Luohan, courtesy of V&A.
There has been a lot of discussion about what makes a good teacher or a good Sensei; and people have found value in preparing and training the new generation of teachers/Sensei; and rightly so.
But I have a feeling that maybe we need to also look at it the other way round and perhaps teach people to be good students?
We typically think of our students as the raw material; the clay from which we mold and create; the blank slate to be written upon. Oh, we nod politely towards the idea that not all students come to us as equals; but then proceed to blithely continue on as if the opposite were true.
Can we teach people to be good students?
But first we have to think that this cuts both ways. For are we not also students? Or at least we should be. We as teachers should lead by example as ‘life long learners’. As a teacher, never underestimate the student’s ability to put you under the microscope and observe how you learn and take on new material. So, while I pursue my theme, I have to cast a glance over my own shoulder.
At this point I feel I have to mention my own (additional) credentials in the area of teaching and learning, having recently retired after thirty-six years of teaching in UK secondary schools. Some of that experience boils down to very simple principles; key among these is that you are engaged with an unwritten two-way contract, or at least that’s the way it should work; the teacher gives and the student gratefully receives, in an active way (students also teach you!). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way because one side of this contract sometimes welches on the deal; either actively or passively. The contract states that from the teacher’s perspective you are not doing your job if the student who walks into the room at the beginning of a lesson is the same person who walks out at the end. Something positive should have happened that results in the student growing – admittedly it might be small; it might be cumulative, but it is still growth.
Of course, this is very simplistic and there are many other factors involved. As in the Dojo, the environment has to be right to build an atmosphere conducive to development, with a positive encouragement of challenge and change; but not in a coddling bubble-wrapped way. I am reminded of commentator and thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of ‘Antifragile’, put briefly the concept that systems, businesses (and people) should aim towards increasing their capability to thrive by embracing stressors such as, mistakes, faults, attacks, destabilisers, noise, disruptions etc. in an active way. The antithesis of this is ‘resilience’. Resilience will protect you to some degree but it is not enough, it’s just a shell, potentially brittle, that given enough time and pressure is eventually breached.
Here is my personal take on what I think are the prerequisites of a good student:
- Empty your cup.
- Pay attention – martial artist Ellis Amdur says that progression in the martial arts is easy, all you have to do is listen. I am reminded of that very human inclination when involved in discussion; sometimes what we do when listening to someone is to fixate on one thing they have said, work out our own counter-argument in our heads while failing to listen to the rest of what they have to say. I have seen this with students in seminars, where the student asks the Sensei a question that they already know the answer to. At one level they are just looking to have their ideas endorsed, at another level they want everyone to see how clever they are – not the right place to ask a question from.
- Linked to the above; Open-mindedness. Nothing is off the table, but everything in its right place and in the right proportion.
- Understand that knowledge is a process that is ongoing; the sum of what you know is infinitely outweighed by the sum of what you don’t know. There is no end point to this.
- Self-discovery is more valuable to you than having something laid out on a plate for you. The things you achieve through your own sweat, pain and frustration you will hold as your dearest discoveries. I have seen times where a really, really valuable piece of information has been given to student and because it came so easily they dismissed it as a trifle.
- Leave your baggage behind. You may have had a lousy day at work, a fight with your partner, your kids have been ‘challenging’, but, check all of that at the door, you are bigger than the burdens you have to carry. Acknowledge that they are there but put everything in its right place. Personally, I found that troubles shrink after two hours of escape in the Dojo; distance gives you perspective.
- Avoid second-thinking the process; or, transposing your underdeveloped thinking on top of something that already exists. A blank slate is always easier to work with. I once spoke with a university Law professor who said he personally preferred the undergraduates to enter his course without having done A Level Law, he preferred the ‘blank slate’.
- Avoid making excuses in challenging situations. Nothing damages the soul more profoundly than realising that in fooling others you are often lying to yourself; it’s a stain that is really difficult to wash off. If you fail, fail heroically; fail while trying to give it your very, very best. That style of ‘failure’ has more currency than actually succeeding; not just from the perspective of others, but also from your own perspective.
- Put the time in! The magic does not only happen when Sensei is in the room. Get disciplined, get driven. Movement guru Ido Portal probably takes it to the furthest extreme by saying, ‘Upgrade your passion into an obsession’, that’s probably a bit heavy for some people, because obsessive individuals tend to be overly self-absorbed, and as such cut other people out of their lives. Whatever passion/obsession you have it is far richer when you bring other people along with you. Other people add fuel to your fire, and the other way round.
The list could go on, because teaching and learning are complex matters, much bigger than I could ever write down here. And besides… what do I know?
Currently algorithms tend to be the fall-guys for all that is wrong in the world. People always leap towards the worst possible examples, like; would you every want a computer algorithm deciding who gets medical intervention, or is refused based on a calculated outcome? To some people algorithms ARE Skynet!
But, taken in the broadest definition we use some form of algorithm in many areas of life. In a nutshell it is ‘A’ leads to ‘B’, ‘B’ leads to ‘C’ or options branching off from any of the stages and it is really useful.
I ask this question in the context of martial arts because I have noticed a growth in algorithmic-style explanations of how some martial art systems work.
I can see the appeal of algorithms; they are accessible, predictable, understandable and communicable, all excellent things for a martial arts system to aspire to – the only weakness I see in terms of martial arts is that it’s really hard to make them measurable; but that’s for another discussion.
Building an algorithmic martial arts system is what you would do if you only had a very short period of time to prepare someone. A simplified system, stripped down, discarding all the inessentials (now where have we heard that before?). Four or five techniques repeated over and over until they are excellent would do the job. There are a number of obvious downsides to this; one being that its marketability is undermined by the boredom factor and the irony is that the ‘stripped down’ system has to build in greater complexity to make it interesting (more funky takedowns, armbars, gooseneck wrist locks etc.), and it turns into the one thing it was trying hard not to be.
In a way this follows on from a previous blogpost I had written; ‘Is your martial art complicated or complex?’
There are alternative approaches, but it depends on what your aspirations are – in fact it depends on a whole raft of things, including, how much time do you have available to invest in this? Where do your priorities lie in terms of what you want out of your martial art training? What system suits you both physically and mentally? (No, they are not all the same).
Something that is close to an algorithmic approach might be akin to taking a course in CPR or First Aid. In that instance you might be motivated by the worry of how you might be able to cope if you were unfortunate to arrive on the scene of an accident; would you be able to do the right thing? Lives might be at risk.
But let’s say you really wanted to dig deeper into this area, really wanted to become actively and positively involved in the saving of lives and human physical welfare. Surely then, if you had the opportunity and the inclination to do so you would study medicine? To do so would be to plunge deeply into what lies beneath the skin; even to looking at what operates at cellular level, with all the hours of dedication and years’ work that this involves. And for that to happen (as with all complexities) you have to go backwards before you go forwards, you have to turn over everything you thought you knew. In reality, this is a description of martial arts as a ‘Way’, a non-algorithmic ‘complex’ system; this is Budo.
Why would you want to put yourself through the long painful slog of a Budo system, one that is so arduous that you feel you are moving backwards instead of forwards, one where you are actually significantly weaker, structurally confused, coordinationally muddled and intellectually perplexed; in other words, not all that dissimilar to a first year medical student. Why would you do it?
To be clear; martial arts and everything associated with it is a physical conundrum that is engaged in by humans, not robots; fighting is not mechanistic, it is organic, it is a ‘complex system’. It is like swimming in the ocean, it’s not a two metre paddling pool.
A question that is often asked; just how do you engage with martial arts as a complexity; how does it actually work? I will have to be honest here; to answer that question I feel I really don’t have the qualifications, but I might offer some pointers. There are definitely guiding concepts that act like a map to keep you on the right road. But make no bones about it; knowing the concepts only in your head is about as useful as land swimming; this has to be done by the body and in as live a situation as is possible, while still remaining within civilised constraints of course.
To explain further:
The ‘complex’ martial art system differs from the algorithmic approach the same way that the chess computer AlphaZero was from its nearest rival Stockfish 8. For Stockfish all possible chess combinations were programmed in manually, while AlphaZero only learned the rules of chess (it took a mere 4 hours), AlphaZero then played itself through a phenomenal number of games to build up its stock of possibilities. It subsequently played a challenge match against Stockfish 8 and in a 100 games it never lost a single one. AI people say this is how human intelligence works. I would argue that this is how the ‘complex’ martial artist works. In algorithmic martial arts it’s pretty clear that you have to slip between modes, a bit like changing gear, but with a ‘complex’ Budo martial arts you are always in gear, because it’s built around a fundamental integral core of Principles, this is the nucleus of what you do, everything spirals out from that point; anything else is just nuts and bolts; even the funky takedowns, the armbars and the gooseneck locks.
The bad news is that you don’t read this stuff in a book, you don’t see it on YouTube and, unless you’ve got the eyes to REALLY see what’s going on, you certainly won’t find it in a one-off seminar.
Postscript: As an afterthought, Budo, like Medicine is not solely about the visceral stuff, both disciplines are underpinned by ethical, philosophical and moral considerations (in medicine it is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath).
I had heard a while ago that theory and practice in martial arts were like the two wheels of a cart. One without the other just has you turning around in circles.
It is a convenient metaphor which is designed to make you think about the importance of balance and the integration of mind and body. On one hand, too much theory and it all becomes cerebral, and, on the other hand practice without any theoretical back-up has no depth and would fall apart under pressure.
But here’s another take on it, from the world of Yoga.
Supposing the ratio of theory to practice is not 50/50, and it should be more like 1% theory and 99% practice?
So, for some of the yoga people it’s is very nearly all about doing and not spending so much time thinking about it. I sympathise with this idea, but I feel uneasy about the shrinking of the importance of theory and understanding about what you are doing.
I am sure that I have mentioned in a previous blog post about how the separation of Mind and Body tends to be a very western thing. In eastern thinking the body has an intelligence of its own, over-intellectualisation can be a kind of illness. How many times have we been told, “You’re overthinking it, just do it”? Or, “Don’t think, feel”.
Maybe this points to another way of looking at the diagram above…
Perhaps it’s more like this?
I.e. a huge slice of theory, study, reflection, meditation, intellectual exploration and discussion (still making up only 1%), and an insane amount of physical practice to make up the other 99% to top it off!
Just a thought.
In Ushiro Kenji’s book, ‘Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought’, he mentions that when your sensei asks you if you understand, you should always be wary of answering it with an emphatic “Yes”. A better answer may be, “Yes, but only to my current level of understanding”. How can you really state that you are fully in the picture of what your Sensei is trying to communicate? It all becomes relative to your current point of development, and (if we are being realistic) we are all existing on a continuum of expanding knowledge – or we should be.
This is nothing new. Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) had worked it out (and was despised by some of his contemporaries for this). Here is a quote from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online], “[The] awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is what is known as Socratic ignorance, … Socratic ignorance is sometimes called simple ignorance, to be distinguished from the double ignorance of the citizens with whom Socrates spoke. Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.”
In my last job I spent many years advising teenagers about to depart for university, and one thing I used to say to them was that one of the worst insults that could ever be thrown at them was for someone to describe them as ‘ignorant’; I also included shallow as well, but ignorance was the most heinous of crimes.
An obvious part of this is to be aware of the lenses you are looking through (check out, ‘observer bias’ and the closely related ‘cognitive dissonance’). Martial artists seem particularly prone to this. We see this when someone has a pet theory, or a favourite concept and feels a need to carve it in stone. Once it’s gone that far down the line there’s really no going back, and even in the light of new evidence which contradicts or turns over the pet theory they are stuck with it and it can become a millstone around their neck.
The error is in not acknowledging your own ignorance; feeling you should set yourself up as the authority in all things.
We are not very good at understanding the limits of our own knowledge. We make an assumption that in all areas of life we are existing on the cutting edge of what is possible – that may be true but we still encounter stuff that is either imperfect, or goes wrong, or breaks down; be that in systems, societies or technology. Deep down we know there is the possibility of improvement and advancement, but that’s always for tomorrow.
Take medical science as an example. Someone recently said to me that there’s never been a better time to be ill. Now, I take issue with that in more than one way; the obvious one being that really there is no ‘better’ time to be ill at all! Another point is that this comment was probably the same one used by an 18th century surgeon when he was just about to saw someone’s leg off without anaesthetic.
I suppose it is the arrogance within humanity that arrives at these rather bizarre conclusions. Perhaps in a way it is a kind of comfort blanket; maybe we are hiding from a much more sobering reality? Sometime in the future will some social historians be looking back at us and marvelling at how primitive and naïve we were? Or perhaps this is already happening within our own lifetime? Maybe my generation has been the first to witness such a dramatic rate of change and advancement. It’s a fact; compared to previous centuries the rate of change has speeded up phenomenally. One factor alone sums it up nicely – the Internet. I think we can talk confidently about ‘Pre-Internet’ and ‘Post-Internet’.
However, human skill development at a physical level does not increase at the same high speed that technological development can. Athletes can still shave a hundredth of a second off a 100 metre sprint, but it can take years to achieve this comparatively tiny gain. In fact any significant human skill still takes hours of dedicated practice to achieve. A 21st century aspiring pianist still has to put the same amount of hours in that an 18th century one did. Of course we are smarter about how we organise the learning process, this is sometimes supported by technology but the body still has to do the work. Our attitude towards human physical achievement and ambition has changed over the last 100 years. Take the example of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4 minute mile; critics at the time claimed that Bannister had cheated because he trained for the event! Their attitude of course was that Bannister should have done it based upon his own innate undeveloped physical attributes; his God given talent.
The acknowledgment of ignorance is inevitably a positive thing; it’s the acceptance that there is a whole big world out there, a boundless uncharted territory which is loaded with amazing possibilities.
It goes without saying Martial Arts can easily be categorised as a human skill (a Craft). It’s a trained activity directed at solving specific problems. Problem solving can be achieved to different levels depending on the competence of the person addressing the problem. It could even be argued that problem solving is binary – either you solve the problem or you don’t. But problem solving is not necessarily an ‘end-stop’ activity, there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Following this ideas that martial arts art are crafts, I would like to explore this further to see if anything can be gained by shifting our perspective and pushing the boundaries and looking at what a ‘craft’ actually is.
Sociologist Richard Sennett has a specific interest in Craft and Craftsmanship. For him ‘Craft’ is just doing the job, probably the same as everyone else, just to get it out of the way; a basic necessity. But ‘Craftsmanship’ is the task done in an expert, masterly fashion (Like the famous story of the master butcher in The Chuang Tzu). But the craftsman’s response to the problems/challenges he faces is not just a mechanical one; it changes according to the situation, and, whether it is master butcher, musician, painter or martial artist, the challenge is fluid, and as such adjustments are made on the spot and new ways of doing the same thing evolve. The craftsman doesn’t ‘master’ his art, because his mastery is ever-moving….or it should be. The skills of the master craftsman becomes a linear on-going project, not an end-stop.
Sennett says that craftsmanship at a basic level involves identifying a problem, then solving that problem; but that it shouldn’t end there. The solving of an individual problem often leads on to new problems that the craftsman may not have known existed prior to engaging with that particular individual problem. A combination of his intellect, his curiosity and his evolving level of mastery leads him towards tackling that next unforeseen problem and the process goes on.
In his research Sennett interviewed ex-Microsoft engineers who lamented the closed system of Microsoft, but lauded the open creative possibilities of Linux – for him this was an example of craftsmanship in progress. I am reminded of the comparison between the old style chess programs and the latest AlphaZero chess program. With the old style programs the moves had to be inputted by human hand; with AlphaZero the only input was the rules of the game; the computer then was free to play millions of games against itself to work out an amazing number of possibilities that just multiplied and multiplied.
It is not a huge leap to apply this way of thinking to Wado. Utilising the skills we develop in a free-flowing scenario engages with many problem solving opportunities that unfold in rapid succession. If we do it well it is all over very quickly, or, if we are working against a very skilled opponent the engagements may be more complicated, for example using an interplay of creating or seizing initiatives (‘Sen’). But to do this your toolkit (your core principles) must have a solid grounding otherwise you might have the ideas in your head but not necessarily the trained physicality to carry them out, and certainly not in the split second often needed.
If we really want to develop our craftsmanship we have to look for the opportunities that are created beyond the basic level of simple problem solving, but without losing the immediacy and economy that underpins Wado. I know that sounds like a contradiction but it is possible to be complex in your simplicity; it’s just a matter of perspective.
My intentions are to present a book review and at the same time expand it to look at the potential implications for martial artists of this very interesting theme.
For anyone who has not discovered the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi get hold of his book. ‘Flow – The Psychology of Happiness’.
This came to me from a very roundabout route. Initially I was curious about Mushin no Waza, (technique of no-mind), a concept many Japanese martial artists are familiar with; but further research lead me on to ‘Flow States’. Musicians might describe this as working ‘in the groove’, or ‘being in the pocket’, psychologist Abraham Maslow called it ‘Peak Experience’, being so fully immersed in what you do, in a state of energised focus almost a reverie. It’s all over the place with sporting activities. Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an ‘optimum experience’.
I should say at this point that it’s nothing mystical or magical, although some would like to describe it as such. As with magic – magic ceases to become magic once it’s explained. I know that once the illusionist’s sleight of hand technique is revealed we all feel a little disappointed and the magical bubble has burst, but if explanation leads to greater understanding it’s a loss worth taking. So it is with Csikszentmihalyi’s book; he unpacks the idea and neatly describes the quality of flow experiences as well explaining the cultural and psychological benefits.
In a nutshell, flow states happen when:
Whatever activity you are engaging in creates a state of total immersion that you almost lose yourself within the activity.
The identifying qualities include:
- Total focus (excluding all external thoughts and distractions).
- The sense of ‘self’ disappears but returns renewed and invigorated once the activity has concluded.
- Time has altered, or becomes irrelevant.
- The activities must have clear goals.
- A sense of control.
- Some immediate feedback.
- Not be too easy, and certainly must not be too hard and entirely out of reach.
Now, I challenge you to look at the above criteria and ask yourself how these line up with what we do in the Dojo. I would bet that some of your most valuable training moments chime with the concepts of the flow state – you have been there. Many of us struggle to rationalise it or find the vocabulary to explain it, but we know that afterwards we have grown.
This ‘growth’ is vital for our development as martial artists and human beings. This is what they mean when they describe martial arts as a spiritual activity; but ‘spiritual’ devoid of religious baggage, but ironically in traditional martial arts there is generally a ritualistic element that sets the scene and promotes the mind-set necessary to enable these flow state opportunities; so I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this side of what we do.
Csikszentmihalyi says that flow experiences promote further flow experiences; i.e. once you have had a taste of it you yearn for more, not in a selfish or indulgent way but instead part of you recognises a pathway to human growth and ‘becoming’. We become richer as these unthought-of experiences evolve; we become more complex as human beings.
What is really interesting is that flow states are not judged upon their end results; for example the mountaineer may be motivated by the challenge of reaching the top of the rock face but it is the act of climbing that creates the opportunity and pleasure and puts him in the state of flow and rewards him with the optimal experience that enables him to grow as a human being. So, not all of these experiences are going to be devoid of risk, or even pain and hardship, they may well be part of the package.
Another aspect is that in the middle of these flow experiences there is no space for errant thoughts, if you are doing it right you will have no psychic energy left over to allow your mind to wander. In high level karate competition the competitor who is ‘in the zone’ has no care about what the audience or anyone else might think about his performance or ability; even the referee becomes a distant voice, he is thoroughly engaged in a very fluid scenario.
How many times have you been in the Dojo and found that there is no space in your head for worries about, work, home, money, relationships. You could tell yourself that this ‘pastime’ just gives you an opportunity to run away and bury your head in the sand, but maybe it’s more a case of creating distance to allow fresh perspective.
If Otsuka Sensei saw Budo as a truly global thing, as a vehicle for peace and harmony, then consider this quote from author and philosopher Howard Thurman, and apply it to the idea of Flow;
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Early 20c Japanese Jujutsu.
I recently watched a YouTube video which was focussed upon the sanitisation of old style Jujutsu techniques that were cleaned up to make them safe for competitive Judo. Throws and techniques which were originally designed to break limbs and annihilate the attacker in dramatic and brutal ways were changed to enable freeform Judo randori where protagonists could bounce back and keep the flow going.
This inspired me to review techniques in Wado, some of which I believe went through a similar process.
We know that the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, Otsuka Sensei had his origins in Koryu Jujutsu and that Wado was crafted out of this same Koryu base; Wado is certainly still considered as a continuation of the Japanese Budo tradition. Koryu Jujutsu in particular had historically developed a reputation as an antiquated form of brutality which was not compatible with an agenda developed by modernisers like the founder of Judo Kano Jigoro.
To set the context; Wado went through many transformations, and even though quite elderly Otsuka Sensei was still reforming and developing Wado Ryu throughout his long life; a project that was continued through subsequent generations of the Otsuka family.
But how much has Wado allowed itself to be sanitised? Did we lose something along the way? Was Wado de-fanged, did it have its claws clipped? And, if it has, where is the evidence?
But beyond that – does it matter? The loss of these dangerous aspects may well be a moot point; the development of Wado may well have bigger fishes to fry, and this particular issue may just be a distraction from a much larger agenda.
However, to my mind it’s still worth considering.
First of all, I am reminded of a discussion I had with another instructor regarding the craziness of the practice of the Tanto Dori. Thinking back to when these knife defence techniques were part of the Dan grading syllabus, nobody seemed to care what kind of blade you pulled out of your kit bag; blunted pieces of stick, to razor-sharp WW2 bayonets, in fact there seemed to be a badge of honour based upon how sharp and dangerous was your Tanto! We laughed about how such practices would be looked at in today’s politically correct, health and safety environment.
In Judo there are the Kinshi Waza, the banned techniques; these include. Kani Basami (Crab Claw scissors), Ashi Garami (Entangled leg lock), Do Jime (Trunk strangle), Kawazu Gake (One leg entanglement). These are the techniques that the authorities decided were more likely to cause injury, so not necessarily banned because of their viciousness, more their proclivity to cause accidental damage.
Within Wado undoubtedly some techniques were ‘cleaned up’, even within my time.
I can think of at least fifteen techniques, most of which existed inside the established paired kata which were ‘made safe’. Sometimes this came out of trial and error, i.e. the Japanese Sensei saw too much damage incurred by over-enthusiastic students, so decided to soften the technique to minimise injury. Others were implied techniques, e.g. ‘if this technique were to be taken through to this position it would result in significant damage’. Some of these techniques were hidden; you would struggle to spot them if they weren’t explained to you. In some cases the ‘brutal’ part of the technique was actually easier to execute than the so-called ‘cleaned up’ version, but this latter version remained closer to the practice of Wado principles; a contradiction….maybe, maybe not.
A variation on Kumite Gata. The body is ‘scissored’ apart; this is combined with a leg action that completely takes away the base. It is almost impossible to practice this technique safely.
I think that most people are aware that some throwing techniques were designed so that a successful breakfall (Ukemi) would be extremely difficult or even impossible, resulting in damage that you would never recover from; not something to dwell on lightly. (A prime example in Wado is the technique known as Kinu Katsugi, which we now practice in a way that enables uke to land relatively safely).
This Ohyo Gumite technique is very effective on its own, but another variation involving standing up from this position would result in Uke being dropped to the floor with very little chance of being able to protect themself.
Right, Suzuki Sensei showing the ‘stand up’ associated with this technique.*
There are other Wado techniques which on the outside look incredibly dangerous but are sometimes so wrapped up in misunderstood formalism that the accepted coup de grace becomes a merely academic endeavour (works well on paper but could you make it do the job?). Usually this is because of a misunderstanding of the mechanism of the technique itself, or the mechanism of ‘kata’ and how the teaching model actually functions.
I remember Suzuki Sensei sometimes held ‘closed-door’ sessions, you had to be above a certain grade to participate and no spectators were allowed. I attended some of these and the best I can describe them was that they involved what some would think of as ‘dirty tricks’, but very effective fighting techniques which would really damage your opponent.
To reiterate; while it is interesting to speculate on these matters, compared to the other complexities of Wado they could be looked upon as a mere side-show, after all, just the fundamentals take a lifetime to get your head round, never mind all of this.
*Photo credit, Pelham Books Ltd, ‘Karate-Do’, Tatsuo Suzuki 1967.
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.
Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung & Ueshiba Morihei.
Recently I have been reading a biography of Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and something just jumped off the page at me.
Jung suffered a prolonged mental breakdown between the years 1913 to 1918, but what happened to him during those years did not drag him down into an irrecoverable pit of despair and degeneration (as had happened with Nietzsche), he instead used his own condition to explore the workings of his mind, and in the process of doing so discovered significant and profound insight that he then wanted to share with the world, an unfolding of the mind. To me this sounded familiar.
In 1925 an energetic and obsessed Japanese martial artist called Ueshiba Morihei also underwent a significant change. In his culture it was described as an enlightenment; an extreme physical and psychological episode, during which certain ‘realities’ were revealed to him, motivating him to disseminate the message to all Mankind – the message was Aikido.
Henri Ellenberger wrote about such episodes in his 1970 book, ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’, he described them as, ‘Creative illnesses’. Interestingly Sigmund Freud (Jung’s mentor) also underwent a similar breakdown and revelation. Amazingly, all three of these men experienced these episodes at the same time in their lives, between the ages of 38 and 43. To me this all adds up.
There is a common process here; all of these individuals had gone for a total emersion into their chosen disciplines; they had all stretched the boundaries further than anyone had ever gone before. In Japan this kind of process usually involved a retreat into the isolated wilds, which included meditation (introspection) and physical hardships.
If you look for it this pattern is all over the place; it’s a human phenomenon, part of what Jung was to call the ‘collective unconscious’.
Iconic American musicians of the early 20th century retreated to the ‘Woodshed’; Robert Johnson had his enlightenment at the crossroads at midnight when he ‘sold his soul to the Devil’.
The ultimate model of near breakdown and Enlightenment is the Buddha, but there have been many other figures from different traditions. I’m not so sure it all ended up in the right area, after all we only hear of the successes, never the failures. Or we hear of historical examples who have been adopted as successes, but whose lives, when looked at through modern lenses, may well tell another story – I am thinking of St Teresa of Avila as one prime example; I wonder what a Jungian or Freudian psychoanalyst would have made of her?
What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?
When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.
But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.
If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.
The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.
You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.
Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.
Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.
Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).
There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.
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!
In another posting I mentioned the importance in Wado karate of focussing on Principles. Here I am going to present another angle to maybe supply a slightly different perspective.
Principles are not techniques; they are the essence that underpins the techniques. These work like sets of universal rules that are found within the Ryu. Don’t get me wrong these are not simple; they work at different levels and in different spheres. An example would be how these Principles relate to movement. There is a hallmark way of Wado movement; something that should be instilled into all levels of practice, from Kihon and beyond. If in a Wado training environment technique is prioritised at the expense of Principles of movement then students are learning their stuff back to front. The technique will only deliver at a superficial level; the backbone of the technique is missing.
This is where I think that learning a huge catalogue of techniques in itself is of limited application, and particularly mixing and matching techniques from other systems; it may work but only to a certain level. To me personally this approach lacks ambition and has a limited shelf life.
The underpinning Principles are not modern inventions, they originate way back in in early days of Japanese Budo and were forged in a very Darwinian way. These were created and adapted at the point of a sword by men who witnessed violence and blood; these things were deadly serious, no delusion, no fantasy, instead sharp reality. Those days are gone but the Principles stretch forward into the future, but they are vulnerable and the threads can easily be broken, we ignore them at our peril. It sounds dramatic, but in a way we are the custodians of a very fragile legacy.
If we look at the life of the first Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, Ohtsuka Hironori, it could be said that he had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a connection between him and the men of the sword who experienced the smell of blood, particularly his great-uncle Ebashi Chojiro who we are lead to believe experienced the reality of warfare probably in the Boshin Senso (but that needs to be confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than me.). Traditional martial arts supply a direct line into the past and their values come from concepts that underpin Japanese Budo of which Wado is part.
Principle is the key that unlocks multiple opportunities and techniques. This works surprisingly well. The human psycho-physical capability is amazingly sophisticated. I have often come across students asking about the problem of learning techniques on both sides. My reply is that personally I have had no trouble switching from one side to the other. I remember hearing about sleight of hand magicians who have to learn a piece of complex manipulation with one hand and spend hours and hours of laboriously practice (and failure) to master the trick. But if the one-handed trick was to be switched to the other hand then the learning time was dramatically decreased. This is an aspect of body memory and it is not to be underestimated, it is complex, multi-faceted and amazingly fast when compared to a more calculated thought-based approach.