Hierarchies.

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This is not about politics (though it may start out like that).

It used to be said that if a man is not a Socialist when he is seventeen then he has no heart, if he is still a Socialist when he is fifty he has no head. This does not mean that you are supposed to swerve from left to right as you mature, personally I don’t subscribe to the tribalism of ‘left’ and ‘right’ anymore, they are both two cheeks of the same backside.

Socialists abhor hierarchies, while at the same time feeling it is necessary to utilise them (contradiction?).

Humans by their very nature have a desire to set up hierarchies, even where they do not exist.
Imagine a man who could balance ping pong balls on his nose; would he be content to be the only person who could do that? I doubt it; instead he would present it as a challenge to other jugglers and balancers, who would, inevitably, be able to repeat the trick thus rendering his ‘achievement’ as mediocre. So he then manages to balance two balls on his nose, one on top of the other; seemingly impossible and sets himself up as King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers! A hierarchy is created – out of nothing. I suppose a good question would be; would ping pong ball balancing put food on the table? There lies another discussion.

In all hierarchies there are winners and losers and people in between and there is supposed to be mobility; not like the old feudal pyramid, more like a ladder.

The people on top give you something to aspire to – unless you are hopelessly stuck on the bottom and then you either resign yourself to failure and give up, or you become a festering ball of resentment, which is not healthy.

These people on the very top are there for a reason. To briefly examine that, it might be worth making a quick reference to French and Raven’s six bases of power. This was formulated in 1959 by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.

  • Base 1. Legitimate power (or inherited power) – the person in charge has the right to be there.
  • Base 2. Reward – You are rewarded by letting that person assume the position.
  • Base 3. Expert – That person is the most skilled, so they should be on top.
  • Base 4. Referent – the person is seen as the most appealing option because of their worthiness.
  • Base 5. Coercive – The fear of punishment keeps this person on top.
  • Base 6. Informational – (added later and very apt to today) The person on top controls the information that people need to get stuff done.

Every boss I have ever met considers that ‘Base 3’ is why they are there, with a liberal dose of ‘Base 4’ of course.

Everything you have ever done and gained a feeling of positive achievement from existed within a hierarchy, and that of course includes martial arts training. If the hierarchy is working well you have confidence in the system because opportunities arise from engaging in it, you reap the rewards of your own efforts.

Ambitious people tend to form their own hierarchies and strive to become king of their own tiny little hill, and we see that in the martial arts all the time – everyone wants to King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers.

Tim Shaw

Going to the extreme.

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Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung & Ueshiba Morihei.

Recently I have been reading a biography of Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and something just jumped off the page at me.

Jung suffered a prolonged mental breakdown between the years 1913 to 1918, but what happened to him during those years did not drag him down into an irrecoverable pit of despair and degeneration (as had happened with Nietzsche), he instead used his own condition to explore the workings of his mind, and in the process of doing so discovered significant and profound insight that he then wanted to share with the world, an unfolding of the mind. To me this sounded familiar.

In 1925 an energetic and obsessed Japanese martial artist called Ueshiba Morihei also underwent a significant change. In his culture it was described as an enlightenment; an extreme physical and psychological episode, during which certain ‘realities’ were revealed to him, motivating him to disseminate the message to all Mankind – the message was Aikido.

Henri Ellenberger wrote about such episodes in his 1970 book, ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’, he described them as, ‘Creative illnesses’. Interestingly Sigmund Freud (Jung’s mentor) also underwent a similar breakdown and revelation. Amazingly, all three of these men experienced these episodes at the same time in their lives, between the ages of 38 and 43. To me this all adds up.

There is a common process here; all of these individuals had gone for a total emersion into their chosen disciplines; they had all stretched the boundaries further than anyone had ever gone before. In Japan this kind of process usually involved a retreat into the isolated wilds, which included meditation (introspection) and physical hardships.

If you look for it this pattern is all over the place; it’s a human phenomenon, part of what Jung was to call the ‘collective unconscious’.

Iconic American musicians of the early 20th century retreated to the ‘Woodshed’; Robert Johnson had his enlightenment at the crossroads at midnight when he ‘sold his soul to the Devil’.

The ultimate model of near breakdown and Enlightenment is the Buddha, but there have been many other figures from different traditions. I’m not so sure it all ended up in the right area, after all we only hear of the successes, never the failures. Or we hear of historical examples who have been adopted as successes, but whose lives, when looked at through modern lenses, may well tell another story – I am thinking of St Teresa of Avila as one prime example; I wonder what a Jungian or Freudian psychoanalyst would have made of her?

Tim Shaw

Order and Chaos – Why it Matters for Martial Artists.

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I have recently been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ and I have watched a few of his lectures online. Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and has some quite interesting things to say. His views on Order and Chaos chimed with something that had been going through my head for a long time.

Way back when I was a university student I attended a lecture on ‘Apollo and Dionysus’ that got me thinking. As you may know Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine, darkness and of wild hedonism and chaos, a real fun guy. While Apollo was the god of reason, order, light, a total bore; the ‘Captain America’ of superhero gods. The logic of this was creating models of duality; virtually the same as the Taoist Yin and Yang, which is a simple circular motif of two halves, one black, one white separated by a curving line.

For the purpose of explanation ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are the most useful terms.

The realm of Order is everything we know; where rules are followed, structures are in place, it is comfort and to some degree also complacency (but more of that later). Whereas Chaos is unpredictability, it is the gaps between the laws that protect us; it is what happens when things break down, small scale and large scale, ultimately expressing complete anarchy.

I witnessed a minor version of chaos recently on a Tube train in London late at night. The majority of the passengers were abiding in the world of order, following social protocols, but a small noisy part of drunken people came into the carriage, not following the rules; nothing significant happened but to me they were like illogical, fuzzy minor condensed version of chaos, anything could have happened, the potential was there, just by the presence of chaos.

Peterson says that it is healthy to not just acknowledge chaos but also to engage with it. The complacency that comes with order ultimately would just result in you staying in your room. Progress comes from stepping out into the world and moving away from your comfort zone and putting yourself in more unpredictable positions (chaos).

Look at what we do in martial arts training.
In a very simplistic way we discipline ourselves through the most orderly, regimented environments imaginable, we convince ourselves we are training for chaos, and, in a way we are, but not necessarily in the way we think. Violence is an extreme embodiment of chaos and should not be taken lightly, but it is a complex issue full of wild variables. Just think of one of the worst scenarios; multiple attackers, unfamiliar environment, motivations unclear, limited light, all parties befuddled or fuelled by alcohol – it’s a mess. But this is an extreme.

Let’s go back into the Dojo; here are some examples of engaging with chaos that lead you towards more positive outcomes.

It starts out very simply, where you pressure-test your training in more manageable ways.
In a formal setting there is scope for tiptoeing into the chaos zone; e.g. if you work kihon gumite but the Torime doesn’t know what the second attack is; you could gamble, but it’s better to see if you can resolve the problem through your conditioned training.

Every time you take part in sparring; there are rules but essentially you are engaging with controlled chaos.
In my Dojo we have been working for a long time now on devising new ways of pressure-testing our reactions to attacks, creating opportunities to really work our conditioned responses, one method we use is called Ohyo Henka Dousa, a method of continual engagement  with an attacker’s intent.

To go back to the Yin Yang symbol, Peterson says that the curving line between the two areas is a line that we should tiptoe along, occasionally deliberately allowing our foot to stray into the zone of chaos and very much acknowledging that it is part of our lives – something that can be used for good.

Tim Shaw

Waza o Nusumu.

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‘Waza o Nusumu’ is a phrase I’d heard and read about some time ago; essentially it means ‘stealing technique’. It relates to an old style aspect of direct transmission of knowledge from Sensei to student. We know that verbal transmission or just telling students how techniques and principles work is not an efficient method of passing high levels of skill and knowledge on to future generations. We also know there are other models; for example in old style Budo teachers passed information to their students by having them ‘feel’ their technique, but even that is a flawed method.  How do we know if the student is really getting to the core of the technique, or is just mimicking the exterior feel of what they thought was going on?

Waza o Nusumu sounds subversive or even dishonest, but really the teacher is in cahoots with the student; he wants to present the technique to the student, perhaps in an oblique way, a hint here, a hint there, or even a quick demonstration to see if they have the ability to grasp it.

I am reminded of a Wado Sensei I know who wanted to explain Okuriashi foot movement to a junior student and so had a £5 note on the floor with a piece of cotton attached and told him if he could put his foot on it he could have it; every time the student tried to put his foot on it (with Okuriashi movement) the note was snatched away.

It also makes me think of Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver’, the scene where he encourages Oliver to steal the handkerchief dangling out of his pocket.

As mentioned earlier, all of this can fall apart if the student only grasps a part of the picture. It is entirely possible for the student to make the assumption that they’ve ‘got it’ when they haven’t, probably because they’ve projected an understanding on to it that is immature or underdeveloped; this is where the importance of ‘emptying your cup’ comes in.

Another side of this is that the student has really work at it to decode what they have ‘stolen’. There is significant value in this; partially because understanding with your head only is never enough, this is part of making the technique or principle your own. If you are to truly value it and ‘own’ it it has to come from your own sweat.

Tim Shaw

‘We only have two arms and two legs’.

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‘We only have two arms and two legs’ is one of my least favourite sayings in the martial arts. I have to say that as a convenient aphorism it probably works well for some martial artists, but it doesn’t work for me.

It’s far too simplistic; it suggests that a human being is little more than a cartoon mechanical man; Robbie the Robot or a Lego character.

I understand that for those who are looking for neatly packaged answers statements like this have a particular allure. I have also seen this used as a trump card when Internet discussions descend into, ‘my style is better than your style’, or, ‘after all, we are all doing the same thing’ (usually to bolster the agenda of those who think a ‘buffet’ approach leads to a superior system). ‘After all, we only have two arms and two legs’.

‘We only have two arms and two legs’ is a convenience.

Although we do know that human limbs have a set length and that joints only operate through very particular ranges of movement; we also know that the body has strong areas and weak areas and that being bipedal we don’t have the advantages that quadrupeds have in balance and mobility; but this is only the beginning of the story.

There are other areas which make the task of dealing with human physical intent (fighting) significantly more problematic.

Physically the human frame in motion has to be treated like a piece of multifaceted mobile engineering, (but not bound by mechanical rigidity); this is an organic structure with complex dependencies, levers and pulleys and boundless numbers of tiny calculations which take place in a fraction of a second. Miniscule compensations which ripple through the system like complicated relays; long strands of connectivity all working in harmony. To understand this and work with (or against) it is the challenge of the skilled martial artist.

This aspect of human physiology/kinesthetics is not new; it has been examined in many diverse fields, from Myofascial theory to Alexander Technique. The sedate calculated movements of the Tai Chi practitioners also engage with this idea.

Of course this is a two way thing; all of the above relates to both sides of human engagement; the so-called ‘aggressor’ and the ‘defender’ (depending which way you want to look at it). To know, recognise and explore these qualities inside yourself extends naturally to knowing how it operates inside another person.

Beyond this is the investment of energy involved in both sides of the process (attack/defend), how do you read or calculate the amounts of energy involved and get it right? And then there is ‘Intent’; the ‘Mind’ working like a general directing troops. This also leads into another important aspect, something that humans are very good at, particularly when compared to other members of the animal kingdom, and that is the ability to calculate cause and effect, how one calculated action sets off a chain of other reactions.

All of these are a long way from, ‘We all have two arms and two legs’.

Tim Shaw

Shikukai Winter Course Chelmsford.

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Another winter is another winter course; but this wasn’t just ‘another’ winter course.

Each year the Shikukai winter course has been hosted by Shikukai Chelmsford and it just seems to get bigger and bigger, better and better. It could be said that the success of courses acts as a barometer for the health of an organisation; this is certainly true across all similar sporting/physical disciplines. Over the last twelve months Shikukai membership has continued to grow, in the UK and in Europe and it was noticeable this year that all bar perhaps a handful of students on the course were Shikukai members.

For the first time this year we decided to extend the training opportunities and actually kicked the course off (unofficially) on Thursday evening. As this was our normal club night and people had come a day or two earlier this was a great chance to gather at the regular venue and train and sweat together.

This year we had a larger contingent from Holland as well as students from the Czech Republic, Hungary, France and Norway. This worked really well for our continental students for two main reasons; firstly the closeness of an International airport to Chelmsford (London Stansted airport is only 30 minutes away) and so we were able to organise easy airport pick-ups for our guests. Secondly; we were in a position to offer accommodation for most of our guests which kept the overall costs down.

The first official training session was under Sugasawa Sensei direction, this was Friday night. It was a good indicator of how things were to go, in that the training space was only just big enough to comfortably hold the students. Part of Sensei’s theme was to encourage a bigger, more energised style of movement and he was able to show and explain how this should manifest itself in our movements. When the training was over we were close enough to walk to a traditional English pub and served excellent food and drink.

Saturday training at Danbury Leisure Centre was also very busy. Sensei directed the training but also split the groups between Shikukai’s most senior instructors to enable everyone to work on kata relevant to their syllabus. Three hours training flew by. Saturday evening involved a meal for nearly forty people at Sans Restaurant, Chelmsford and the entertainment went on until the early hours of the morning (for those who had the stamina).

Sunday saw another three hour session; this time after kihon practice the class was split again for pairs work with the seniors working on Kihon Gumite and Kumite Gata. Sensei took the Dan grading candidates aside for personalised instruction. After training the Dan grading panel was convened; congratulations to Kevin Evans of Swindon and Emma Hawkins of Chippenham for passing 1st Dan.

We were very conscious this year that people who took the time to travel and attend the course should get the maximum out of their training. For those who were able to train all the way from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon this meant that they were able to clock up an amazing nine and a half hours of concentrated training.

Our thanks to everyone who attended and to Sugasawa Sensei for his inspirational teaching.

Tim Shaw

Feedback (part 2).

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What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?

When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.

But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.

If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.

The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.

You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.

Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.

Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.

Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).

There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.

Tim Shaw