copyright © 2007 Corey Reid, all rights reserved
couple of months ago a number of us travelled up to Montreal
once again under the watchful eye of Sugino Yukihiro Sensei, head of
the Sugino dojo of Katori Shinto Ryu. He had come to spend some
time with his students in Canada, as he had done last year when
I saw him, and we were not going to miss the opportunity to practice
with him once again.
point in the practice session Sensei asked half the group (there
were about 30 folks there) to move to the sides of the room and
merely WATCH the other half practicing. "Practice with
your eyes," he said.
the interesting things about watching other people do stuff
you are denied the opportunity to demonstrate your own skill
and cleverness. You have to sit there and wait and watch until
they're done. You must observe.
education system, passive observation is what is asked
Because of this we devalue the idea of "studentship". Being
a student is a phase that most of us are only too eager to put
behind us, as we move into the rareified realm of "being an
discussed previously in my article
about The Demon's Sermon on the
Martial Arts, there is a strong thread in martial arts literature
that tries to glorify being a student. The Demon's Sermon makes
the claim that only when you are truly and without expectation
observing your opponent can you hope to react appropriately no
matter what he attempts. That is, the master swordsman embraces the role of the student, of the
this form of observation cannot be passive. This is why
Sensei insists we "practice with our eyes". We are not
to sit back and simply let the kata performed before us leave empty
impressions on our retinas. We must attentively inspect the actions
of the other students; consider where their choices differ from ours,
and take away from what we see, lessons that we can put into practice
when our turn comes. We must engage with the other students and
relish the opportunity to see from the outside what it is we have
such difficulty understanding from within.
without students is an empty shell. It is pointless. I was reading an
article today about fostering learning teams, self-organizing groups
that accomplish goals and build lasting social capital. The
lesson of the article was that the only way to actively build
such teams is to listen. By being a good listener, you create an
environment where listening is valued, and it is only through
listening that teams can ever truly come together. If no one is
listening to each other, how can a team pull together?
where no one is observing will suffer the same fate. And just as
telling a story to someone who anticipates every sentence, or keeps
interrupting to expand on points they consider themselves experts
on is frustrating and useless, so is practicing kata before those
who will not observe you as students: without expectation, without
the need to demonstrate their expertise.
isn't it? I want my sensei to watch us as though he were
The corollary of course is that I must remind myself to watch
others as though I were a student, no matter what my seniority might
a student is a tremendous honour and a great privilege. Only
a student can never be surprised -- because when I consider
myself a student, I EXPECT to be surprised. When I consider
myself an expert, I am in part claiming that I am unlikely to be
surprised -- which puts me at a significant disadvantage when
(as invariably happens) things occur that I did not expect. A
student, unconcerned with how they appear, will be able to react
naturally and without self-consciousness. An expert, on the other
hand, will be consumed with the fear that if they do not react
appropriately, they will betray their own lack of expertise.
asked us to observe carefully and to find points that we could
translate into action for ourselves. I take his own behaviour as
a model; when he is watching me practice, he zeros in on the
fulcrum points where the tiniest change will bring about the biggest
impact on my performance. Just as he did last year, with one simple
direction he changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the
foundation cut of Katori Shinto Ryu.
Listening. It is so easy for me to become passive when I do
these things, and so much of modern pastimes encourage a
passive engagement (or rather, lack thereof) with whatever is
presented to me that the habit is well-ingrained. It is useful
for me to have a reminder that when I am watching, I am still
reminders can come from anywhere. Recently, I acquired a new obi.
It was a historic moment. For me, anyway. For the first time in my
life, I was practicing martial arts wearing a belt other than
my father's judo white belt. I have worn that belt since I was a
child. It doesn't go around me as many times as it used to,
that's for sure, but it's stood me in good stead through my brief
association with Judo at College Heights Secondary School, and
more lastingly at Skoyles Sensei's Nakayama-kai Ko-Aikido in
Calgary, across the Pacific Ocean to Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki,
and now at Tong Sensei's Katori Shinto Ryu practice here in
Toronto. It's done right by me, that old belt.
white belt reminds me that I am always a beginner. That I need
to approach my art with humility and that everyone who practices
with me is my teacher. It's a lesson I need continual reminding
of, prone as I am to thinking I've got things "figured
out". To thinking I'm an expert.
the things I love most about swordsmanship is that there's
to "figure out". It drives me crazy, but it's that
lesson again. It doesn't matter how much thinking I do, or how
much terminology I memorize, or how many different cuts I know.
It only matters how much and how well I practice. How well I
observe both others and, perhaps more importantly, myself.
there's one subject I find easy to delude myself into thinking I'm an
expert on, it's myself. Trying to, as I must, observe myself as
a student, without any preconceptions or expectations, is
perhaps the most difficult part of this whole practice. Skoyles
Sensei used to talk about "cutting away the defects of your
soul." I think part of what he meant revolved around the idea
that practice, if observed properly, affords us the opportunity
to truly see those parts of us that limit us and hold us back,
and once we can see them, once we can observe ourselves
un-self-consciously, we can strike those parts away and
reconstitute ourselves with renewed energy and direction.
belt, of course, is also white. It's a little flashier than the
old one, sure. But it's still white. But it is much longer, so it
goes around me a few more times than the old one. THAT reminder
I don't need so much.