Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Martial Arts Social Contract

Between the martial arts teachers at the Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor and their students, there exists a social contract. The contract - mostly implied, sometimes written down - goes something like this:

As the teacher, I agree to give you, the student, the absolute best training opportunity I can give you, be it in judo, jujutsu, or iaido. I promise to offer you the complete martial art I know, including all its best aspects: physical techniques, theories of physical power, mental strategies, cultural aspects, and any spiritual benefits that are part of the art. I promise not to deceive you with martial arts mumbo-jumbo, and I promise not to try to falsely build up your self-esteem without providing any basis in real martial arts skill. I promise not to ask you to pay absurd dues rates, but will ask you to pay a fair rate in keeping with the expenses of the dojo and my need to earn a modest living. I won't give you a black belt unless you deserve it, but at the same time, I won't unnecessarily prolong your journey to black belt by making the standards impossible. I will try my best to help you develop yourself - mind, body, and spirit - so that you can excel in the dojo and in life.

As the student, you agree to attend classes as often as you can reasonably do so, putting forth all your effort, and practicing with energy and a positive attitude. You promise to consider the teachings I put forth, taking time outside of class to think about the relationship between my words and the techniques of your martial art. You promise to respectfully raise any issues you may have with your training, and give real consideration for my answers to your questions. You agree to practice safely to help prevent injury to yourself and other students. You agree to pay your dues on time, and agree not to take advantage of our policies to help you avoid paying a fair dues rate. You agree to work hard to learn your art, and to trust my decisions about when you are ready for promotions. You agree to commit yourself to the learning process, and to pass on the positive lessons you learn while at the Japanese Martial Arts Center.

Occasionally, a few students will come along who wish to learn what the teacher is teaching without honoring their side of the social contract. Such students may wish to learn to fight without taking part in the character development aspects of the martial art. They may train selfishly, failing to give due consideration to the needs of other students. They may try to trick the dues system by taking strategic leaves of absence, hoping to save a few dollars but still desiring all that the teacher has to offer.

We are happy to say that the vast majority of the students who have trained at the Japanese martial arts center are diligent, serious, generous, and sincere. They are quick to recognize that their teachers have given a huge portion of their time and treasure to try to master their martial arts, and are supportive in a variety of ways (offering to help with dojo events, helping newer students learn, paying their dues on time, and recommending the dojo to potential new students).

Generally, the more students adhere to the implied social contract in the martial arts, the less formal their written contract needs to be. Those who find their dojo implementing strict written policies may blame their dojo-mates who fail to honor the implied contract.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

"Mastery" in the Martial Arts

What does it mean to "master" a martial art? In the Japanese martial arts, we are very reluctant to use the term "master." The term would imply that someone has completely understood the art and can perform its every technique perfectly. The reality is that even the very best practitioners are still working on perfecting their art. Perfection is an elusive goal, but one that keeps us training and trying to improve ourselves for a lifetime. What we can do, however, is move ourselves closer to perfection one small step at a time. Those who have been working at this for a very long time can seem almost magical in their abilities, but their "magic" can be explained by understanding that they have a tremendous ability to get the tiniest aspects of their techniques exactly right. Traditional Japanese martial arts are designed to influence the whole person, including the body, the mind, and the spirit. True mastery encompasses both dramatic and subtle changes in the practitioner in each of these areas.

Mastery Over the Body. Mastering the physical skills of a martial art means being able to perform its techniques with a high degree of proficiency. Historically, it meant being able to perform well enough to defeat an opponent in a life or death match. These days, it means understanding and being able to execute virtually all the checkpoints of a skill in an accurate manner, in the space of time and with the rhythm required to defeat an opponent. In individual arts, such as iaido, the opponent is imaginary. In competitive arts, such as karate or judo, the opponent may be real. However, we no longer fight to the death, so we substitute proficiency for deadliness.

One often forgotten concept in physical mastery is that one must not only be able to control one's own body, but must also learn how to respond to and control the body of his or her attacker. Even the most superb physical technique is useless if it is applied at the wrong distance, the wrong time, or with the attention focused in the wrong place. At a higher level, the martial artist must learn to control not only his body and that of his opponent, but must also take into account the terrain on which the interaction takes place (a concept that includes location, time, conditions, and preparation).

It is important to repeat that perfection is an elusive goal. Everyone comes to the dojo with a different set of innate abilities, so for some students physical mastery is relatively easy, while for most it is very difficult. Those past experts whom we recognize as "masters" were able to execute their skills in real time, accurately, maximizing the use of their own strength and quickness while finding the points of greatest weakness in their opponents. The awareness required to do this is profound, and usually requires years of concentrated effort to attain. Further, as you can see, mastery of the physical aspects of the art is closely tied to mastery of the mental aspects.

Mastery of the Mental Aspects. Mastery of the mental aspects of martial arts involves knowing how and why the techniques work, and constantly working to bring your physical skills into line with that knowledge. It also means reaching an understanding of how the mind works, and thinking in positive, productive ways. For example, it is widely accepted that positive attitude helps bring about positive results. In the martial arts, we learn thinking strategies that help us achieve our martial goals. We then learn, by extension, how to apply those strategies to life outside the dojo, which helps us to become more effective, stable human beings.

In real time, mental martial arts involves awareness. One must be aware of how one is responding to an opponent, aware of the opponent's own actions and reactions, and aware of the terrain. These challenging requirements are an important reason why real mastery requires so many years of training. It is virtually impossible to concentrate on all the varied aspects of any martial arts interaction, so vast repetition is required. If one is training with the proper frame of mind, each repetition helps to make one subtle aspect of a technique more efficient, and helps to make it more reflexive. Just as operating the pedals and steering wheel of an automobile becomes reflexive and unconscious after a few years of driving, the essential building blocks of technique (including awareness) become reflexive through repeated practice.

Mastery of the Spiritual Aspects. Putting aside any discussion of religious aspects, the character traits that we often include in "spiritual" martial arts include determination, patience, calmness, and balance. Determination comes from a realization of what one's life mission is, and gradually bringing all aspects of training into line with the mission. Patience is the realization that great things require great effort (not necessarily all at once, but in small increments over a long period of time), and learning to work at a pace that allows one to exert that effort in the appropriate amounts and at the appropriate time. Calmness comes from learning what one can control and what one cannot, focusing work on those things that can be controlled and learning to accept those things that cannot. Balance means coming to a point in one's life where one does not get too upset when things go wrong nor too elated when things go right.

JMAC would like to thank the many Ann Arbor businesses that support this blog,
both martial arts-related and others, including: Network Services Group,
Art of Japanese Swordsmanship, Shudokan Martial Arts Association,
Budo Mind and Body, Art of Judo, Iaido Dot Com, Lorandos and Associates,
Oxford Companies, Bluestone Realty Advisors, Portfolio Ann Arbor,
Invest Ann Arbor, and the Law Office of Nicklaus Suino.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Frog at the Bottom of the Well

The Frog. Sato Shizuya (Chief Director of Kokusai Budoin, IMAF) sometimes tells the story of the frog at the bottom of the well. The frog, it seems, thinks that the sky he sees is the entire universe. He has no idea that anything exists outside what he can see. The point of the story, of course, is that we must always guard against thinking we know everything. In martial arts, we must always recognize that there is more we can learn about a technique, more room to perfect our skills. While most martial artists recognize this in theory, it can sometimes be difficult to approach a skills we already "know" with the kind of open-mindedness and keen interest that is required.

I learned it, so I know it. Kids often demonstrate this approach to training. Show them a judo throw, a karate kata, or a waza from aikido - they practice it once - and then say, "what's next?" These are often the same kids who come back from a judo tournament and ask, "Sensei, why can't I throw anybody?" It's funny when it applies to kids - they are unable to perceive the relationship between dedicated hard work and success on the mat - but adult thinking can have some similar drawbacks.

I've got the checkpoints. Adults often seem to believe that an intellectual understanding of a technique is equivalent to the ability to perform it well. A student may have mastered the stated checkpoints of a wrist lock and takedown in jujutsu, be able to describe the entire technique, and even be able to correct others who make technical mistakes. Being able to perform a technique well, however, is a different matter. A good martial arts technique involves balance, timing, distancing, angles or circles, and many other factors. To be able to perform a technique well, demonstrating control over one's own body as well as that of the opponent, usually requires years of practice.

What's next? Another common hurdle faced by adult students, especially those who are accustomed to using their brains at work or at school, is that they start thinking of what comes next even before fully grasping the technique at hand. Show them a kote (wrist) strike in kendo, and before they've practiced it ten times, they are already asking about how to apply the principle to a strike to the do (chest protector). Needless to say, this approach does not lead to expertise in the kote strike.

Is that okay? Students who try a technique a few times will turn to the Sensei and ask, "Is that okay?" Our answer is usually, "Yes, and no." Yes, we're delighted that you are practicing the technique we've taught, and that you've remembered the basics. No, it's not good enough, unless you want to be mediocre. How much more refreshing (from a teacher's point of view), to have a student ask, "Sensei, can we practice this more?" The goal is excellence, and that's what we hope you'll strive for.

Getting really good at martial arts requires long term dedication, focused concentration, and a deep commitment to improvement. Koga Toshihiko, who arguably had the best seoi-nage (shoulder throw) the judo world has ever seen, was rumored to be trying to improve his skill long after he retired from competition. If you make the decision to be the best you can possibly be at a martial arts technique, and keep at it for as many years as your body can tolerate the movements, you will find that a whole world of benefits opens to you. A total lifetime commitment to excellence in martial arts training can help you become a more stable, healthier, happier person, and you can have a lot of fun along the way!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Beginner's Mind

"Empty Your Cup" is a martial arts aphorism that virtually every student has heard. It refers to the idea that students should put aside their own thoughts and opinions and diligently try to do exactly as their instructor asks them to do. Whether one studies aikido, karate, jujitsu, or kendo, the requirement is the same: diligently and enthusiastically perform the techniques of your martial art, over and over, trying to match all the checkpoints provided by your teacher. The idea is that you should adopt a beginner's attitude, rather than an expert's, even if you are very accomplished. If you do so, you will find that your understanding and ability improve at a remarkable pace. There are several hurdles to achieving beginner's mind, however.

Previous training in a martial art can impede your ability to perform the checkpoints of your new art. In fact, it's more than your mind that keeps you from doing your new art correctly; if you've studied another martial art, the chances are good that you learned things in a different way. The old movements are programmed into your nervous system, and can take time to unlearn. By staying relaxed, focusing on the relationship between the technique and the principle that makes it work, and trying to work slowly and systematically, you can dramatically decrease the time it takes to unlearn the old and learn the new.

Inner dialog is another impediment to effective learning. Most of us have a sort of continuous conversation with ourselves, in which we constantly analyze, compare, discriminate, and predict. In situations where intellectual analysis is required, this dialog can be beneficial. However, when learning a physical skill, the dialog can actually impair our ability to experience the techniques in all their fullness. Martial arts are physical skills, and if our complete attention is focused on the moment, we are much more likely to absorb the subtle aspects of the techniques. Learning to quiet the mind is essential on the way to becoming an advanced martial artist.

Ego is one of the biggest hurdles to learning new skills, especially for those who have studied other arts previously. It's common for martial arts students to strongly identify with the system they've studied, and when they are offered new ways to accomplish martial arts goals, those new ways can seem strange or threatening. It's normal to experience a defensive reaction when asked to try something different, but the accomplished practitioner will learn that the reaction need not be acted upon. Instead, one can recognize that the reaction is a product of "self," a body of reflexive thoughts and feelings that may not actually represent who we are, and move through it toward the desired technique. Recognizing that learning to do things in new ways does not threaten who we are is an enormous step in becoming accomplished martial artists.

Outside the dojo, the attributes of a good martial artist - confidence, open-mindedness, positive attitude, and awareness - are tools for success. In life, as in the dojo, we keep what we embrace, and lose what we reject. A human being with a big heart has room for many wonderful things!