Reflections on how karate students sometimes struggle to grasp the idea that they are progressing and improving.
When you are sat on an aeroplane; comfy and strapped into your seat; alongside lots of other people who are also passively settled in their own seats; have you ever thought about the wonderful contradiction you are experiencing? There you all are, row upon row of people, not going anywhere. But just glance at the flight progress animation in the little screen in front of you (long haul of course) and think of the vastness of the planet and the distance your plane has travelled in the last hour and then tell yourself you are not going anywhere. Of course, it’s all so ridiculous and obvious and easily dismissible.
I know everything is relative; as Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. So why do karate students sometimes get the feeling that every lesson is like day one? Why is it so difficult sometimes to observe your own progress?
Of course, it is entirely possible that no progress has been made; what is it they say, “If you always do what you always do, you’ll always get what you always get”. But, as a quote, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. It might just be that progress is so slow that it is barely perceptible, like the hands of a clock.
There was a Dojo I used to visit quite regularly in the early 1990’s which had the same membership for many years; but when opportunities came to advance came along, be it through gradings or something else, the students shrank away. Yet week after week they came back and did the same session. Oh, they would work hard and they loved what they were doing but they just stayed the same, they never improved. Whether they thought that the penny would eventually drop, or that maybe they learned by osmosis, or whether they were just keeping fit, I never knew, they just never improved.
But then there is the other type of Dojo; which also has regular membership and attendance, coming back week after week. But, maybe, lurking at the back of their minds could be some personal doubt, “Why does it feel like I am not improving? Come to think of it, why does it feel like nobody in the Dojo is improving?” Maybe they fail to see what is right under their noses. Like the passengers in the plane, they are all there together, all on the same ride, shoulder to shoulder and all moving forward as one; all developing on their journey almost in step, in unison.
But for them, the clues are there to be found. A visitor comes to the Dojo, someone who was there a year earlier and says, “I saw these same people here a year ago – wow, haven’t they improved!”
These same students find that on bigger courses they measure up well against people of the same grade, and, as such feel pride swell in their chests. They put themselves in for grading examinations and they pass! They enter competitions and they do well!
But sometimes they still doubt themselves. In the competition, they could say to themselves, “Maybe I was just lucky that day”. In the grading, “I feel that I didn’t deserve that pass, why did they let me have it? I wasn’t even on top form”, but nobody is ever on ‘top form’! Competition wins are rarely ‘life defining’ and, as for gradings, they are just endorsements and markers along the way, neither of these are ends in themselves. If your sole objective is the next belt, or winning ‘that’ competition I would seriously question why you are even doing martial arts?
Sometimes karateka slip into the trap of Imposter Syndrome, (Definition: “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”) I wrote about this in my previous blogpost about the ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’. A crucial element of this is that sometimes the karateka doesn’t feel like she is progressing because she is no longer in the company of inept amateurs. She is in the world of people just like her, well-practiced and skilful, and also, if she is lucky, in the company of those who are better than her, which acts as an incentive and a draw to push her to excel. Experiences and environments like that keep her constantly on her toes; this is the zone of growth.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
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.
I suppose at some level we could all see it coming; on the eve of this recent course in Holland Covid-19 was knocking on the door of European civilisation like the Goths invasion of the Roman Empire. We weren’t to know it but this course happened just before the doors were slamming tightly shut, and who knows when they will be opened again.
Naturally we had our reservations, but as of that particular time we followed guidelines and took the safety of participants very seriously.
I honestly thought that attendance would be very low but was surprised that only a handful of people had cancelled. This meant that the Dojo was not too crowded and we had the space and the time to make sure that everyone gained individual attention and we could really dig deeply into the planned agenda.
I had thought this one through very carefully – I always plan the courses in detail, and this time I wanted to tackle some of the lesser covered themes. This was deliberately designed to be challenging, not necessarily physically, but mentally and technically.
For our first two hours on the Friday night I chose Tanto Dori (knife defence). Initially we looked at techniques that were from the standard Wado playbook. I made sure that people understood that these were densely packaged forms (kata) with layered lessons contained within each specific part of the sequence. I then moved on to lesser-seen Tanto Dori; ones which operated from the formal kneeling position; much more demanding physically, as the body manoeuvres and evasive techniques demanded absolute concentration and control to avoid being skewered.
Saturday’s class was for three hours and covered different dynamics of movement which ultimately took us into Kushanku kata. For some reason a kata that contains so much information tends to be left behind, I’m not sure why. We did not avoid the more athletic aspects of this form; in fact I encouraged people to embrace the character of the kata, with its elongated movements, low drops and demanding spins and turns.
The last day, Sunday, everything was geared towards pairs practice with Kihon Gumite No. 10 as the apex technique. We explored other principles which acted as an introduction to Kihon Gumite and made links to moves found in the Pinan kata. We were fortunate to have mats available and this gave everyone a chance to experience that big over the top throw found in Kihon Gumite 10 (in a safe manner).
And so it ended, and, with a heavy heart, I had to leave my friends in Holland, not knowing when we would all get a chance to train together again. We have spoken optimistically about another course in October, but let’s see how things work out.
Huge thanks to Martijn Shelen and his team who hosted this course and to everyone who came along.
Rumours about the appearance of this book circulated a long time ago, and so finally it is here.
For me it was well worth the wait. Although it is a weighty tome I found it difficult to leave alone and so now I am on my second reading.
The organisation of the book is neatly packaged with many excellent photographs, diagrams and images. It covers historical, theoretical and technical aspects of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu and supplies very informative personal and anecdotal experiences of key figures within the Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.
The history section immerses you into the complex world of what was to be called ‘Koryu’ Budo/Bujutsu and it easily dispels any myth, which usually come out of oversimplification. Piece by piece an image of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu starts to appear out of the miasma of Japanese lineages. Facts collide with legend, which in turn throws up further questions, some of which are unlikely ever to be answered.
It is clear that Threadgill Sensei and the late Ohgami Sensei have been involved in significant on the ground research; chasing down leads and engaging with surviving descendants of some of the main SYR players involved in this complicated saga.
Throughout the complexities, the jigsaw images of evidence, anecdote and documentation SYR appears as a system that was buffeted by change, navigating around the powerhouse that was late 19th century, early 20th century Judo, which lured traditional Jujutsuka into a world of Randori and contest and away from their fuller curriculum. It also describes the ascent and descent of various SYR branches which echoed much of what was happening to the traditional martial arts of Japan in the Meiji to Showa periods of Japanese history.
Does this book have relevance to students of Wado karate?
It depends where you are on your journey in Wado. For history buffs like me it was like catnip. I couldn’t get enough. But also, although SYR and Wado are as different as cats and dogs their connection cannot be ignored and as such, a surprisingly large section was devoted to the founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori.
I was impressed with the author’s approach to the potentially thorny issue of Otsuka Hironori’s role in all of this. This was dealt with in an even-handed and factual way with Otsuka Sensei reputation intact, perhaps even boosted. Throughout the book the authors acknowledge the huge contribution Otsuka Sensei had made to the survival of SYR, without really being aware of it. The irony of course being that at the age of 30 Otsuka Sensei left SYR behind to synthesise his accumulated Budo experiences into the formulation an entirely new entity, Wado Ryu Jujutsu Kempo. Thus, for a long time, SYR became a footnote in Wado history – but not any more.
It is clear that Wado enthusiasts were drawn by curiosity to the surviving SYR and this curiosity extended sufficiently to cause some of them to beat a path to the door of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu Kaicho Tobin Threadgill Sensei – his recent seminars in Europe attest to that.
In the technical section of the book, although deliberately and understandably incomplete, it is possible to see common strategies and common nomenclature. Within the body of this section it is possible to read between the lines and gain glimpses of Otsuka Sensei’s technical base and the underlying strategies of Wado Ryu. My conversations and experiences of people within TSYR have certainly informed my reading of this text, reinforcing my view that when Wado was formed the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.
Who knows, perhaps there is more to come from the pen of Threadgill Sensei. I certainly hope so.
I have it on good authority that the late Ohgami Sensei was able to see advance productions of this book and greatly approved of the completion of this joint project before his passing. Although I only met him once I know that he will be greatly missed.
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?
Re. Wado Kata performances on YouTube or forums, be they competition honed kata or personal kata movies. Comments are invited, but I really don’t understand what people want these comments to say?
Competition kata is… a performance, practiced to comply with a set of criteria so that one kata can be compared to another and clearly people look at examples of the kata online and match it off against their own personal expectations.
No kata is ‘perfect’, but if we notice flaws in the kata through the imperfect medium of video what kinds of flaws are we looking for?
Some people get all hung up on ‘a foot position there’ and ‘hand position elsewhere’ yet fail to see the bigger picture. I guess people will disagree with me here, but surely the bigger picture is the method of actually moving – and I don’t mean how fast or strong a technique is delivered; that would be a bonus – if the techniques are performed with the refined principles of Wado AND have celerity, energy and intent, yes that is probably going to be a damn good kata.
Surely we have come a long way from ‘harder, faster stronger’? Wado is a complex system – by that I mean ‘complex’ not complicated; there is a difference. One move, like Junzuki, can contain many complexities, while 36 kumite gata can become complicated – but not insurmountably so.
For me the curse of kata appraisal is what I call the ‘picture book approach’. In that some people judge the kata in a kind of ‘freeze frame’ of the end position of any individual move, taking that frozen image and judging it just by its shape. This method of judgement is really low on the evolutionary ladder. Since the 1960’s Wado has evolved significantly and students and instructors have access to a far greater level of understanding than they had fifty years ago, except of course for those areas where people have clearly opted for a policy of arrested development.
Then there is Observer Bias:
“Observer bias is the tendency to see what we expect to see, or what we want to see. When a researcher studies a certain group, they usually come to an experiment with prior knowledge and subjective feelings about the group being studied.”
People see what they want to see, because they are uncomfortable with anything that interrupts or contradicts their current world view – it’s human nature. Thus, when we feel a need to say whether this approach to kata is superior to that approach, maybe it’s just an expression of our own bias; we focus on those things that either comply with our world view, or don’t.
Judging by comments of forums regarding Wado kata, it also tends to bring about a worrying tendency towards tribalism. I fully understand this, and I am sure that at times I have also felt the knee-jerk inclination towards my own tribal instincts, but I try my best to keep these in check. However, as long as we recognise this for what it is, without the need to call it out, then it will hopefully wither on the vine and conversations will remain civilised and polite.
Then there comes the argument; is there such a thing as a bad kata? I would say; yes there is.
Some say that as long as they stay within a particular bandwidth that represents an acceptable understanding of Wado then that’s fine. But that’s just a fudge – exactly how wide is this bandwidth?
Is the bandwidth just about shapes? From my understanding Otsuka Sensei established some very sound guidelines and sent his best students out into the world with the responsibility to pass on these essential guidelines and although it may have been part of it, shape-making was not the main priority on the list.
A shout out to one of the nicest Dojos I have ever had the privilege to teach and train in.
Kenkokai Dojo in the Netherlands is situated 14 miles south of Amsterdam and 6 miles outside of Hilversum. It is the personal project and newly formed business of Martijn Schelen, who is an instructor both with Shikukai and the Dutch organisation the KBN.
When I first visited there in May of this year what struck me was the amount of care that had been taken to create the right feel. Martijn explained to me that he was particularly careful to utilise aspects of traditional Dojo design supported by ideas of Fusui, which is the Japanese version of Feng Shui, where the orientation of the Dojo is in harmony with directions and elements. To my mind this created a positive vibe that worked within the space. Inevitably the Kamidana was the main focus of the room, Martijn had designed this in a way that was personal to him and it remained tasteful and not overblown, as sometimes can be the case when people just try too hard. ‘Less is more’ was probably not a quote of Japanese origin, but it should have been.
The Dojo space is perfect in size for manageable classes. What was noticeable this time round was that I never had to raise my voice; the acoustics were ideal. The air circulated freely and sunlight was able to spill across the Dojo floor. Really, unless you were in some ancient revered location in Kyoto, you couldn’t get a more photogenic set-up (I hope the photos will prove my point for me).
This was the second time Martijn had invited me over for a course in this particular Dojo; I had been over before either on my own or assisting Sugasawa Sensei, but this was organised differently; numbers were limited to 20, which was ideal, as it meant I could work easily with everyone in the room and we could really get into things. What was really enjoyable was that it allowed information to flow in both directions; I learned so much from the lines of questioning; obviously people felt comfortable asking questions and exploring different possibilities. There were three sessions organised over the weekend and we were able to build upon the previous themes and look at Henka waza exploring many of the varied possibilities found within Wado (well, at least that was my intention). Another attribute that dawned on me over the weekend – I noticed lots of smiles…. it goes without saying that this has to be a positive thing in training.
The course was not confined to the Dutch; Wadoka had shown up from the Czech Republic, Belgium and the UK which gave a real international flavour.
Of course the weekend wasn’t all work and no play. Saturday evening out in Hilversum, perfect for good food and good company.
If anyone reading this finds themselves in this part of the world contact Martijn and drop in for training. It’s not just about the location and the Dojo, Martijn is genuinely one of the most knowledgeable Wado instructors you will ever come across and one of the nicest people in the world of Wado.
Monday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 19:30 – 21:00 adults.
Wednesday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 18:00 – 19:00 teenagers, 19:30 – 21:30 seniors.
Saturday, 8:30 – 10:00 karate, all groups.
Martijn also runs classes in, Do-In Yoga, Critical Alignment Yoga, Corestability and medical fitness
Days and times are Monday 16.00 – 21.00, Wednesday 16.00 – 21.30 and Saturday 8.30 – 11.00
Dojo address: Vogelkersberg 5E, 3755 BN Eemnes
Phone number +31641977773
Mudana Chikara is one of the watchword maxims used in Wado circles.
It’s one of a set of three, all described as ‘illnesses’, things to steer clear of if you want to remain on the right track. Mudana Chikara loosely means, ‘Do not use (too much) strength (to do the job)’, it is a key concept of Wado.
It is supposed to signpost the rule of economical movement, the embodiment of no waste, no fuss, no huffing and puffing and no tension.
It is so easy to describe what it is not but harder to pin down what it is – particularly if it is personal to your own technique.
Let me deal with the ‘tension’ thing first.
In between movements you are supposed to develop a feeling of live neutrality. I say ‘live’ because neutrality can easily slip into inertia, and an inert position is a dead position. An exaggerated example would be to say that you need to be in a position where you are deploying enough strength/energy to hold your posture, no more, no less. If your arm is stretched out (as in Tsuki) and someone rests their hand on the back of your hand, your hand should just gently drop under the extra weight; that’s enough.
Correct muscle management in movement is absolutely vital to efficiency. Often in our efforts to employ more power we actually end up sabotaging our objective with inefficient use of the muscles. Antagonistic muscles kick in and ruin the physical potential by actually working against what we want to achieve; I tend to describe it as like driving with your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.
Wado instructors are very insistent on good muscle management; energy should be deployed appropriately and muscles should be fired off in the right order. Things can go wrong when the energy is generated from the wrong place and muscles work in isolated groups rather than a coordinated whole.
Energy should be turned on instantly, and then, just as abruptly, turned off; there should be no tensioned build-up and certainly energy should not be held on to. It is the ‘holding on to energy’ that causes an inability flow from movement to movement, or situation to situation, the energy becomes atrophied or stagnated. It is this ‘stagnation’ that can be fatal in a live situation.
But how do we know that we are using too much strength? Self-diagnosis is a really difficult thing; something might feel good but is it right? (Is it appropriate?). Clearly your Sensei can flag up if you are using too much strength, but only you can do the work on it.
My teaching experience tells me that this can often be a ‘guy thing’, women don’t tend to suffer as much from tension in their technique; guys tend to feel obliged to give their technique that extra thump; they have a model of strength in their heads and aspire to reach it, however unrealistic it may be. It is not something that can be reduced by degrees; the best approach is to soften it right back to zero and then build it up incrementally – but that takes a lot of time and some serious re-programming.
I suppose it comes down to energy investment. Some styles actually aim for over-kill, but really you have to calculate if all that investment is really necessary – can you afford it?
That is the thing about Wado, no frills, no artistic flourishes, all purely pragmatic and stripped to the bone.
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.
This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.
The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.
Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.
I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.
I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.
Renraku Waza, Renzoku Waza, Renketsu Dosa, whatever we decide to call them Combination Techniques seem to feature on nearly every Wado syllabus.
In my early training I was as guilty as everyone else in treating combinations as a test of memory (as well as speed and power). But there are other ways to look at them. I would urge Wado practitioners to examine them more closely. Is there perhaps something inherent in their design that has more to give us?
At first sight as we advance through the grades the sets of combinations just seem to get more complex with more techniques strung together. Yes, they were physically demanding and you got a great workout and many of the strings of techniques programmed the body well for attacking combinations used within conventional free fighting. It was a good way of reviewing your available range of techniques, but it was impossible for it to be all-encompassing. Hand strikes seemed particularly limited. In the early UK syllabus created in the 1960’s and still used by many organisations, there were only three main strikes used in combinations, as well as only three kicks (albeit deployed to different levels) and there were no explicit blocking or covering techniques, they may have been there in some small way but they weren’t really highlighted. Admittedly, since then organisations have become more creative, either by adding more techniques or completely deconstructing combinations, with varying levels of success.
The lower level combinations give good foundations on how to utilise moving in a formalised fighting guard and how to operate the mechanics of particular movements while being in that guard. But if combinations have been designed well they add another vital component that is often overlooked – transition.
Combinations looked at as a test of ‘transition’ gives a whole new perspective. When you fight you are in transition all of the time; you can either do that well, or you can do it badly. When you do it well it allows for snap changes dictated by the ever fluid physical challenges in combat scenarios and puts you a great position to deliver the necessary payload. An image that comes to mind is of the great French tennis player Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996), it is no accident that the Crocodile is used as the Lacoste logo, Lacoste’s ability to ‘snap back’ from nowhere when returning the ball was the embodiment of the ferocity of the Crocodile’s movement. For the fighter this type of tenacity and flexibility is a terrific skill to aspire towards. Look within combinations; examine what positions you find yourself in, what techniques demand the most commitment in stance and posture? Where do you feel dangerously close to over-extension and then you find yourself having to move from one extreme to another?
Some combination strings seem to create relatively easy transitions from one attack to another; while these have some value I think they are red herrings; examples being ones where the hip extension from one technique automatically and comfortably flows from that technique to another. But these are not the ones I am referring to.
Within the combinations in the Shikukai Karate-Do International it is no accident that there are numerous examples of these transitional challenges. If instructors are devising their own teaching combinations I would heavily recommend looking at what transitional challenges you are including.
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Image credit Columbia Pictures.
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.
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.
It’s very obvious that people always appreciate having the opportunity to offer their opinion; particularly when it is something they really care about. So with that in mind I decided to consult with our regular students at Shikukai Chelmsford through the medium of a questionnaire.
I must admit, I was curious as to how this can be done through new technology. So initially I not only set about designing my questions but also researching the available platforms.
I had heard about Survey Monkey and assumed that this was going to be the one to use, however, after signing up and learning about all the whistles and bells and putting my questions in to the template I hit a major hurdle at question 10…. Something that wasn’t clear from the outset; i.e. that this so-called ‘free’ service was only free if you didn’t go beyond 10 questions, after that they wanted £35 a month, (sneaky eh!). So, frustrated and ever so slightly miffed I had to abandon the smiley happy world of Survey Monkey.
More research lead me towards Google Forms, this was totally free and in lots of ways was even better than Survey Monkey.
The idea of a questionnaire has many advantages, particularly when it is anonymous (I made sure that this was the case as it would allow people to give candid and honest responses). Without wanting to use too much jargon I would also say that Dojo members are also stakeholders; it’s in everyone’s interest that all needs are being addressed; in a successful Dojo the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I think we are very fortunate at Shikukai Chelmsford that the social make-up and personalities all mesh neatly together, largely because we have a common goal and it is in our interests to perpetuate that particular dynamic – although I must say that this is the same for Shikukai as an organisation across all Dojos. However it does not mean that we have everything right; so the best thing is to consult the members.
The range of questions went from organisational issues; times, number of sessions, costs, etc, to venue and facilities; then on to training content, and even looking at fairness and equality. The links to the questionnaires came through to members via email and through Facebook, which was very slick. I must say, the design template also looked incredibly neat and professional. The results came in steadily and were really helpful in getting a snapshot of where we currently are. The culmination of all this is that I will share the results with the students and this in itself will promote more dialogue and then work with them to address any issues.
More technical stuff.
Because you have to start somewhere, all of us use form as a framework to hang our stuff on. By form I mean, end position, making a shape, a posture, an attitude usually based around a stance, that kind of thing. This becomes our go-to teaching/learning aid. My argument is that we fixate far too much on that aspect of our training. Yes, it’s really important and can’t be by-passed, but to some it becomes an end in itself. It becomes a crucial moment of fixation working a bit like the full stop at the end of a sentence. Of course this is reinforced by a picture book mentality; where that end posture is used to judge quality, as you used to find in karate books that show kata, kihon or kumite. I have written before about the idea that some people think that the posture alone is enough to judge how good a person’s technique is – well, usually that and how much ‘bang’ they can give it. I find this really difficult to accept; surely we have moved on from this rather low branch in our evolutionary development?
Fixation points can be very dangerous; and habitually programming them into your nervous system is not what you should be doing as a martial artist. When the mind becomes fixated energy and intention stagnate and become momentarily stuck.
Don’t confuse this with pauses – I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but ‘pauses’ can be used as part of the necessity to manipulate the tempo and rhythm of an encounter, e.g. to create a vacuum to allow your opponent to fall into (another blog post perhaps).
Look for things that ‘happen’ on the way to something else. By that I mean; for example, watch an expert in motion and try and identify when the engagement first happens. If it’s of a high quality it will cause an effect on the other party; it may even cause his mind to fixate; a crude example would be an initial shin kick, or a distracting inner sweep; but it may well be something much more subtle and it won’t always happen on initial contact.
I can think of some very interesting manoeuvres in Wado where the atemi-waza occurs seemingly between moves. By this I mean, many of us too easily buy into the idea that a technique (be it hit or block) happens at the moment your ‘stance’ arrives; it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a time-line between moves, and that time-line has opportunities that relate to how your body is positioned in relationship to your opponent; it might be angle, it might be distance, or a combination of both, but you have an opportunity to do your stuff while on your way to your primary objective. All of this is the opposite of ‘fixation’. A mind frozen or fixated on a block or strike dies at that point; the engine has stalled and there’s nothing left but to throw away crucial time, slip into neutral and turn the ignition key again.
During sparring try and take a tally of how many times opportunities occurred and yet you were unable to capitalise on them. Often this reveals a number of weaknesses; one example being an overreaction to the threat of your opponent’s technique, but another is when you become fixated on what you are going to do, or have just done. Against a poor opponent you will get away with it, but against someone good your frozen nano-second will supply an excellent window of opportunity for your opponent.
And there’s another thing; don’t wait for the opponent to supply you with the big window of opportunity, slot into the smaller windows; be like a key in a lock.
“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!
Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.
A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?
The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.
But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.
Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!
But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!
‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)
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.
I thought it was time to write something technical, though normally I am loath to do so as I get frustrated with people who ‘learn’ from the Internet, and I have recently had to deal with unscrupulous individuals plagiarising my past articles (this is why I haven’t published any lengthy articles in a long time).
But here goes anyway.
In my attempts to work with my own students on sharpening their paired kumite and develop a real edge to their practice I recently listed a whole catalogue of aspects and concepts that must be ticked off if students are to get under the skin of what is going on. Inevitably some of these concepts are interconnected; this was where the idea of Mikiri came in.
Mikiri is basically the ability to judge distance by eye and act accordingly. Naturally this is linked to timing as well. In Wado paired kumite the ability to perfectly judge the danger distance, or the potential and reach of an opponent’s technique is vital. But all of this may have to be calculated in a split second. In Wado and other Japanese Budo you can see references to this quite frequently and it becomes more critical if weapons are involved; this means that calculating for one distance (kicking of punching range) is far too limiting; for example, an eight inch blade gives the opponent an eight inch reach advantage.
But this is only a part of what I want to discuss.
We are actually amazingly well-equipped already; we actually do this stuff naturally. Picture a moment from everyday life when we have had to drive an unfamiliar vehicle; something much larger than we are used to. Imagine if you have to manoeuvre the vehicle down a narrow street with parked cars both sides, and, amazingly you succeed; a calculation just based upon a mere glance at your wing mirrors and the distance they occupy. Or even just walking or running. When running you instantly calculate the half second before your heel hits the ground and then all your muscles coordinate beautifully and propel you on to the next stride; and this happens hundreds if not thousands of times! You only really notice it when something goes wrong, e.g. on rough ground where you miss that pothole sneakily hidden behind a clump of grass and then the landing is jarring and the muscles have to go into emergency mode to stop you going head over heels.
But, what is interesting is that when you have to deal with a punch or a kick this well-coordinated judgement eludes you. The reality is that your mind becomes the real enemy; you become overly cautious, fearful of the intent of your opponent and often we just over-compensate.
A conversation with a Japanese friend who has a background in swordsmanship informed me that this same concept is an important part of engaging with the traditional Japanese bladed weapons.
But it’s no use just acknowledging the concept; it’s what you do with it that counts. In training there are multiple opportunities to practice it; not just the formal kumite but also within free sparring; observe how close or far away you are when dealing with a committed attack. Congratulate yourself if the attack misses you by a whisker, or scrapes your skin; but be aware, that is only the prelude…. The opponent has given you a window of opportunity; if you don’t condition yourself to take it the concept becomes redundant and meaningless.
This takes an awful lot of training.
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.
It has often been said that to an ‘expert’ in absolutely anything you need to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice.
I am sure that in our search for quick answers and ‘sum it all up in one soundbite’ style solutions many people will focus on this factoid and be instantly comforted by the convenience of this as a theory.
But, unfortunately, like a lot of simple answers this idea supplies a generalised truth but fails to describe the whole story.
Scientists and statisticians have drilled down into this idea and have found it to be wanting.
I must admit to have been seduced by this formula, and even busied myself trying to work out how many hours a day I would need to train in Wado Ryu karate to reach ‘expert’ level. By the way it works out as about 4 hours a day over about 10 years.
This is far far too simplistic. The experts looked at chess masters and classical musicians; a good choice if you want mental capacity and high levels of manual dexterity; I would worry about the levels of physicality required for martial artists, after all, certain types of athleticism have very limited shelf-life.
But, time in service alone did not cut it. The experts found that with chess masters there were examples where it took one expert 26 years to reach a high level of mastery, while another ‘expert’ achieved the same level in two years. Statistics like this make a mockery of the ‘10000 hours’ theory.
So, what’s going on? There is of course the wildcard of ‘innate ability’, but that alone is not a prerequisite for success. I have witnessed individuals of innate ability who reach a glass ceiling and are so cock-sure of their own ability that when they reach a high level of success that they become drunk upon their own perceptions of their ability that they are then unable to empty their cup and move beyond this level – effectively they become unteachable.
There are of course those who are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again – martial arts ‘Groundhog Day’. Those who claim to have twenty years of martial arts experience yet actually have one year of martial arts experience twenty times!
Personally, I would posit that the way to success is to maintain an active curiosity and a secure work ethic, tempered by correct guidance and a clear direction. Keep your cup empty.
I’m going to try to describe my perception of something that is really quite difficult to pin down. This is just my opinion, but it is based upon things I have seen and experienced at one level or another.
When something is ‘tangible’ it is observable from the outside; when it is ‘intangible’ it is often hidden or difficult to perceive. The tangible could be described as the exterior; while the intangible is the interior. Often we think we understand something based upon what we see is happening on the outside but the real truth of the matter is what is going on in the inside. Or we base our judgements upon prior experience and run the risk of misunderstanding what is really going on – like the story of the blind men and the elephant (Link).
When we are looking at the martial arts, specifically Budo traditions we are observing and experiencing something that is often difficult to grasp.
According to Japanese karate master Ushiro Kenji in his book ‘Karate and Ki’; Japanese arts fall into two categories; those that have an obvious outcome, an end product that is a quantifiable commodity, like the craftsmanship of a Japanese carpenter or a visual artist, swordsmith or potter. And those traditions that have no material outcome, like the Budo master or the traditional Japanese flute player; they are just as valuable but their end products are impossible to lay your hands upon, to weigh and measure, they are more ethereal, their true value is found in the intangible. Often they are part of a living tradition, one that has developed over time, but only survives through the physical human frame.
This ‘physical human frame’ is the instrument, not the finished artefact; there is no actual material artefact. So the martial artist’s body is like a musical instrument, superbly crafted in itself but it’s the output, the workings of the instrument where the real value lies.
The instrument is merely the vehicle for the music. As an example; recent studies on the prestigious violins made in the 18th century by Antonio Stradivarius reveal that there is no real difference between the Stradivarius and a well-made modern violin. Blindfold experts could not tell the difference and even favoured the modern instrument over the Stradivarius. This just goes to prove that we have to be wary of mythologies that accumulate over time.
What is also interesting is that these very rare and expensive violins are given out to world famous musicians who are considered as temporary custodians, this is an acknowledgement of the fleeting, intangible nature of music at the highest level; what is produced cannot be held in your hands, so it is with the highest levels of Budo. The exterior appearance can be caught on film, but the real value is in the intangible. Trust your feelings not your eyes.
As an instructor (and a student) one thing I feeling strongly about is that I should be in a state of constant learning.
In the teaching profession they rightly make a point that all teachers should be setting themselves up as what they call ‘Life Long Learners’, as an example to all of the young people in their charge. It’s the same in karate.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if instructors rested on their laurels and past triumphs and conducted themselves as if they had topped out on all they can learn?
Some seniors seem to tacitly acknowledge that their cup is not full and seek to top up from other sources, without realising that the well-source of Wado has not run dry and that what we see is just the tip of an iceberg.
Recently I found my Wado boundaries being stretched by my Sensei who laid upon me yet more concepts and practical interpretations, and, while searching for an appropriate metaphor, I hit upon the idea that I had been subjected to yet another ‘operating systems update’. This useful piece of jargon from computer science seems to fit neatly with what should be happening to all of us.
Of course this metaphor can be extended, and it’s only when you meet up with other operating systems that are still running the equivalent of Windows 8 that you realise how valuable these ‘updates’ are. It’s not uncommon to actually meet someone still operating on the equivalent to a 1982 Commodore DOS and in such cases the two systems will find it virtually impossible to communicate, short of a rebuild.
Apple and Microsoft both pressure test their latest updates by releasing them before they are fully functioning and that is when they find the bugs and glitches that they can then fix with other minor updates (well, that’s how I see it anyway). This also fits neatly with what happens to me while working with my Wado updates; my body is still working things out on the hoof.
But the up side is that if you are following Wado Logic then the adjustments should eventually click in; either that or Sensei comes along and tweaks your system.
I am sure he won’t mind me saying this but Shikukai chief instructor Sugasawa Sensei always impresses me with his appetite for embracing words and concepts that exist in the English language. He is always searching for the most apt linguistic model to try and cross cultural and language barriers. Once he latches on to a new word, analogy or aphorism he exploits it with great energy.
One such word cropped up a little while ago.
On an instructors course Sensei used the word ‘composure’; I won’t go into detail about the context in which Sensei used this word; but it had me thinking more about what it means for us and how it is applied.
‘Having an air of composure’, i.e. what the attributes of composure communicate to others. This is without a doubt a useful and positive persona to project, especially for martial artists. But it has to be real; it should not be faked or put on and taken off like your Keikogi jacket.
Projecting composure should be a natural by-product of a balanced mind; something we should all aspire towards; easy to talk about but difficult to achieve. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to become more balanced and more composed, but identifying the times when we are cool and composed; (or the reverse, flustered, angry or allowing situations or people to overcome you), are good places to start.
In Oriental philosophy Neo-Confucianists like the Japanese scholar Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714) encouraged self-examination, monitoring your behaviour and ‘renewing yourself each day’. He also said that you should listen to trusted and reliable friends and allow them to point out your errors. Expanding on this he says it is like the game of Go where the outsider/onlooker can often see the right move before the players can.
Returning to the ‘air of composure’. Your mental attitude projects outwards and is easily picked up by others. As humans we are very good at this and are sensitive to even the most subtle forms of non-verbal communication; look how we ‘mirror’ other people’s gestures subconsciously, to let them know that we are on their wavelength. A steady gaze, relaxed and alert posture, confident, (but crucially, non-aggressive) give clues and act as hints and messages to others. The reverse is also true: shifty downcast eyes, tensed shoulders are all negative messages; as are aggressive looks, pushed out chest, agitated behaviour, all red flags to others in the vicinity.
New Age philosopher and guru Eckhart Tolle in his description of what he calls the ‘pain body’ describes the burdens people carry around with them, of past anger, anxiety and pain; on to which they willfully heap new anxieties, pain, anger, creating a destructive cocktail which often has further unhappy endings.
But he also says that negative angry people act as a magnet to other negative angry people. They spot each other across a crowded floor and are drawn to each other like preening cockatoos who attack their own reflections in a mirror.
Or another example is how angry negative people are pulled into relationships with other angry negative people; their life dramas mirror each other and their destructive flashpoints cause chaos which affects all around them, but is particularly damaging for themselves. Wrapped up in their own back-story they can’t see the wood for the trees.
Composed people are a much more attractive option. They are the people you can rely upon in a crisis, they are cool, unflappable and confident; but, hopefully, they are not just a machine, they also have a beating heart. Something every martial artist should aspire to.
“Apocrypha: A story or statement of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.”
The truth is that the martial arts abound with Apocrypha, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing, as long as they are all taken with a huge pinch of salt.
My approach to some of the apocryphal stories about the martial arts is that I look for the kernel of truth within the myth. Not from the view that there must be tiny element of veracity lurking underneath the embellishments of stories told and re-told hundreds of times; but instead I look for the lesson or moral behind the survival of such a story – it could perhaps contain a greater truth than the fairy-tale pretends to.
Here are two of my favourites that serve to explain my thinking.
Someone told me a story about tourists being shown around a famous Chinese Temple associated with martial arts. On arriving at a particular courtyard the guide pointed out regular hollows worn into the brick paving. The tourists were told that these hollows were the result of martial arts monks spending hour upon hour in horse stance practicing their moves. However, the observant tourist might also notice that the hollows may also have been the result of weak spots in overhead roof drainage where rainwater had dripped over hundreds of years. Naturally the guide chose to ignore this very practical explanation; thus the myth lives on. Should we therefore scoff at this deliberate hokum? I don’t think so. The factual account might be wrong but the essence of the story contains another truth; more like a model, an idea, a concept. It conjures up a heightened and exaggerated admonishment endorsing the fruits of disciplined and prolonged practice, and, to my mind that makes it useful.
Another example concerns a story about one of members of the Yang family of late 19th century Tai Chi fame. It was said that if a bird was to land on master Yang’s outstretched index finger, the bird would find itself unable to fly away unless the master permitted it to do so. The explanation for this was that the master was so highly tuned to pressure sensitivity that when the bird tried to use its legs to launch the master would detect this and very subtly deny the bird a platform necessary to spring forth. Is this actually possible? Would a specialist in avian anatomy and the physiology of flight be able to tell us that this story is complete bunkum, because a small bird does not actually need to launch with its feet? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. The concept of heightened sensitivity is vital to practitioners of all martial arts (or at least should be) therefore to cook up such a seemingly tall tale serves as an aspirational template; albeit an apparently impossible one.
There are other stories where the essence surpasses the truth. There is something about the martial arts that promotes the telling of tall tales. Obviously some of these are there for political reasons; the mythologies live on long after people have passed away. I have seen recent examples where a certain level of gloss has been applied to boost the reputations of the living and the dead. Tales retold have an inevitable life of their own.