Stuck in a rut: Should I stay or should I go?


The other morning in aikido, we continued to build on our randori drills, gradually adding in chaos drop by drop. At a couple of points, I stopped everyone and asked if anyone had noticed anything unique, unusual, troublesome, wonderful. (A good practice to do, I've learned, by the way. People have a way of coming up with some great things that I never would have learned otherwise).

One yudansha seemed little discouraged with himself because he kept coming out of what was supposed to be a random drill with the same technique, tenkai kote hineri. I suppose he must have thought to himself, Geeze, I'm a black belt, shouldn't I be able to do more than that?

What my friend noticed about his training is not at all uncommon. It happens in judo, too, and I would imagine other martial arts as well. And guess what? It happens with other arts as well. As a graphic designer, I get "stuck in ruts", too: a tendency to favor a certain color palette, to prefer a minimal look, or even a messy grungy look, or maybe it's a font I like to use a lot (which is so universal in the design world, fonts are often ostracized because of their sudden ubiquity).

So, a young yudansha may wonder, How do I get out of the rut?

First of all, you may not want to. Not yet, anyway.

Consider kids. If you've ever had children, you might notice that babies and toddlers do something very similar by getting fixated on a certain activity and wanting to do it over and over and over again. To a parent, it can be maddening. But why do kids do it? Because they're new to the world; everything is a foreign experience. The repetition is a part of the learning process. It's how they absorb, internalize and make sense of things.

In time, however, they move on to something else. You may also notice that your own "ruts" seem to come and go, to wander from one technique to another. For now, it's tenkai kote hineri; in a couple of months, you may get stuck on waki gatame. But in the moment, the feeling of being stuck can feel pretty frustrating.

Now, I'm by no means qualified in any way to make psychological assertions, but I suspect that getting into these "ruts" is your brain's way of getting to know a technique. Of course, we get to know all the techniques when we do kata, but some just seem to trip our trigger, so to speak, and our minds latch on to them like a puppy on a chew toy. It may have to do with our physical build; something about our height, weight, athletic ability, etc. gives us a natural proclivity toward one technique or another (which leads us into the realm of tokui waza, but that's another post).

But for whatever reason, our brain (largely, the Subconscious Brain) has latched on to it because it's processing it and making sense of it, and does so by innumerable repetition.

So, for the time being, it's okay. Be at peace with it. Let aikido or judo (or whatever) simply flow out of you.

All of that being said, there will come a point when you really ought to move on. You will probably notice after a while that when you "have a hammer, all your problems look like nails." So long as the technique flows naturally, as long as it surprises you when it pops out, I think you're okay. When the road starts getting bumpy, however, you may have drifted into the realm of now trying to "make it work", or forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, you're in luck! This is the opportunity to challenge yourself. If you can readily move on to other ideas, great, but if not, try forbidding yourself the use of that technique. No more tenkai kote hineri! Just for a little while, of course. Rest assured, things will get bumpier before they get smoother. That's okay. That's the process of your rough edges being smoothed. (No one ever said it was a totally painless process!)

Your Conscious Mind will undoubtedly have to get involved for a bit (and you know how much that guy can slow things down). You may fail. You may "get got" by uke. Again, that's okay. Be at peace with it. All of this will fill in the gaps, and paint a complete picture.

I've even found that you can make an interesting class exercise out of it. For example, pair everyone up, and have them do only the first release. After they do the release, have them try to find (not force) as many of the techniques from junana hon kata (or elsewhere) off of it as they can. Start at #1 and just go down the list. Then see how many more they can find with one hand change. You may be surprised by what you find!

Eventually, I think you'll find that your brain, much like the toddler's brain, will move on to some other shiny new toy, something else it finds interminably fascinating. Let it in, let it fill you, and then let it go. And the stone gets smoother....


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