These Things Take Time

…and I know that I’m…
The most inept that’s ever stepped…

Okay, maybe not the MOST inept. I do try to be less self-important than Morrissey. Not that it’s hard, but nice of me to try.

A couple of weekends ago a number of us travelled up to Montreal to study once again under the watchful eye of Sugino Sensei. He had come to spend some time with Michel Martin Sensei, as he had done last year when I saw him, and we were not going to miss the opportunity to practice with him this time.

At one point in the practice session Sensei asked half the group (there were about 30 folks there) to move to the sides of the room and merely WATCH the other half practicing. “Practice with your eyes,” he said.

One of the interesting things about watching other people do stuff is that you are denied the opportunity to demonstrate your own skill and cleverness. You have to sit there and wait and watch until they’re done. You must observe.

In our education system, passive observation is what is asked of students. Because of this (I guess, little armchair sociologist for you here) we devalue the idea of “studentship”. Being a student is a phase that most of us are only too eager to put behind us, as we move into the rareified realm of “being an expert.”

As I posted previously about The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, there is a strong thread in martial arts literature that tries to glorify being a student. The Demon’s Sermon makes the claim that only when you are truly and without expectation observing your opponent can you hope to react appropriately no matter what he attempts. That is, the master swordsman is embracing the role of the student, of the observer.

But this form of observation cannot be passive. This is why Sensei insists we “practice with our eyes”. We are not to sit back and simply let the kata performed before us leave empty impressions on our retinas. We must attentively inspect the actions of the other students; consider where their choices differ from ours, and take away from what we see lessons that we can put into practice when our turn comes. We must engage with the other students and relish the opportunity to see from the outside what it is we have such difficulty understanding from within.

A dojo without students is an empty shell. I was reading an article today about fostering learning teams, self-organizing groups that accomplish goals and build lasting social capital. The lesson of the article was that the only way to actively build such teams is to listen. By being a good listener, you create an environment where listening is valued, and it is only through listening that teams can ever truly come together. If no one is listening to each other, how can a team pull together?

A dojo where no one is observing will suffer the same fate. And just as telling a story to someone who anticipates every sentence, or keeps interrupting to expand on points they consider themselves experts on is frustrating and useless, so is practicing kata before those who will not observe you as students: without expectation, without the need to demonstrate their expertise.

Being a student is a tremendous honour and a great privilege. Only a student can never be surprised — because when you consider yourself a student, you EXPECT to be surprised. When you consider yourself an expert, you are in part claiming that you are unlikely to be surprised — which puts you at a significant disadvantage when (as invariably happens) things occur that you did not expect. A student, unconcerned with how they appear, will be able to react naturally and without self-consciousness. An expert, on the other hand, will be consumed with the fear that if they do not react appropriately, they will betray their own lack of expertise.

Sensei asked us to observe carefully and to find points that we could translate into action for ourselves. I take his own behaviour as a model; when he is watching me practice, he zeros in on the fulcrum points where the tiniest change will bring about the biggest impact on my performance. Just as he did last year, with one simple direction he changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the foundation cut of Katori Shinto Ryu.

Observing. Listening. It is so easy for me to become passive when I do these things, and so much of modern pastimes encourage a passive engagement (or rather, lack thereof) with whatever is presented to me that the habit is well-ingrained. It is useful for me to have a reminder that when I am watching, I am still practicing.

But you know where you came from,
You know where you’re going and
you know where you belong…

From White to White

It was a historic moment. For me, anyway. For the first time in my life, I was practicing martial arts wearing a belt other than the one pictured here. This was my father’s judo white belt. I have worn this belt since I was a child. It doesn’t go around me as many times as it used to, that’s for sure, but it’s stood me in good stead through my brief association with Judo at College Heights Secondary School, and more lastingly at Skoyles Sensei’s Nakayama-kai Ko-Aikido in Calgary, across the Pacific Ocean to Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki, and now at Tong Sensei’s Katori Shinto Ryu practice here in Toronto. It’s done right by me, that old belt.

I never wanted to wear anything but a white belt. Fortunately, aside from Judo I’ve never practiced a tradition that used coloured belts for anything, so it’s never been a problem.

My white belt reminds me that I am always a beginner. That I need to approach my art with humility and that everyone who practices with me is my teacher. It’s a lesson I need continual reminding of, prone as I am to thinking I’ve got things “figured out”.

One of the things I love most about swordsmanship is that there’s so little to “figure out”. It drives me crazy, but it’s that lesson again. It doesn’t matter how much thinking I do, or how much terminology I memorize, or how many different cuts I know. It only matters how much and how well I practice.

My new belt is from Aoi Budogu, a splendid outfit in Vancouver who sell a wonderful array of fantastic products for us swordsmen. Not many retailers cater to our demographic, so it’s great to have folks like this who offer the sorts of wacky things we think are important. This lovely obi is much more functional for a swordsman. Its greater width holds your sword more firmly in place.

It’s good to have fine tools if they encourage one to practice more and better. While you don’t want to get all hung up on having the perfect tools, or use NOT having them as an excuse to practice, there’s no denying that beautiful things raise one’s spirits and encourage practice. Plus it didn’t cost very much.

As you can see, my new belt is also white. It’s a little flashier than the old one, sure. Don’t hate me. But it’s still white. I would feel strange wearing anything but white around my waist. I’m a beginner. I don’t practice much. But boy am I capable of feeling incredibly proud of myself. Even though I’ve moved on from my father’s Judo belt, I don’t want to pretend I don’t need a reminder like this.

Also, this one is much longer, so it goes around me a few more times than the old one. THAT reminder I don’t need so much.

New obi photo courtesy of Aoi Budogi. Used by permission. Copyright 2007 Aoi Budogu