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Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Find your own way."

I am starting to hate this statement.  It's not that I don't know that it's true.  It is.  And I find my own way very often in class.  I'm now working on the feeling/sensing practice.  I've put nearly 20 years into Kihon style practice, and I think I'm ready for some occassional Flexible and Ki-no-nagare practice.

Lately Aikido Journal has had some bloggers who are telling their students that the responsibility for learning is their own (Yes, very true).  "Mom, I failed my algebra test.  My teacher sucks."  There are lazy students out there, no question.  One writer said to ignore all Ki exercises and make up your own.  I can't agree with that, and I think the idea of finding your own way needs to be qualified.

Masters in the past had knowledge, and sought to pass it on.  They developed vehicles to transmit their knowledge.  I could spend years on my own and never accidently rediscover what they already know and are trying to teach me.  I do need to go my own way at times, but if I refuse the guidance of those before me what is the point to belonging to a lineage, a style, a dojo?  I think some people believe "Learn, and Forget" is a process that goes faster if they never bother to learn in the first place.  The historical body of knowledge that Aikido represents will be lost of we don't even try to acquire it.  What we chose to never acquire, we can't teach and a part of the art is lost.

As a teacher, I should hope to know more than the people lined up in front of me.  I have a responsibility to keep practicing, growing and learning.  Creavitity is an important part of that process.  I will need to find out how a technique feels on my own, because no one can make me feel something.  My teachers can only give me guidance and feedback, and that's all I can give to others.

There are necessary insights to be gained from practice.  Senior instructors from a variety of dojo and styles often prove their worth to me by giving me a moment of "I never thought of that."  There are many people out there showing and doing things I've never seen before, and that excites me.

Years ago at the 30th anniversary summer camp of New York Aikikai, I attended a class that showed a way of entering on a strike that I thought I had "created."  As no one taught it to me, I guess I did.  I wanted to be able to do Aikiotoshi to other attacks and not just Ushiro Ryokatadori. 

This one class did more than just prove I was reinventing a wheel.  The class was a full hour and showed several ways to utilize this entry that I had never even thought of - and most were a big improvement on my own creation.  In the years since, I found "my" entry in The Dynamic Sphere and it's the 4th basic technique in Tomiki style Aikido.

I continue to get creative - but I realize that my best efforts are still stumbling down well trod paths of centuries worth of martial artists before me.  I don't get to create so much as rediscover.  Doing this work on my own gives me a better starting point when I meet that teacher who has something to show me that expands my world.  I'm grateful for the insights.  I see the need to do the work on my own.

It's just so much easier to be a lazy coward than to do the work, both as a student and as a teacher. 

As a student, new material makes me feel stupid.  I feel clumsy, and I need to move slower and of course I do it worse.  New learning is not positively reinforced.  There's an ugly process of learning to use a new tool, a new ingredient that hopefully will feel wonderful very soon.  The odds are I'll run back to the safety of what I already know instead.  I'll probably only embrace the new idea if it is more comfortable to me than the old way of doing things.  The one way isn't better than the other, but given the freedom to 'find my own way' I'll probably pick what I like and never fully acheive what I don't like.  I'm wanting to be the experienced one in the class; I don't want to be the one who is needing to learn and practice.  I need to keep myself on track.

I'll hear the spiritual sounding justifications for what amounts to martial hedonism.  "I don't like the energy of (fill in the blank)," is a comment I hear too often.  I hear this aimed at several surrounding dojo, or techniques or style of practice.  Everyone seems to "love the energy" of the hot large breasted woman with perfect legs and gorgeous hair who doesn't shoot you down when you practice with her.

It's okay not to like a style of practice, or to be scared of a technique or to find someone disagreeable.  Just be honest and say, "I don't like this," instead of using some emotive pseudopsycho babble that makes you feel better about standing in judgement. 

With new knowledge, often times there is a different style of ukemi or throw involved that makes a person uncomfortable because they are scared (but not willing to do the work to learn how to not be afraid), or they don't want to feel and look stupid.  So, they never learn but start to talk righteously about their blind spot because they can't admit to being afraid or having a fragile ego. 

As teachers, we've gone through kindergarten.  We don't want to repeat elementary school.  We want to go forward and be creative.  We don't want to be rehashing the basics.  It's easy to tell the student to find their own way and dodge our own responsibilities as a sempai.  We don't have to admit we don't know how to teach something, don't like doing it, that we feel clumsy and stupid just trying to do this thing we hope to avoid.  We talk like we're giving the student a huge gift by refusing to teach them and we don't have to admit publicly that we're afraid or our ego is too fragile to take a risk and take responsibility.

I hear many people being told to focus on ukemi.  Ukemi is important for the health of the student and they gain a longer career in Aikido.  But, if the student is doing the ukemi, I get to experiment with the throw.  I think some of the talk of focusing on ukemi is the teacher can now better endulge themselves.

While the head teacher endulges themselves creatively, the junior instructors take over the grading preparation until they also learn that they don't have to either:  "I want you to find your own way!"  So, the junior students start to prepare each other without much guidance.  As they have less experience and knowledge, they have less to pass on to each other.  The blind lead the blind.  The dojo as a whole degrades.

Infighting starts.  One person likes one idea, and some else likes another.  Who is right?  Neither student has trained long enough yet to know 'the correct way' is an incorrect idea that hampers their own growth.  Which variation you pick becomes a declaration of loyalty and friendship.  Blind spots now become cherished.  The head teacher goes on to explore whatever they want (pursue their own mastery, Yes, a very important thing to do.)  In a larger dojo, the teacher who does focus on the test preparation is the one who gets looked down on by the students.  The other classes are so much more fun, I "like the energy" of the other classes.  I don't want to do the basics, I want to do the advanced/cool/impressive/spiritual/martial stuff.

Until the night of testing.  Wow, people don't know what they need to know to pass!  It was your responsibility to know!  The instructor doesn't want to take responsibility for the elementary school level teaching or the stuff they don't like to practice.  Maybe that variation was good enough after all.  You've performed great service to this dojo.  People like you, you're friendly and you're attractive.  You represent a demographic we need to have better represented here.  I want to encourage you to continue and I think your ego is too weak for me to fail you and still have you practicing, still have you pay monthly dues.  Pass. 

Grades get given, people get passed out of sympathy.  Now the new students want to know their test material - and the person who didn't pass on merit last time is the person who offers the help the new student.  Who resists the chance to be a teacher?  Someone is asking me for help, of course I need to help them!  After all, I were given that rank so I must be ready to help someone else prepare for it.  And it's such an ego boost!  And I won't enjoy the self examination of my own abilities.

I had a student once that I taught Aikido to who ended up breaking her wrist slipping on the ice after I had spent years teaching her to fall correctly.  I feel that reflects on me, and badly.  As a nurse, when I precept I draw on that experience.  If I don't prepare a new nurse adequately they might kill a patient, they might leave someone suffering they could have helped, they might burn out and quit.  How ready they are for the job is a reflection of me.  They can find their own way after that, but I need to do my part because I am the teacher.  I am the Sempai, and that gives me a role to play and not just privileges.

As a martial arts teacher, I can't teach a self defense class without getting a sick feeling.  Am I really doing enough?  This isn't just for grading, I want them to live!  What would I do if they had to fight to survive?  Would they be ready, would they be full of false bravado, would they get raped, killed and left to bleed to death in a ditch?  Would that be my fault?  I can't help but feel sick taking the responsibility for their life.  I think too many instructors have a very easy time washing their hands after they walk off the mat.  In Aikido, we can wash our hands because we can make a spiritually toned arguement that we had no intention of being combat ready anyway. 

What if we taught a bad person to be a more efficient thug?  Is the pain they cause my fault? 

If a prison guard or cop came to your Aikido dojo asking for help, would you just tell them Aikido is not about winning?  Containing a prison riot or arresting a suspect is a skill some people need to have.  If you need to have these skills, failure is dangerous.  Would you turn away a student telling them you can't teach them what they need to know?  Would their future failures be my fault whether I took responsibility for them or refused to help them?

Students do need to grow and develop, and we can't do everything for them.  I can't stretch for them.  But, I should be the one who can teach them to stretch safely and effectively and I should be able to evaluate how well that information I've given them was understood and I should reevaluate if I gave the student the best answer for them, the answer that would give them the new ability or insight I am trying to pass on.  If they don't get what I'm saying or my attempts to help them prove harmful, I need to have the courage and responsibility to ask if I could have done better as a teacher.

We are taking a huge responsibility for them.  We might want to put the responsibility on the student and we might want the ego strokes and money their loyalty gives us.  But, to be worth our students' loyalty our responsibilities are to their mental, emotional and physical health and their induction to a time honoured tradition that will hopefully make them better people and better members of society as well as better fighters.

We need to give students some freedom to grow.  But, we can't tell our students to "find their own way" to hide our own shortcomings or abdicate our responsibility for them.

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