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).
Here is quote from Fred Turok chairman of ukactive from 2014,
“By 2020, the average Brit will be so sedentary that they will use only 25 per cent more energy than if they spent the whole day sleeping… Over the last 50 years in the UK, physical activity levels have declined by 20 per cent. Even worse, they are projected to decline by a further 15 per cent by 2030.” And here we are, in 2020 (but maybe not the 2020 that Fred Turok envisioned) and have we sunk to the levels that Turok predicted?
Despite the fact that evolution has designed us for movement technology has relentlessly moved us step by step towards a utopia we shouldn’t really be aspiring to; a future of avoiding movement.
For example; we travel short distances and long distances in motorised armchairs; we seldom make our own entertainment any more, we sit back and let other people do it for us. The argument has been that ‘labour-saving’ devices have freed us from domestic drudgery; but what do we do with that freedom? We ‘rest’, but ‘rest’ from what?
Essentially we have made terrific inroads into NOT using our bodies.
If we look at the longest timeline of human existence, the vast majority of it had movement as part of its vital make-up. This is movement for survival as hunter-gatherers; movement for warfare, movement in migration and movement in rituals and dance and other creative activities.
Maybe there is some good news – but it’s mixed.
It could be said that a kind of counter-culture has been around for a very long time. The so-called ‘fitness industry’ has been in existence in one form or another since the days of the ancient civilisations, but interestingly physical culture for its own sake was mostly available to only a limited range of people. The list included; the wealthy, with leisure time available, and the young. Looking at the price of modern gym membership and who the advertising is pitched at, not much seems to have changed.
We are now being told that poor diet and obesity is a national problem (particularly in the light of developing information about Covid-19). It is an interesting observation that for the first time in many thousands of years, the rich get thinner while to poor get fatter; what a turn-around that is.
But there are other contradictions here:
I see online ads for gyms full of people engaging in what I’m sure they consider as low-tech training methods; tractor tires are rolled, turned over and hit with sledge hammers, sometimes happening in converted industrial units – oh the irony. I wonder what my grandfathers would have thought about that?
My paternal grandfather’s job was described as being a ‘hewer’ or a ‘ripper’ which Wikipedia describes as, “men who remove the rock above the coal seam and set rings (arches) to raise the height of the gate or road as the coal face advances”. I never knew him; he was killed in a roof collapse at the age of 48 in 1935. My maternal great grandfather was a railway navvy (navigator) and a bare knuckle fighter; he dug tunnels, extending the London Underground network in the 1880’s. Both of these would probably have been amused beyond imagination at the sight of people sweating and grunting with tractor tires and ‘battle’ ropes, (snort!) and paying for the privilege! Pumping iron in ex-industrial units where men used to ‘pump iron’ for real. I’m sorry to say it but, this is satire beyond satire.
My physio says he loves these people who ‘play with’ tractor tires; saying that they keep him in business. I quote, “Here are people who in their daily lives never pick up anything heavier than a pen – nobody teaches them proper lifting techniques, nobody thinks to start them off on smaller tires and they wonder why their back has gone out! They keep me in business. Give them my card”.
‘Boot camp’ training often has the same problem; the assumption being that training that is designed for indestructible 17 year old recruits is going to work for flabby office workers, really?
Forgive my cynicism, but, despite all these advancements I wonder if we have over-complicated the issue. It is true that generally we are not moving enough, we are not engaging with our bodies or celebrating our own individual capacity for movement and hence not reaping the benefits. Fitness culture is too often conflated with vanity; certainly the Ad men would want us to believe that, it sells gym subscriptions and feeds off our insecurities.
But what about movement for movement’s sake, as when young children play, run and climb, or movement as part of human expression, as with dancers? And for the older person, there are immeasurable opportunities for engaging with movement, either through structured meaningful disciplines or just taking to your feet and indulging in the clean open air, in sunshine or foul weather and celebrating just being alive.
‘Finding Your Balance Using the Japanese Wisdom of Chōwa’ by Akemi Tanaka.
‘Chōwa’ when broken into its two parts means, ‘Cho’ ‘searching for’ or ‘working at’, establishing ‘Wa’ Harmony (Yes the very same ‘Wa’ 和 as in Wado Ryu!)
Although this book only takes a gentle nod in the direction of Japanese martial arts it is nonetheless a fascinating study and guide for anyone wanting to gain an insight into Japanese culture and society; as well as gaining an understanding of how the all-encompassing Japanese concept of ‘Wa’ operates within Japanese society.
The book is multi-layered; yes it gives a wonderfully unique perspective that crosses between eastern and western cultures but it also delivers incredibly practical and usable advice for modern living.
Akemi Tanaka casts an objective but critical eye on her native Japanese culture; unafraid to outline where she believes that Japanese culture has been somewhat adrift. She includes issues such as feminism and aspects of personal relationships, love, romance and family dynamics. She runs useful comparisons between the western approach and the eastern approach that were particularly enlightening and she includes fascinating Japanese concepts; some of which we encounter within our studies of Japanese Budo.
Her suggestions for focus and tips for modern living were a real breath of fresh air. There are ‘Chōwa lessons’ and suggestions about how to uncomplicate and unclutter your life. For anyone running a hectic household and balancing family life there are some real practical gems.
Akemi Tanaka is open and frank about her personal life and the difficulties she experienced trying to carve her own way in the world. The book crackles with her personal energy and drive; her battles to establish herself and her triumphs through her charity work. She adeptly balances the concept of ‘the self’ and ‘society’, encouraging individuality and creativity.
For me the book unravelled some of the complications I had often puzzled about when dealing with all things Japanese. I had always admired the very practical way that Japanese people dealt with the social conundrum of close living, particularly household living. The book outlined how carefully crafted social conventions acted to oil the wheels of people accustomed to living cheek by jowl. But this is also living Artfully, not just ‘existing’, which is a whole exercise in enrichment and personal fulfilment while still being inside of society and contributing fully.
At the end of the book there is a feeling that author has shared with you something truly personal.
For my mind the book was too short; but then isn’t that always the case with a really good read?
I had heard a while ago that theory and practice in martial arts were like the two wheels of a cart. One without the other just has you turning around in circles.
It is a convenient metaphor which is designed to make you think about the importance of balance and the integration of mind and body. On one hand, too much theory and it all becomes cerebral, and, on the other hand practice without any theoretical back-up has no depth and would fall apart under pressure.
But here’s another take on it, from the world of Yoga.
Supposing the ratio of theory to practice is not 50/50, and it should be more like 1% theory and 99% practice?
So, for some of the yoga people it’s is very nearly all about doing and not spending so much time thinking about it. I sympathise with this idea, but I feel uneasy about the shrinking of the importance of theory and understanding about what you are doing.
I am sure that I have mentioned in a previous blog post about how the separation of Mind and Body tends to be a very western thing. In eastern thinking the body has an intelligence of its own, over-intellectualisation can be a kind of illness. How many times have we been told, “You’re overthinking it, just do it”? Or, “Don’t think, feel”.
Maybe this points to another way of looking at the diagram above…
Perhaps it’s more like this?
I.e. a huge slice of theory, study, reflection, meditation, intellectual exploration and discussion (still making up only 1%), and an insane amount of physical practice to make up the other 99% to top it off!
Just a thought.
A presumptuous title, I know, but bear with me, I have a theory.
I have often wondered how Otsuka Hironori the founder of Wado Ryu thought. I wished I had been able to climb into his head, navigate all those very Japanese nuances that are so alien to the world I live in and see as he saw; a bit like in the movie ‘Being John Malkovich’. But more importantly and specifically to see what he saw when he was dealing with an opponent.
I am fairly convinced he didn’t see what we would see in the same circumstances, the mindset was probably very different.
This is all guesswork and speculation on my part but to perhaps support my claim, let me backtrack to a comment made by a very well-known Japanese Wado Sensei.
I was present when this particular Sensei made a very casual off-the-cuff comment about Otsuka Sensei – so quick and matter-of-fact it was easy to miss. It was in a conversation generally about movement; I can’t remember the exact words but my understanding was this; he said that Otsuka Sensei’s ‘zone’ was ‘movement’ – he (Otsuka Sensei) could work with ‘movement’, but inertia held no interest for him, it was no challenge. That was it; an almost throwaway comment.
I held on to this and thought about it for a long time, and out of this rumination I would put this theory forward:
It is highly possible that Otsuka Sensei was acutely tuned to zones of motion and energy; like vectors and forces governed by Intent and energised by Intent; an Intent that for him was readable.
For him it is possible that the encounter was made up of lines of motion which, in a calculated way, he chose to engage and mesh with. These involved arcs of energy that extended along lines limited by the physiology of the human frame (a refined understanding of distance and timing), but also he was able to engage with that frame in itself, not just its emanations and extensions. He saw it as Macro and Micro, as large or small scale tensions and weaknesses and he was able to have a dialogue with it, and all of this was happening at a visceral level.
The computations normally associated with reasoning and calculation would have just gotten in the way – no, this was another thing entirely; this was the ‘other’ brain at work, body orientated, woven into the fibre of his being, much more spontaneous, coming out of a cultured and trained body. And there is the catch… it would be a great thing to have the ability to ‘see’ those lines, energies and vectors, but ‘seeing’ on its own has no meaningful advantage; it becomes a self-limiting intellectual exercise; an academic dead-end. No, the body (your body) has to be trained to be refined in movement, otherwise the necessary engagement/connection is not going to happen; or, it happens in your head first and your body is too late to respond! The key to unlocking this is there, it always has been there; but unfortunately too often it is hobbled by formalism, or that perennial obsession of just making shapes.
It’s a lifetime’s work, and, even with the best will in the world, probably unobtainable. But why let that put you off?
As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.
The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.
Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.
Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.
Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.
Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”
Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.
To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.
As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.
I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.
As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.
*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.
In Ushiro Kenji’s book, ‘Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought’, he mentions that when your sensei asks you if you understand, you should always be wary of answering it with an emphatic “Yes”. A better answer may be, “Yes, but only to my current level of understanding”. How can you really state that you are fully in the picture of what your Sensei is trying to communicate? It all becomes relative to your current point of development, and (if we are being realistic) we are all existing on a continuum of expanding knowledge – or we should be.
This is nothing new. Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) had worked it out (and was despised by some of his contemporaries for this). Here is a quote from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online], “[The] awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is what is known as Socratic ignorance, … Socratic ignorance is sometimes called simple ignorance, to be distinguished from the double ignorance of the citizens with whom Socrates spoke. Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.”
In my last job I spent many years advising teenagers about to depart for university, and one thing I used to say to them was that one of the worst insults that could ever be thrown at them was for someone to describe them as ‘ignorant’; I also included shallow as well, but ignorance was the most heinous of crimes.
An obvious part of this is to be aware of the lenses you are looking through (check out, ‘observer bias’ and the closely related ‘cognitive dissonance’). Martial artists seem particularly prone to this. We see this when someone has a pet theory, or a favourite concept and feels a need to carve it in stone. Once it’s gone that far down the line there’s really no going back, and even in the light of new evidence which contradicts or turns over the pet theory they are stuck with it and it can become a millstone around their neck.
The error is in not acknowledging your own ignorance; feeling you should set yourself up as the authority in all things.
We are not very good at understanding the limits of our own knowledge. We make an assumption that in all areas of life we are existing on the cutting edge of what is possible – that may be true but we still encounter stuff that is either imperfect, or goes wrong, or breaks down; be that in systems, societies or technology. Deep down we know there is the possibility of improvement and advancement, but that’s always for tomorrow.
Take medical science as an example. Someone recently said to me that there’s never been a better time to be ill. Now, I take issue with that in more than one way; the obvious one being that really there is no ‘better’ time to be ill at all! Another point is that this comment was probably the same one used by an 18th century surgeon when he was just about to saw someone’s leg off without anaesthetic.
I suppose it is the arrogance within humanity that arrives at these rather bizarre conclusions. Perhaps in a way it is a kind of comfort blanket; maybe we are hiding from a much more sobering reality? Sometime in the future will some social historians be looking back at us and marvelling at how primitive and naïve we were? Or perhaps this is already happening within our own lifetime? Maybe my generation has been the first to witness such a dramatic rate of change and advancement. It’s a fact; compared to previous centuries the rate of change has speeded up phenomenally. One factor alone sums it up nicely – the Internet. I think we can talk confidently about ‘Pre-Internet’ and ‘Post-Internet’.
However, human skill development at a physical level does not increase at the same high speed that technological development can. Athletes can still shave a hundredth of a second off a 100 metre sprint, but it can take years to achieve this comparatively tiny gain. In fact any significant human skill still takes hours of dedicated practice to achieve. A 21st century aspiring pianist still has to put the same amount of hours in that an 18th century one did. Of course we are smarter about how we organise the learning process, this is sometimes supported by technology but the body still has to do the work. Our attitude towards human physical achievement and ambition has changed over the last 100 years. Take the example of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4 minute mile; critics at the time claimed that Bannister had cheated because he trained for the event! Their attitude of course was that Bannister should have done it based upon his own innate undeveloped physical attributes; his God given talent.
The acknowledgment of ignorance is inevitably a positive thing; it’s the acceptance that there is a whole big world out there, a boundless uncharted territory which is loaded with amazing possibilities.
It goes without saying Martial Arts can easily be categorised as a human skill (a Craft). It’s a trained activity directed at solving specific problems. Problem solving can be achieved to different levels depending on the competence of the person addressing the problem. It could even be argued that problem solving is binary – either you solve the problem or you don’t. But problem solving is not necessarily an ‘end-stop’ activity, there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Following this ideas that martial arts art are crafts, I would like to explore this further to see if anything can be gained by shifting our perspective and pushing the boundaries and looking at what a ‘craft’ actually is.
Sociologist Richard Sennett has a specific interest in Craft and Craftsmanship. For him ‘Craft’ is just doing the job, probably the same as everyone else, just to get it out of the way; a basic necessity. But ‘Craftsmanship’ is the task done in an expert, masterly fashion (Like the famous story of the master butcher in The Chuang Tzu). But the craftsman’s response to the problems/challenges he faces is not just a mechanical one; it changes according to the situation, and, whether it is master butcher, musician, painter or martial artist, the challenge is fluid, and as such adjustments are made on the spot and new ways of doing the same thing evolve. The craftsman doesn’t ‘master’ his art, because his mastery is ever-moving….or it should be. The skills of the master craftsman becomes a linear on-going project, not an end-stop.
Sennett says that craftsmanship at a basic level involves identifying a problem, then solving that problem; but that it shouldn’t end there. The solving of an individual problem often leads on to new problems that the craftsman may not have known existed prior to engaging with that particular individual problem. A combination of his intellect, his curiosity and his evolving level of mastery leads him towards tackling that next unforeseen problem and the process goes on.
In his research Sennett interviewed ex-Microsoft engineers who lamented the closed system of Microsoft, but lauded the open creative possibilities of Linux – for him this was an example of craftsmanship in progress. I am reminded of the comparison between the old style chess programs and the latest AlphaZero chess program. With the old style programs the moves had to be inputted by human hand; with AlphaZero the only input was the rules of the game; the computer then was free to play millions of games against itself to work out an amazing number of possibilities that just multiplied and multiplied.
It is not a huge leap to apply this way of thinking to Wado. Utilising the skills we develop in a free-flowing scenario engages with many problem solving opportunities that unfold in rapid succession. If we do it well it is all over very quickly, or, if we are working against a very skilled opponent the engagements may be more complicated, for example using an interplay of creating or seizing initiatives (‘Sen’). But to do this your toolkit (your core principles) must have a solid grounding otherwise you might have the ideas in your head but not necessarily the trained physicality to carry them out, and certainly not in the split second often needed.
If we really want to develop our craftsmanship we have to look for the opportunities that are created beyond the basic level of simple problem solving, but without losing the immediacy and economy that underpins Wado. I know that sounds like a contradiction but it is possible to be complex in your simplicity; it’s just a matter of perspective.
My intentions are to present a book review and at the same time expand it to look at the potential implications for martial artists of this very interesting theme.
For anyone who has not discovered the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi get hold of his book. ‘Flow – The Psychology of Happiness’.
This came to me from a very roundabout route. Initially I was curious about Mushin no Waza, (technique of no-mind), a concept many Japanese martial artists are familiar with; but further research lead me on to ‘Flow States’. Musicians might describe this as working ‘in the groove’, or ‘being in the pocket’, psychologist Abraham Maslow called it ‘Peak Experience’, being so fully immersed in what you do, in a state of energised focus almost a reverie. It’s all over the place with sporting activities. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an ‘optimum experience’.
I should say at this point that it’s nothing mystical or magical, although some would like to describe it as such. As with magic – magic ceases to become magic once it’s explained. I know that once the illusionist’s sleight of hand technique is revealed we all feel a little disappointed and the magical bubble has burst, but if explanation leads to greater understanding it’s a loss worth taking. So it is with Csikszentmihalyi’s book; he unpacks the idea and neatly describes the quality of flow experiences as well explaining the cultural and psychological benefits.
In a nutshell, flow states happen when:
Whatever activity you are engaging in creates a state of total immersion that you almost lose yourself within the activity.
The identifying qualities include:
- Total focus (excluding all external thoughts and distractions).
- The sense of ‘self’ disappears but returns renewed and invigorated once the activity has concluded.
- Time has altered, or becomes irrelevant.
- The activities must have clear goals.
- A sense of control.
- Some immediate feedback.
- Not be too easy, and certainly must not be too hard and entirely out of reach.
Now, I challenge you to look at the above criteria and ask yourself how these line up with what we do in the Dojo. I would bet that some of your most valuable training moments chime with the concepts of the flow state – you have been there. Many of us struggle to rationalise it or find the vocabulary to explain it, but we know that afterwards we have grown.
This ‘growth’ is vital for our development as martial artists and human beings. This is what they mean when they describe martial arts as a spiritual activity; but ‘spiritual’ devoid of religious baggage, but ironically in traditional martial arts there is generally a ritualistic element that sets the scene and promotes the mind-set necessary to enable these flow state opportunities; so I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this side of what we do.
Csikszentmihalyi says that flow experiences promote further flow experiences; i.e. once you have had a taste of it you yearn for more, not in a selfish or indulgent way but instead part of you recognises a pathway to human growth and ‘becoming’. We become richer as these unthought-of experiences evolve; we become more complex as human beings.
What is really interesting is that flow states are not judged upon their end results; for example the mountaineer may be motivated by the challenge of reaching the top of the rock face but it is the act of climbing that creates the opportunity and pleasure and puts him in the state of flow and rewards him with the optimal experience that enables him to grow as a human being. So, not all of these experiences are going to be devoid of risk, or even pain and hardship, they may well be part of the package.
Another aspect is that in the middle of these flow experiences there is no space for errant thoughts, if you are doing it right you will have no psychic energy left over to allow your mind to wander. In high level karate competition the competitor who is ‘in the zone’ has no care about what the audience or anyone else might think about his performance or ability; even the referee becomes a distant voice, he is thoroughly engaged in a very fluid scenario.
How many times have you been in the Dojo and found that there is no space in your head for worries about, work, home, money, relationships. You could tell yourself that this ‘pastime’ just gives you an opportunity to run away and bury your head in the sand, but maybe it’s more a case of creating distance to allow fresh perspective.
If Otsuka Sensei saw Budo as a truly global thing, as a vehicle for peace and harmony, then consider this quote from author and philosopher Howard Thurman, and apply it to the idea of Flow;
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Early 20c Japanese Jujutsu.
I recently watched a YouTube video which was focussed upon the sanitisation of old style Jujutsu techniques that were cleaned up to make them safe for competitive Judo. Throws and techniques which were originally designed to break limbs and annihilate the attacker in dramatic and brutal ways were changed to enable freeform Judo randori where protagonists could bounce back and keep the flow going.
This inspired me to review techniques in Wado, some of which I believe went through a similar process.
We know that the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, Otsuka Sensei had his origins in Koryu Jujutsu and that Wado was crafted out of this same Koryu base; Wado is certainly still considered as a continuation of the Japanese Budo tradition. Koryu Jujutsu in particular had historically developed a reputation as an antiquated form of brutality which was not compatible with an agenda developed by modernisers like the founder of Judo Kano Jigoro.
To set the context; Wado went through many transformations, and even though quite elderly Otsuka Sensei was still reforming and developing Wado Ryu throughout his long life; a project that was continued through subsequent generations of the Otsuka family.
But how much has Wado allowed itself to be sanitised? Did we lose something along the way? Was Wado de-fanged, did it have its claws clipped? And, if it has, where is the evidence?
But beyond that – does it matter? The loss of these dangerous aspects may well be a moot point; the development of Wado may well have bigger fishes to fry, and this particular issue may just be a distraction from a much larger agenda.
However, to my mind it’s still worth considering.
First of all, I am reminded of a discussion I had with another instructor regarding the craziness of the practice of the Tanto Dori. Thinking back to when these knife defence techniques were part of the Dan grading syllabus, nobody seemed to care what kind of blade you pulled out of your kit bag; blunted pieces of stick, to razor-sharp WW2 bayonets, in fact there seemed to be a badge of honour based upon how sharp and dangerous was your Tanto! We laughed about how such practices would be looked at in today’s politically correct, health and safety environment.
In Judo there are the Kinshi Waza, the banned techniques; these include. Kani Basami (Crab Claw scissors), Ashi Garami (Entangled leg lock), Do Jime (Trunk strangle), Kawazu Gake (One leg entanglement). These are the techniques that the authorities decided were more likely to cause injury, so not necessarily banned because of their viciousness, more their proclivity to cause accidental damage.
Within Wado undoubtedly some techniques were ‘cleaned up’, even within my time.
I can think of at least fifteen techniques, most of which existed inside the established paired kata which were ‘made safe’. Sometimes this came out of trial and error, i.e. the Japanese Sensei saw too much damage incurred by over-enthusiastic students, so decided to soften the technique to minimise injury. Others were implied techniques, e.g. ‘if this technique were to be taken through to this position it would result in significant damage’. Some of these techniques were hidden; you would struggle to spot them if they weren’t explained to you. In some cases the ‘brutal’ part of the technique was actually easier to execute than the so-called ‘cleaned up’ version, but this latter version remained closer to the practice of Wado principles; a contradiction….maybe, maybe not.
A variation on Kumite Gata. The body is ‘scissored’ apart; this is combined with a leg action that completely takes away the base. It is almost impossible to practice this technique safely.
I think that most people are aware that some throwing techniques were designed so that a successful breakfall (Ukemi) would be extremely difficult or even impossible, resulting in damage that you would never recover from; not something to dwell on lightly. (A prime example in Wado is the technique known as Kinu Katsugi, which we now practice in a way that enables uke to land relatively safely).
This Ohyo Gumite technique is very effective on its own, but another variation involving standing up from this position would result in Uke being dropped to the floor with very little chance of being able to protect themself.
Right, Suzuki Sensei showing the ‘stand up’ associated with this technique.*
There are other Wado techniques which on the outside look incredibly dangerous but are sometimes so wrapped up in misunderstood formalism that the accepted coup de grace becomes a merely academic endeavour (works well on paper but could you make it do the job?). Usually this is because of a misunderstanding of the mechanism of the technique itself, or the mechanism of ‘kata’ and how the teaching model actually functions.
I remember Suzuki Sensei sometimes held ‘closed-door’ sessions, you had to be above a certain grade to participate and no spectators were allowed. I attended some of these and the best I can describe them was that they involved what some would think of as ‘dirty tricks’, but very effective fighting techniques which would really damage your opponent.
To reiterate; while it is interesting to speculate on these matters, compared to the other complexities of Wado they could be looked upon as a mere side-show, after all, just the fundamentals take a lifetime to get your head round, never mind all of this.
*Photo credit, Pelham Books Ltd, ‘Karate-Do’, Tatsuo Suzuki 1967.
‘Never rely on autopilot, it will always let you down’. In kata training I am always saying this to students; particularly when preparing for grading of competition.
Autopilot in kata is just switching your brain off and letting your body take over and rattling through the moves at top speed. Most of the time you will get through the kata okay, but at what cost? Mindful practice is infinitely more valuable. But all too often autopilot will stall or glitch and then all the wheels will come off. The more kata you know the more it is liable to happen. Many of you will know what can go wrong part way in to Kushanku kata… everything was going well then suddenly you have missed out four shuto uke and slipped into Pinan Yondan!
That is one type of autopilot error. The other one affects the more senior experienced karateka. This is the one where you let your body take over assuming that all the moves are spot-on perfect, even at full throttle! It may not be the case. If you do that be wary of what audience you are putting it in front of. A knowledgeable audience will see all your weaknesses. If you are a senior Dan grade always give the same scrutiny to your own techniques that you give to your students; don’t assume you are getting it right.
There is another aspect that connects with the physical understanding and performance of kata and that is the question; is it possible to depart from the kata while still staying with the kata? Sounds like a contradiction but it’s not; it all depends on how you use the kata. It is possible to go so far into the kata that you come out the other side. The second grandmaster of Wado Ryu gave some methods of departing from the kata while still holding on to its integrity. He had two methods of free-forming within the kata, but to do this demanded supreme confidence and knowledge of the character of the kata. It reminded me of something I had heard which was common to the creative Arts (visual and performing), the concept was; ‘Once you know the rules inside out and every which way, then you are allowed to break them’. This is the same with painters as it is with musicians. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”. This example from jazz fits really well with the second grandmaster’s approach to aspects of kata.
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?
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.
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert in this area and I hold no recognisable qualifications; but I wanted to put a few thoughts together about body maintenance based upon my forty-three years of experimentation, failure and accumulated damage; some of it self-inflicted. (I started my Wado training in 1974).
I say that, but in actual fact I think I have been quite lucky; I have never broken a major bone and to my recollection I have only ever been knocked out once. In my early training I did some really stupid things, practices that are now considered Neanderthal and downright counterproductive; but you can almost get away with it when you have youth on your side. In your teens and twenties you believe you are indestructible and the Mantra, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, borrowed from Nietzsche, becomes an excuse for all kinds of damaging activities. In a macho society you all support each other in the delusion that if everyone is doing it then it must be right, and so ballistic stretching, repeatedly allowing yourself to be hit, throwing yourself straight into extreme exercises with no real preparation or warm-up all seem like the right thing to do.
They say that hindsight is always 20/20 but really; what were we thinking?
Thank goodness we are now all better informed. Developments in science, as well as information available on the Internet has resulted in us all being more knowledgeable. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. We are not all the same; our bodies don’t roll off a production line. We inherit our physical capabilities and limitations from our genes and in later life we carry around the burdens created by lifestyle, accident, illness and environment.
I spent some time under the care of a very experienced physiotherapist who was helping me solve a particular joint problem. I always enjoyed treatment from him because of his blunt and frank explanations of how the body works and tales of the stupid things people do; it was worth every penny. I would advise anyone suffering with injury to seek out a really experienced physio; as someone once pointed out; you wouldn’t think twice doling out £300 to have your car fixed, what price do you put on your own body? The physio opened up a whole new world to me regarding the subtleties of the physical mechanism; how easily things can get out of whack and how resilient the body is; but it was the methods used to treat the injuries and imbalances that intrigued me the most; some of it coming out of a need to address engrained habits and the way the body, out of expediency, bodges its way through things.
Without turning this small article into a heavyweight study I want to boil everything down to a few basic pointers:
- Be informed and realistic about what your body can do (one size does not fit all) there’s no excuse for ignorance.
- Work your body in a way that it supports what you want to do with it. Don’t assume that everything you need for physical conditioning will happen in the Dojo alone. I learned this lesson from the late Suzuki Sensei. When I moved to the south of England and was able to train with him regularly I was initially surprised that we never did any warm-up exercises prior to the senior classes. We used to warm-up in any available space outside beforehand. Suzuki Sensei’s approach was that you are here to do karate not calisthenics.
- Remember, there is development and maintenance. As you get older maintenance becomes more important in that you need to maintain flexibility and core strength, particularly when muscle strength begins to decline; but if you aim for development then maintenance becomes a given.
- Be honest in identifying your body’s weaknesses, but also your limitations. For example; if you start your karate training later in life a jodan kick may not be possible for you outside of radical surgery, but really that doesn’t matter, mawashigeri jodan is one of many techniques used to solve a problem, and in reality it is unlikely to be the technique that gets you out of trouble.
- Don’t undervalue what you can’t see. By that I mean the benefits of body movement based upon training methods like yoga or Pilates cannot be overstated; but the external advantages are difficult to see. Internal structure and work on complementary muscles and tendons which support movement such as those found in yoga and Pilates are really valuable to martial artists.
- One last word of warning; the body is affected by the state of your mind. The mistake we make in the west is to split the body and the mind. If your mind is in the wrong place, or your thoughts, value and judgements are askew then this will wreak revenge on your body; maybe not at the beginning but certainly further down the line there are more possibilities of the wheels coming off.
Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.
Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!
Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.
Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming fossilised relics of what may have originally been fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.
This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.
Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.
Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.
The section on Chi is a real myth buster.
His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.
It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.