Thursday, August 26, 2010

The key to the dojo

I don't know how it works at your dojo, but at Windsong Dojo, there has always been a policy that everyone ranked shodan or above (or yudansha) is given a key to the dojo.

You see, there are no teachers assigned to teach given classes. Here, whichever person attending class that day has the highest rank by default leads that class. In many cases, that's usually the same person, but not always. And many times, the regular class leader won't be able to make it, which means someone else will have to run the show. And as long as a black belt is present, class can be held.

So, rather than have a bunch of students standing around outside waiting for one or two people to show up, each black belt has a key to let everyone in. It's an amazing display of trust on the part of the dojo cho that, as far as I know, has yet to be broken or abused.

The other week, we promoted a student to shodon in our morning aikido class. He now has a key, and being an early riser, no longer has to wait for anyone else to let him in. It got me thinking about the transition most of us go through from the "color" belts (the kyu grades, or mudansha) to the black belt ranks. The key that we are given, it seems, is rather symbolic.

Becoming a black belt gains you certain privileges, but it also entails great responsibility.

You are not only entrusted with a key to something that does not directly belong to you, you are entrusted with all of the dojo's resources: the mat, the weapons, the books, the open space, the training partners, the heat and air, the coffee or tea. You are now responsible to a degree for their condition, care and upkeep.

You are all entrusted with the education of other kyu grades.
Even if you're not called upon to lead class very often as a shodan, you will still be placed in the position of a teacher and mentor with someone for that class. You are responsible that their questions are answered (by you or by you finding someone who knows). If you see a kyu grade struggling while practicing their ukemi, for example, it's the responsibility of all the black belts to help them and to always remain aware of those needs (which often go unvoiced). If a kyu grade is coming up for promotion, it's your job to make sure they're prepared and either to promote them yourself, or notify a senior grade. It's your job to make sure visitors are welcome; do not ever assume it's not your job, and think "Oh, so and so leading the class will handle it." Stretch out your hand and make everyone feel welcome.

You're entrusted with the safety of the kyu grades.
If an accident happens and someone gets hurt, the reality of the situation is that the black belt is accountable, the one working directly with the injured individual as well as the one leading the class. It's your duty to keep your eyes peeled, to be ever aware of what the younger and less experience players are doing; and if it isn't safe, you are the one to put a stop to it.

You're entrusted with continuing your own education and training. To a certain extent, we all are ultimately responsible for our own progress, but there's only so much a kyu grade can do on their own. As a black belt, you now have the basics, and no one is going to hold your hand now. Ask questions, study, read, explore, experiment, practice and teach. The training wheels are off, the learner's permit gone. You have a long way ahead of you but the Path is yours to travel.

You're entrusted with being an example to the kyu grades.
Whether you realize it or not, the kyu grades are watching you. Even if you're the newest shodan among dozens of yudansha, you still represent a goal the mudansha are currently striving to attain. Do you stand around and chat during ukemi practice while the kyu grades do their rolls? Constantly late for class? Joke round most of time, forget to bow, treat your weapons casually? What message are you sending? As a father, I'm constantly aware of my own children watching me and imitating what they see. You are the lens through which the next generation sees the art—do you sharpen the picture, or distort it?

You're entrusted with being an example to the world at large.
Like it or not, you are a representative now of your dojo, of your organization, of the art itself to the rest of the world. Your words and actions in your day-to-day life will, whether it's fair or not, influence other's opinion of the art and the school where you train, as well as those with whom you train. If you're a jerk, the natural assumption will be that birds of a feather flock together, and your school must not be a very pleasant place to train. If you're cruel, impatient or intolerant, people will assume that martial arts in general supports or even breeds those attributes.

Last of all—and this just may be the most unexpected aspect of earning your black belt, this is the metaphorical "key" to real advancement and blossoming—it is not a matter of the peasant becoming the lord. It is quite the opposite, in fact: you, now, are the servant.

You serve your students—you don't tell them what to do, you help them learn and grow, and tend to their needs.

You serve your dojo—you keep it clean, make sure it's secure and open to those who need it, and help to repair it.

You serve the art—if you believe the art exists to make you great, both will flounder; if you believe you are there to make not only the art greater, but by extension the world, all will flourish.

You are not a king on a throne, but a gardner on his knees; your privilege is not the absence of toil, but the opportunity to give all that you have.

A key is given to every shodan not just for practical reasons, but because the same responsibilities are given to every shodan. You might even consider it a symbol every bit as meaningful as the belt itself.

That being said, congratulations and welcome. Now, let's get to work.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lessons from junior high

On the radio this morning, a DJ was asking listeners to call in and share some valuable life lessons they learned in school growing up, since today is, for most kids, the first day of the new school year. I didn't call in, but I started thinking, what did I learn from a teacher?

I don't know that I remember a whole lot of what I actually studied. Even the experiences that the DJ himself recalled had nothing to do with classwork; just solid advice from a teacher to a student. But one piece of advice I got actually had to do with the class, but it has definitely applied to much more than that since.

When I was in junior high, I played the saxophone in the symphonic band. We were working on a particularly challenging piece of music, but there was one short refrain that the whole saxophone section was having trouble with.

Our teacher, Mr. King, told us to go home and practice just those couple of measures. When doing so, he wanted us to do three things:

1) Play them very, very slowly, at half or even quarter speed.
2) Play them as precisely as possible. Use a metronome, make every note pronounced, etc.
3) Play it over and over and over again.

Since then, this lesson has served me well in just about every other endeavor, including budo. First of all, Mr. King taught us not to skim over our weak points, but to focus on them, to strengthen them. Is there a throw or technique you "don't like" because, truthfully, you're just not as good at it as you are your tokui waza? Mmm-hmm. That's what I thought.

But playing only with the things that come naturally to you, that come easiest won't help you grow and develop near as much as polishing the rougher edges. Pick one thing, and spend a week or so focused on it. And when working on it, do it slow, do it precise, and do it over and over again.

And later on, when it pops out, and it works like magic, don't thank me, thank Mr. King.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Been missing my budo

My wife had her tonsils removed last week (third surgery this year, after a c-section and a hernia!), so I've spent my mornings getting the kids ready and taking them to various friends who have been kind enough to watch them while Amy recuperates. Which means, of course, I haven't done any budo, and boy am I missing it.

I've sure been thinking about it, though. What have I been thinking about? Lots of stuff, really...

In aikido:

  • Aikido hand change drills
  • Not just the "wave" but the "undercurrent"
  • The shiho nage / mae otoshi entry
  • Finally demonstrating the sections of san kata & yon kata I've been working on with Scott

In judo:

  • No-gi nage komi / ne waza
  • Certain throws no one seems to know very well
  • More about the "undercurrent"
  • Forms of morote gari
  • Lots of ground work

The only problem is, deciding what to play with first when I get back!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Promotions galore

It's been a busy couple of days in the morning class. We had a shodan demonstration yesterday in aikido and then in judo today, we handed out a yonkyu and a sankyu. This morning's judo class in particular was a pretty fast-paced affair =) Let's just say I like to run the boys through the ringer when it comes time for judo promotions [cackles evilly]. (Okay, truth be told, I never turned up the volume quite as much as I might normally, but we still got a lot done).

Rank demonstrations in both arts are always interesting and for a variety of reasons.

Everyone's different
For example, with the aikido shodan demo, the uke was over 40 and the ikkyu demonstrating was over 50. Yet, while neither are exactly spring chickens, I'm always surprised at what someone can accomplish at any stage in life. I was proud of both of them for their skill and commitment.

The two judo advancements, meanwhile, came from a couple of young fellows. I'm amazed at how quickly the younger students assimilate material, even things they've seen only once several weeks ago. Plus, they're just fun to throw around =)

You learn what's being taught well
As a teacher, you can't help but take a little personal pride in the accomplishments of your students. It's almost patriarchal, really. Even though some of the students may be older than me, I'm almost feel fatherly when it comes to their progress: I want them to do their best, and I'm thrilled for them when they succeed; I'm proud when they not only internalize what I've tried to teach them, but also when they come up with something I'd never thought of, "outsmarting their old man"; I also empathize when someone struggles or gets frustrated, and I want nothing more than to comfort and encourage them.

And you see what needs to be taught a little better
Seeing students demonstrate what they have learned thus far will also, obviously, show you what they need to work on. And when the same weakness crops up with more than one student, then it becomes glaringly obvious what I need to work on. For a moment, I feel bad, like I haven't been doing my job. But then my determination is usually rekindled and I set about devising a way to fortify those weak areas.

A palpable sense of brotherhood is suddenly very evident
When all is said and done, the demonstration is over, everyone is sweating, students are holding their new belts, it's time to begin the process of congratulations. Emotions are running high, for sure.

Tori's are extremely grateful for their uke's, who allowed themselves to be thrown around just to make the other guy look good. Arguably, his has the harder job, and he is not the one who benefits from it (not directly, at least). And a wise tori, despite earning a higher rank, is usually humbled by it; rightfully so. Interestingly, this kind of selfless act cannot help but strengthen bonds between not only the participants, but the class as a whole. It's amazing to me how everyone in a room can benefit from one person's sacrifice, even without participating in it, just by witnessing it.

And somehow, I think everyone feels proud when another person accomplishes something. It's a tribal sort of feeling, I think, or like a sports team in one of those feel-good, underdog movies. Even though what we do is not team-oriented, our training is largely self-directed, I think everyone's attitude, progression and the overall spirit of the dojo and the art improves when we approach it as a team.

In judo, we have an interesting little tradition where everyone in class gets to throw the person who has just been promoted. I suppose this sort of hazing might sound somewhat mean, but I have never, ever seen it degenerate into something ugly. On the contrary, it has always been good natured and ultimately builds on the camaraderie. Chalk it up to the same reason why men can never say "I love you" or give a hug, but just punch each other on the shoulder. It's our silly macho way of saying, "Good job, I'm proud of you." I won't go so far as to say it means "I love you", because guys would bristle at the mere idea, but I will say that it is, in the end, a big part of the reason why Ueshiba said "budo is love" and leave it at that.

I rather wish we had a similar tradition in aikido. Instead, our reaction to promotions remains almost Victorian by comparison. Sure, we're pretty fond of each other, and we'll shake hands afterward (or maybe some will do the ol' shake with one hand and do the half-hug with the other). I'm not too worried about it. But there is something about that congratulatory throw that brings an extra little dimension of brotherhood.

At any rate, I am happy for these fine men and all that they do, I am happy for the dojo, for the arts, and for The Path.

Good job, boys. Now hit the showers.