff like strengthening, conditioning, etc. Renshu was like drilling, refining, engaging with the technical aspects. Whereas Shugyo was a period of total emersion, some say ‘austere training’. Sensei explained that to engage in Shugyo you had to imagine some kind of martial arts monk, someone who has nothing in his life apart from mastering his art. At the time the idea seemed appealing; particularly the bit about turning your back on the world.
But there are other ways to think about Shugyo. Does it really have to involve a split away from society? I don’t buy the idea of meditating half way up a mountain, except perhaps on pragmatic grounds (where else can you find peace and quiet?). I am also sceptical about the Taoist monk retreating from the world. I’m more for the Neo-Confucian idea that practice and enlightenment can be found in the marketplace and the hurly-burly of city living.
I am coming round to the idea that Shugyo isn’t perhaps some all-defining experience; a one-off commitment like a pilgrimage. And the idea that you are guaranteed to come out the other side enlightened and cleansed with mastery at your fingertips is perhaps a little too romantic and creates fodder for the fantasists. It also seems to leave no room for one of the rude facts of life….failure.
Perhaps Shugyo is more episodic. It is possible that some people have engaged in Shugyo without even knowing it? Maybe those times of intensity were just seen as ‘rites of passage’ but in reality ticked all of the ‘Shugyo’ boxes. Admittedly they weren’t self-directed, but those grinding relentless repetitions were focussed, unforgiving and as near a perfect hot-house as you were ever going to get. I am thinking particularly of those long, long hours on whatever course or camp it might have been. But here’s the question I have been asking myself; if those were episodic ‘Shugyo’ opportunities were they well-spent? Or did they happen at the wrong time in our development; or beyond that, did we have the right material to work with?
From a personal viewpoint; with the right material, the right direction and the right background, the best time is…now.