Saturday, December 10, 2016

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

There are many words and expressions for 'practice' in common usage. Renshu 練習 is a term derived from metallurgy, meaning to forge (strengthening, adding whatever characteristics are meant to be imparted while removing impurities) but has been used for centuries in reference to practice (initially, meditation).

Keiko 稽古 is a slightly more holistic term a compound of two kanji (chinese characters) kei (consider, ponder or think [about]) and ko (old). Keiko implies a marriage of practice and study with an eye toward appreciating the roles of previous generations reflected in our traditions. There are also far more specific turns-of-phrase for things like austere practice (Shugyo)

As you may have gathered from previous blog entries, the notion that consistent practice is integral to acquiring any worthwhile skill is a one that we hold near and dear. Creating (and maintaining) a meaningful Nichijo no Renshu (daily training) can be difficult; not everyone has the inclination or interest to do it, and even for those who do, there are no guarantees of Awesomeness, only proficiency (and even so, not quickly). Let's look at some of the most commonly heard excuses.

Before we start in earnest, for the purposes of this essay, let's define practice as: a means to connect the observed (external) to the soma (comprising mind and body- the internal), creating cohesively consistent and usable 'assets', girded by the basics and principles of your art or way (which can then be used both internally and externally). One key component to 'practice' is repetition, but unlike training*, practice can't be done mindlessly (ultimately, good training can't either...); if training is about reinforcing core mechanics, practice is how you express those taijutsu (literally, body skills).

It takes too long/I don't have the time”

A period of focused, mindful, practice is of far more use than a much longer (but scattered) session. In truth, many arts' basics can be done in a relatively short period of time. Realistically at the beginning of an art, you can do everything you know in well under 20 minutes. With a greater volume of material comes a requirement that you select what you will devote your time/energy to during any individual session (FWIW, Kihon [fundamentals] should still factor in).

I'm not in the right shape”

And you plan to get into shape by doing... what now?

When beginning in an art, you'll spend some time doing conditioning (even if you are in competitive athletic shape). Why? Because each system has unique requirements for things like balance, connection and flexibility that being 'in shape' will be good for, but miss the mark. After achieving a baseline, it is necessary to maintain or surpass that conditioning level, lest you come to an intellectual understanding with no means to physically manifest your art. Does that mean that you will be an olympic-level athlete? No, not unless you train to be, but for every art or way there are some specific things that make learning the method go more smoothly; conditioning is high on that list.

I tried training but I didn't seem to be getting better”

If you're at an early stage of training, it is likely that you won't feel the improvement; that doesn't mean that there isn't any though. Later, you will hit plateaus or even start backsliding- (often what seems to be regression a good sign in part because it heralds the transition from forcing things to work to actually making use of the appropriate basics).

With that said, if your daily regimen is the same at year 5 or 8 as it was at year one, something may be hinky** By the time you've been around for a while, even if the amount of time that you spend practicing daily is the same as when you started, the focus will necessarily have shifted. Rather than taking days-off and bargaining, making the choice to engage in a consistent daily practice is of far greater use than skipping days and doing marathon 'make-up' sessions (if you can regularly find hour[s] in your day though [outside of livelihood, familial responsibilities and sleep/health maintenance] do that!) So maybe changing the concentration of your time may make a difference.

I can't remember what we did”

How good are your notes? If you aren't taking them, you're depriving yourself of a critical study tool. If you are but still get home and can't figure out what the heck you meant, you may need to find a better method. Some folks use pictures, descriptions, outlines or combinations of some or all; the idea is to find something that works for you (check with seniors, teachers and classmates, they might have helpful suggestions).

I don't want to do it wrong”

Okay, let's change contexts for a moment (just to fully appreciate what an insanely counterproductive notion this is)- imagine a child saying, “I'm not going to read (or practice reading) until I can read perfectly.” That makes zero sense. Here's the bad news- if you practice, you're gonna spend some time doing it wrong, but, there's good news too- if you've done the preliminary training, you can only do it 'wrong' for so long; at some point, principle, body method and theory meet*** to steer us in the right direction (sometimes, despite our brains' best efforts).

I need to be better first”

This is, in some ways, a continuation of the previous excuse. Improvement through practice assumes that you aren't starting from 'perfect'; the process of shedding unhelpful tendencies/habits while building-in more useful ones (liken that to creating a sculpture from a block of raw material) simply doesn't happen without practice (or to strain the allusion, carving). The sculpture gets better the more you carve to a point. Beyond that, it's no longer a matter of removing material but of polishing to bring-out the fine details. Even if the competence is obvious to you, that polish and 'finish' work allows the intricacies to express themselves.

Now it's true, we're not blocks of wood, granite or marble. We're complex(ish) creatures with bodies that (usually) aren't ideal and are never (totally) free from discomfort. With that said, what daily training offers to those willing to participate is the process of working with those raw materials of body and mind (and to, through exertion, develop ourselves into something more today than we were yesterday. Not ideal, just better.

I get enough from class, I don't need to work at home”

Maybe that's true. However, if even a chance exists that we gain more through the process of practice and study itself than merely the acquisition of 'skill;' perhaps expending effort every day offers rewards beyond getting good at punching, kicking, throwing and using tools. Heck, one might even suggest that training is, itself, some kind of path...

Yours in Renshu,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*We are drawing a distinction here between training (conditioning and development work for strength, posture, alignment, etc., usually in service of integrating core structural and movement principles), and practice, which points to acquiring, understanding and refining those principles. To be reductionist, training (development and observation of your body, position, power uses, spinal and joint placement, etc.) is the scaffolding that allows you to do things that you're expected to; practice (observation of the external and bringing it into your sphere as developed through training) lets you build more complex structures, so as to do things that you want to.

**At that point, have you been training in your art for 5 years, or, as people are fond of asking, “have you had the same year five times?”

*** This is not to say that it is impossible to misunderstand or think about things incorrectly, only that with correct training the physical expression will out... eventually.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Benpo 便法 (Shortcuts)

Benpo便法 (Shortcuts)

One very deliberate feature of the dojo website is that the links are fairly ecumenical. Since the intent of the site is to be informational, we've included a number of arts (many, that bear no connection with ours but that may prove of interest to readers) as well as to (Japanese and English) language resources and study materials. It is not uncommon to receive E-mail from people suggesting new links, some of which are great fits, others, less so. Several months ago we were contacted by someone from a "Cliff Notes"-type site suggesting it for inclusion. Our response was:

While recommendations are gratefully accepted, sites of the type that you suggest run counter to the ethos of traditional arts.

My concern is that inclusion of such a site might encourage, even tacitly, the impression that reliance on secondary sources in lieu of (rather than as a supplement to) personal research is acceptable. For us, us there simply is no substitute for exertion in both practice and study.Thank you for your suggestion.

With that bit of correspondence sent we could get back to (continuing to ignore) long-neglected projects... but unfortunately, the seed was planted; so, what place do shortcuts have in traditional arts and ways?

Translated from Japanese, benpo presents a (Sanskrit-derived) term, meaning expedient method. Considering that its original use was tied closely to transmission of esoteric meditation practices, the implication is of being efficient while undergoing arduous training. Curiously though, despite the rather strong association with the (purportedly quicker) 'immutable path' it does not point to the skipping of steps or avoiding of hardship, both of which only seem like perks early on (it is often not obvious until too late the ways in which it manifests as a curses; There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that built-in to many arts are links between, seemingly, disparate bits of information*.)

For most of us, training (and the surrounding/supporting activities) is not a full-time endeavor. No matter how genuine the desire to develop expertise, it is unreasonable to expect that anyone is going to go home from a long day of work and/or school, fulfill familial duties, do chores, and then spend time training, learning a new language and familiarizing him/herself with connected cultural practices. Modern life is complex and we are overbooked. Don't we need/deserve some kind of shortcuts to make practice easier or more fun?

Well, unless your days begin with you or a member of your household having to fetch cooking and bathing water from a nearby well, stream or river, you grow and/or hunt for the bulk of your food, and routinely have to forego opportunities to read (or otherwise deepen your training experience with research) by remaining daylight (because your artificial light alternative is a fire of some sort, which you must create, then tend yourself) to dig a new privvy or build/repair some portion of your hovel, probably not. Most of us who live in the modern West already exist in far more physical comfort by default than did most (even the very wealthiest) humans in history... The convenience of having nearly unfettered access to life's necessities (and many luxuries, just consider how a series of developments lead to the relative ubiquity of the internet in our homes, allowing us to view the bulk of preserved knowledge, music, science, art, etc. on demand, while in skivvies; beyond the initial barriers of acquiring hardware and maintaining a connection the only hard limits are one's free time and level of curiosity) raises an expectation that everything should come so simply. It hasn't, doesn't and shouldn't (always).

Despite the prevailing attitude that it is possible to hack anything and everything to achieve peak efficiency, sometimes the best hack is to just 'do the work'. Grit, determination, resiliency and other traits fostered through the process of earnestly trying (and failing often, though hopefully learning to avoid making the exact same mistakes in perpetuity), are nurtured this way.

Proceeding along an art or way (particularly when traditional cultural trappings figure heavily) tends to shift one's perspective. Instead of chasing instant gratification, we come to appreciate that adopting and holding to a regular practice is to tread the same ground as previous generations, itself, a type of shortcut (by not having to constantly reinvent the wheel). So despite moments of wishful thinking, we find ourselves genuinely grateful for clear transmission from good teachers**, and see that this (coupled with rigorous personal practice) are all the shortcut we can use. By moving too far away from those unreasonable expectations, we risk cheating ourselves.

Yours in the struggle,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* A friend coined a great phrase, describing the population of her school (who range in age from 6 to late-teens, all with hearing-loss up to and including profound deafness, many of whom had not been exposed to a formal sign language before starting school) as inhabiting, "islands of knowledge." That is the case for us all- we each bring specialized bits of information and experience into our training. Guided exploration (with an instructor or senior) in conjunction with personal practice and study encourages those islands to connect, bridging them tenuously at first; those links become far more important and robust than one might guess.

** Actually, if fortune provides, a good teacher can, by example and pedagogical method, alter one's practice radically with just a question, phrase or through observation and correction. To use the image of a garden, we are like loam; training in basics makes an ideal planting medium for seed (the principles contained in our arts). A skilled, attentive teacher, like a master gardener, knows through experience when to further condition the soil, when to water, to harvest, and when conditions are right for the next round of planting. S/he also knows how to pull weeds and even thin culms to strengthen the plants that are most beneficial.