Apparently, sales of books about Stoicism have rocketed during the pandemic. Why would there be a surge in interest about a school of ancient philosophy which is over 2000 years old?
Maybe, because one of the specific skill-sets associated with the Stoics is dealing with adversity; which is exactly why the Stoics may well have something to offer martial artists.
It is strange how the word ‘Stoic’ is used today. When you hear of anyone described as behaving stoically, it usually suggests that they are putting up with bad experiences or bad times in an uncomplaining way, or displaying zero emotion, or perhaps indifference to pain, grief (or even happiness). This is a little misleading and over-simplistic, and on its own, not particularly useful.
For anyone who has not heard of Stoicism before, a potted history may be necessary.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and enthusiastically embraced by key individuals in the later Roman Empire. It was established in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium in the city of Athens. Its main themes were the search for wisdom, virtue and human perfection.
After the Greeks it was eagerly embraced in ancient Rome, first by Seneca (4BCE – 65CE) a writer, politician and philosopher who was heavily embroiled in the politics associated with emperors Claudius and Nero and miraculously escaping two death sentences. Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is one of my go-to reads, an amazingly modern sounding set of conversations coming out of the long-distant past.
Stoicism was then picked up by Epictetus (50CE – 135CE) an educated Greek slave who lived in Rome, but was later exiled to Greece. He left no direct writings, but had one faithful disciple, Arrian, who dutifully wrote everything down.
Perhaps one of the most famous and accessible of the Stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121CE – 180CE). Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Gladiator’ may remember that Marcus Aurelius appeared in the very early part of the movie played by Richard Harris, and although he actually did die of unknown causes whilst on a military campaign at the age of 58, it was unlikely it was at the hands of his son and successor Commodus, as the movie suggests, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the great and virtuous Roman emperors. Fortunately for us, he left behind a book, now titled, ‘Meditations’ and it is this book of Stoic wisdom that has been snapped up in the recent Covid year.
I had wondered if any modern martial artists had picked up on the Stoics? While there are a few online references, the tone very much suggested to me a misappropriation and over-simplified cherry picking; reminding me of how a particular disreputable 20th century fascist regime (who will not be mentioned) misappropriated and misunderstood the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche.
Yes, some of the writings of the Stoics seem to suggest a kind of toughness, but Stoicism is a bigger package, involving elements of compassion and love. This perceived ‘toughness’ emanates from the Stoics’ detailed dissection of human motivation and how we should respond to the trials of just living. What is really of value, matched against what is trivial and not worthy of our attention.
It is a very pragmatic, workable philosophy. I often wonder if boxer Mike Tyson may perhaps have been influenced by the Stoics when he said, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That might have come straight out of Marcus Aurelius’’ ‘Meditations’. He would have liked that.
There are many cross-overs between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. It is a strange coincidence but scholars have pointed out that all of these great thinkers sprang up at almost exactly the same time in human history, but in places with no obvious geographical or cultural connections (Persia, India, China and Greco-Roman culture). Philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the ‘Axial Age’. The cross-overs are indeed uncanny, but I can’t help thinking that civilisations reached a particular pitch in their development which supplied the right nutrients for these philosophies to grow.
There is far too much on this theme for one blog post, but I will supply one example which is relevant to martial artists.
Stoicism is often referred to by modern behavioural psychotherapists, who tend to use a very close variation of this particular pattern of Stoic thinking.
(This comes from a recent podcast interview with psychotherapist Donald Robertson, information at the foot of this post.)
The ancient origin of this go back to a mischievous commentary engaged in by Socrates (considered to be one of the root thinkers of Stoicism) and dealing with the subject of managing adversity.
One day, Socrates said that he was incredibly disappointed with the way the heroes of Greek dramas coped with adverse situations, and that they’d nearly always got it wrong. His young companion asked him, ‘how so?’. Socrates then gave four pieces of advice on how to cope with bad situations.
- When bad stuff happens how do you know it won’t actually turn out for the better in the long run? To explain; maybe that job you didn’t get was not really for you and the next job is really the one that will launch you into a more positive future. Or, that girlfriend that you broke up with, actually did you a favour?
- If it already hurts, why voluntarily add on another layer of suffering by indulging in your own misery? (He’s not against regret or even grief, but if it goes on and on, then you are into another realm altogether, in the modern age it would probably described as clinical depression). Incidentally ‘venting’ is also of limited use; again, it can become habit forming.
- Although to you, in that moment, it is the end of the world; but in the grand scheme of things it may well be microscopic (depending on severity of course).
- Anger or freaking out may give you energy, but it actually inhibits clear rational thinking, which is actually the very thing you need to make yourself useful in a crisis. If it is your habit to fire up your adrenal glands to respond ‘positively’ then you’ve got it wrong. Over time, that particular habit will kill you. Some martial artists think that the fire of anger is useful, and train to artificially ‘switch it on’, – big mistake.
Of course, all of the above comes with a disclaimer; i.e. it depends on the situation and how extreme it is, not to put too fine a point on it, but, terminal is terminal, but even then, you still have choices. One of my heroes, Michel De Montaigne once said that the measure of a man is how he conducts himself when the ‘bucket is nearly empty’.
I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He chimes clearly with the Stoics and supports their idea that even in the worst of situations, you still have choices, you still have control. You can choose how you want to view the situation and you can choose how you want to react to it; even resignation is a choice.
Now put that into a Covid scenario. What is really interesting is how people choose to respond to Covid.
What would the Stoics have made of our Covid days?
Well, for a start, it wouldn’t have been anything outside of their experience. Socrates experienced a catastrophic plague at the age of 38 while serving as an infantryman. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the deadly Antonine plague which started in 165 CE and finally blew itself out in 180CE, with an estimated death toll of between five and ten million, located within a relatively restricted area, all of this at a time when they had none of the tools we have. With the Antonine plague (which was probably Smallpox) there was a dramatic shift in social structure, because, like Covid, it was indiscriminate, but inevitably was the scourge of the poorer classes. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius had to rapidly promote people from the lower orders, even freeing slaves, to ensure the infrastructure was able to operate. This was a perfect opportunity for a Stoic emperor to show what he was made of. Very much the Stoic ideal of changing what you can change, and not obsessing about what you can’t.
Yes, the Stoics taught resilience and a deep examination of human affairs, take these examples from Marcus Aurelius:
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”. (Obviously this not necessarily about physical injury.)
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life”.
And a particular favourite of mine and one to really ponder, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. And this from a man who knew about combat, both individual and large scale.
My view; there is much to learn from the Stoics.
Mo Gawdat podcast, talking to Donald Robertson about psychotherapy and Stoicism (says ‘Part 2’, but it’s really Part 1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8PH-DL5AI8
Featured image: A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. By Pierre-Selim – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954 (detail).
Morality in Japanese Budo tends to be plagued with confusion and contradictions; not least of which is the concept of a warrior art used to promote peace. I am fairly sure that in this blogpost I am not going to be able untangle the knots; but perhaps I can add some new perspectives on this tricky issue.
I have to admit to wanting to write something on this theme for a long time but I have always swerved away from it; probably for the very same reason that many others seem to have avoided it.
I think that the main reason that people tend to duck discussing morality and Budo is the very same reason that people don’t feel comfortable discussing morality, full stop. Nobody is happy climbing on to anything that looks like a moral pedestal and have the spotlight shine upon them and risk looking like a hypocrite.
With me it is exactly the same, in that I don’t feel qualified or worthy enough to occupy that particular pulpit.
Introducing the subject of morality is a bit like the taboo around discussing politics and religion over the dinner table; two subjects guaranteed to spoil a good evening.
In the martial arts, I cannot think of any of the Sensei I have trained under who have been inclined to, or felt comfortable, climbing on to the moral soapbox. For the same reasons listed above.
Armenian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949) once said, “If you want to lose your Faith, make friends with a priest”. For me, that sums it up nicely.
However, I do believe that it is possible to tiptoe through that particular minefield and remain objective about morality in Budo.
In part, the reason for me writing this now is after recently viewing a series of on-line discussions with eminent Western traditional martial artists and, although their main theme was ‘Shu Ha Ri’, they often strayed into the thorny area of morality within Budo and the development of ‘moral character’. If you have six hours spare you can follow the link below.
It is said that in traditional Japanese Budo the Morality rules are literally woven into the fabric. I use as an example the traditional divided skirt, the Hakama. This garment has seven pleats, with each one said to represent the ’Virtues’ sought within Budo, these are the guiding moral principles. Some people say there are seven, others say five, but for convenience I will stick with the seven model. These seven are:
- Yuki – Courage.
- Jin – Humanity.
- Gi – Justice or Righteousness.
- Rei – Etiquette or Courtesy.
- Makoto – Sincerity or Honesty.
- Chugi – Loyalty.
- Meiyo – Honour.
These are described as ‘Virtues’ rather than as components of a moral code. The word Virtue is a better fit because in the west the concept of being moral tends to lead you in a slightly different direction than the Japanese model. Being ‘moral’ in the West has too much baggage, a hint of the fluffy bunny feeling about it. Either that or it is associated with po-faced condemnatory Victorianism.
Rather, the suggestion here is a person of ‘Virtue’ or with ‘Virtues’, or, alternatively, ‘Qualities’, but these must be positive qualities.
But there are a number of things within the traditional list of Budo virtues that don’t translate well. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, because the translations, like the Kanji, are multifaceted and have to fit into a Japanese cultural and linguistic framework.
Secondly; these martial arts virtues are the product of an Edo Period mindset, or even further back. Clearly the social structures and the mental landscapes of warriors in that particular place and at that particular time are far removed from the way we live today.
Even the translation of what would seem a fairly self-explanatory concept offers up some questions.
I will address one example, not directly mentioned in the above list, but certainly connected to it. (and this is a person reflection):
From my experience, nobody under fifty years of age ever seems to use the word ‘honour’ anymore, let alone adhere deliberately to the concept. ‘honour’ only sees the light of day in the most negative of circumstances, as an example, the concept of ‘honour killings’, how did that happen?
In much the same way as, in today’s social interactions, no man is ever referred to as being a ‘gentleman’. Similarly, across the genders. I cite as an example this observation: For many years I worked as a teacher in a Catholic girls school, and it always amused me when I saw young girls being chided by female teachers for ‘un-ladylike behaviour’, what does that even mean today? I suppose you could talk about the same behaviour as being ‘undignified’, but even that word has worn a little thin these days. (I refer you to the justifications given by St. Miley of Cyrus for the contentious ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, of which I have only heard about, of course.)
I am old enough to remember when two ‘gentlemen’ shook hands over a deal it was this symbolic act and their ‘honour’ that sealed it. It all seems to have disappeared from the world of commerce and is only seen on the sports field.
Another example from the modern lexicon is the word ‘respect’, which seems to have been warped and weaponised and is permissible to function as a one-way street. This is particularly noticeable in urban slang.
But to return to the above listed Japanese Virtues.
‘Jin’ as ‘Humanity, also has a very nuanced meaning in Japan.
Yes, it does refer to the ideals of a care and consideration of other humans beyond yourself, but also ‘Jin’ is a model of humanity perfected; we all aspire to be ‘Jin’, or at least we should be. From my observation the Japanese concept of humanity is similar to Nietzsche’s model in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’; of Man suspended on a tightrope caught between his animalistic nature and his God-like Divine potential. ‘Jin’ is that Divine Potential realised. It is Man perfectly positioned in the universe as the sole conduit between Heaven (the universe) and Earth. It is the triad of ‘Ten, Chi, Jin’.
For convenience sake, Morals, Virtues and Values can all be tied together into one bundle.
Regarding Values; there has been a relatively recent push towards looking for values shared across cultures; values for the whole of humanity. As we work towards an idealised global community this was considered a goal worth striving for. But it’s not as easy as it looks.
The dominance of Judeo-Christian culture and ideals over the last 1000 years has pretty much set the standards for what we understand as moral behaviour (and values) and has achieved a world-wide monopoly on what is acceptable and desirable. But we have to remember that Judeo-Christian culture is the new boy on the block.
Other cultures had been hammering out their moral codes for thousands of years before Judeo-Christian models appeared on the scene, and it is quite often at variance to what we would now deem acceptable. As an example; activities condoned in ancient Greece and Rome would cause shrieks of horror in modern Western society.
Further east, Chinese culture was blossoming when we in Europe were hitting each other over the head with sticks. Chuang Tzu in 200 BCE was wrestling with advanced philosophical problems of human consciousness (See, ‘The Butterfly Dream’) and the Han Chinese at the same period had advanced tax systems, hydraulics and machines with belt drives; while at the same time in Britain we were embroiled in Iron Age tribal brutality and cattle stealing, and then along came Christianity and everything was alright! (Sarcasm alert).
Morality still has an important role to play in contemporary martial arts, even though the world has moved on and the fabric of society has changed and continues to do so at a terrifying rate. The nature of martial arts study in the modern age inevitably involves people and wherever human interaction occurs we are better working towards common goals for the improvement of society. We are living examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
How about a campaign to restore the word ‘Honour’ and claim back the word ‘Respect’?
Respect to you all.
Featured image: Author’s own collection.
Book Review: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’.
I have to admit to spending an awful long time mulling over what it is with the human race that makes us such a toxic species, with our proclivity towards violence and seemingly unplumbed depths of out and out badness.
I remember being convinced that everyone one of us has the capacity for unspeakable savagery and that the veneer of civilisation is so very thin. Now my opinion has changed considerably; all down to one book, ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.
I had read Bregman’s previous book ‘Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There’ and was impressed. Bregman seems to be one of those people who are prepared to not accept everything at face value AND to think outside the box. In addition to that, he will call foul if he sees it, as he did with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, (Google it!). And shaming the Davos delegates; “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance…and of the rich not paying their fair share” . [Link]
Bregman is great at presenting the evidence and supplying concrete examples of how things have been done differently. But in this latest book he goes further.
Humans are hard-wired to see the worst in people and societies have further hard-wired themselves to expect the worst of the whole of humanity. Bregman explains how this has all been of use to us and how it’s been cynically exploited; from; ‘original sin’ to group culpability and the fear of the outsider. But the evidence suggests that if push came to shove we are also hard-wired towards compassion and amazing acts of cooperation and generosity. We are pretty awesome!
In his book Bregman deconstructs the premise of William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, and proves that in a real situation the complete opposite would happen (and it did, in 1965, when a group of schoolboys were stranded on an island for fifteen months). Bregman says that our ‘superpower is cooperation’. He also examined the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 and called it out as baloney, the same with the Stanley Milgram ‘Electric Shock’ experiment of 1961. It looks to me like not only does a whole bunch of English Lit. commentaries on ‘Lord of the Flies’ have to be re-written but also lots of psychology text books!
We’re not completely off the hook though; the concept of ‘empathy’ takes a bashing, and additional bad news is that we can’t unweave the societies we constructed; but, perhaps, by reading Bregman’s book we can at least understand how our motivations work.
A chapter titled; ‘Homo Ludens’ (Man at play) really cheered me up, as it chimed with things that occurred to me gradually over years of working with children (the open-endedness of ‘play’ I mentioned in a previous blog post, here.)
It’s not that difficult to connect Bregman’s optimism to concepts found within Japanese Budo. Recently re-reading Otsuka Hironori’s book, particularly the section, ‘Analects of the Instructor’ it was obvious to me that master Otsuka’s underpinning philosophy was founded upon peace and the bringing of peoples together. In fact, if you deconstruct the Kanji for ‘Wa’, normally understood as ‘harmony’, and take it back to its basic pictographic level you would struggle to find a better example to sum up the spirit of the ‘super power’ of cooperation, with its allusion to the collaborative and civilising mechanisms found in agrarian societies. In Dave Lowry’s book, ‘Sword and Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts’, there is a description of ‘Wa’ from Japanese tea ceremony devotees, Harmony (‘Wa’) is, “the capacity to get along with others, to sublimate the self for a greater cohesion within the larger social nexus”. The image for ‘Wa’ is of a pliant healthy rice sprout positioned next to the symbol for a mouth; either representing ‘feeding’ or just civil discourse and communicating, or a combination of both.
To literally restore your faith in humanity, I would thoroughly recommend that you pick up this book and reflect on the wider implications of Bregman’s observations. It could not be more apt, particularly in the times we are living and with the vague possibility of a re-think of our values and systems in a post-Covid world.
What architects can tell us about kata.
I think there is much to be gained from approaching a well-known subject from a completely different angle. Kata has been the backbone of everything we do within Wado karate; it’s the text book we all return to, particularly when we are working to get to the heart of our martial system. It is everything; a receptacle, a framework, a compressed and concentrated format for us to explore, move through, or dwell upon; all qualities you may find in a superior piece of architecture. And, like amazing architecture, it may be inspired by pure Principle, but it is still a man-made construction, carefully designed and thought-through and meant to last.
Both kata and architecture have form and function; though, for many people, the initial focus for both kata and architecture tends to be on the form; function has a tendency to be a secondary consideration. But really, both of these aspects should be given equal status, and there are other qualities, harder to pin down, also of major importance.
Many years ago, I was in conversation with an architecture student. I’d asked him what were considered to be the most important factors when designing a building? He replied with one word, “Flow”. This was the ability for people to move in, out and through the building.
It certainly wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it changed my appreciation and understanding of every great building I have since visited.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is to be found in the 2014 National Geographic ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium vs The Colosseum’ documentary ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVfQdjpXa4k ) where computer simulation compares the efficiency of the evacuation process of these two great buildings, separated by nearly 2000 years. Spoiler alert – It seems that the Roman architects did rather well and certainly understood ‘flow’.
A long time back, when I was a student of design, I came across the work of the Swiss-French designer and architect known as Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). Initially I was drawn towards his ‘Modulor’, this was a calculation model that took into consideration the proportions of the human body to work out optimum living space; which again could chime comfortably with considerations of the design of kata; but, for the sake of this comparison I find another of Le Corbusier’s insights particularly pertinent, his description of a house being “a machine for living” (1927 manifesto); it provides us with a potential paradigm shift when looking at kata.
Try this thought; ‘Wado kata is a machine for human movement’? Or, ‘Wado kata is a machine for fighting’? Of course, depending on your predilection, you could tag on any number of concepts that would work for you.
But what of the spaces, the gaps, the shifts between ‘A’ and ‘B’?
Here I could dip into a much older source; Lao Tzu ‘Tao Te Ching’ (4th century BCE).
“A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty centre.
A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.”
Le Corbusier would have found that quote resonated with his own thoughts.
Certainly, the use of open or ‘empty’ spaces in Japanese Zen-inspired art is a highly refined utilisation of not shying away from the void.
The same could be said about another architect; Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959). It is said that he was able to create buildings which upon entering filled people with an ineffable sense of awe; but not one based on pure scale. Architecture students found it difficult to pin down, until they shifted their focus from walls, ceilings, supports etc. and looked at pure space.
Wright instinctively knew how to manipulate openness, airiness and the effects these have on the deeper levels of human consciousness. I experienced this myself in a museum reconstruction of a Frank Lloyd Wright interior in New York. Just being in this room made me want to stay, to breathe it in, I was overcome with a feeling of comfort, tranquillity and many other things besides. I was being manipulated by the architect!
Would it be too far fetched to describe the hardware, the walls, ceilings, floors as Yang; while the spaces in between are the Yin?
And what of the gaps in the kata? The spaces between the structure; the pauses in between, the apparent quiescence of the ‘Yoi’ position? The punctuations, the declarations of intent found through ‘Kiai’ (with sound or without)?
Katas become our cathedrals. Each kata is an edifice, a bringing together of ideas and resources to create a focal point. The kata also give us a sense of occasion, a place for ritual and reverence, including unashamed symbolism (the overt salutations found in kata like Bassai, Kushanku etc.)
With all the great cathedrals and temples, people bring their own psychological and physiological baggage with them, and may well attempt to refine or polish their spirit within that environment, within that framework.
It might be lazy categorisation, but I see those who look at buildings and see walls, floors and ceilings, and those who see kata as punches, blocks, kicks and the ‘making of shapes’, as ‘materialists’.
But sometimes materialists need to be put back in their box, and shouldn’t be allowed to have it their own way, to hijack the debate on kata. Yes, there is a material form to kata, for isn’t ‘form’ the literal translation of ‘kata’ – and here we could get into Otsuka Sensei’s ‘kata’ v ‘igata’ debate, but I will skip that for now.
Kata needs to be a living thing, just as buildings need to come alive through their functions. The original architects of the great buildings didn’t wholly impose their will upon the people who used them, but instead, through the spaces, galleries and chambers they created they fuelled the imagination of generations to come, who were then able to reach beyond themselves and engage with the greater project of ‘being’.
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.