By Rob Rivers, Chief Instructor
First, I will be referring to “Sensei” below. I am not talking about myself in the 3rd person. I am addressing all of the Sensei I have had the pleasure of knowing and the instructors at our dojo in particular.
Training is really what martial arts is all about. Regardless of what the subject is or the technique is, the constant repetition of ANYTHING is what is important. For a hundred years, martial arts masters have been asked, “What is the secret of your art?” The answer is always, “Practice”.What gives experts blinding speed or ridiculous power is an intimate understanding of the basics. This type of mastery comes, not from a Sensei hovering over your shoulder and directing you every minute in class, but, from regular daily practice with a class, a small group, a training partner, or yourself.Regular, daily practice.
An irritating thing for the teachers of the world (and probably parents of the world) is when a student is shown a technique and after one or two tries folds up shop and says, “I can’t do it.” Remember this basic rule: 100 times to be familiar 1,000 times to understand 10,000 times to be instinctive So, unless someone has practiced a technique 1,000 times, KEEP PRACTICING! One of the things that has been stressed in class the past month is repetition. You can’t spar for 5 minutes and be expected to “get it”. You can’t run through self defense techniques for 10 minutes and really understand how they work. You can’t learn the pattern of a kata and expect to immediately understand its meaning…ready to move on to the next one. Sensei (me in particular) battle this demon in the dojo called boredom every day. Dojo classes are a delicate balance of boredom and action. The boredom is there in the form of mundane repetition. The action comes when something new is shown or when something profound is realized by the student either by the way the instructor has worded something in a different way or because the number of repetitions of the same technique finally hit the 1,000 mark and “understanding” is achieved. Therefore, students tend to come to class every day anticipating the “action”. This is the mistake in martial arts simply because the goal of a class is not to wow and amaze the student every class. It is to systematically turn the student into a solid representative of martial skills. This does not happen from always being able to learn new “stuff”. It comes from excellence in the basics. The anticipation one should have when entering a class each day should come with the repetition. This is because there is a pivotal moment after many repetitions that the “action” or “enlightenment” comes to the student. But, it is not something that can be explained or shown to the student. It has to be experienced. So, now, we as students understand this, but, how come we still show up for class waiting for Sensei to “show us” something. Sensei and the black belts in a dojo ARE showing you something every day. In fact, they are showing you the most important thing they can. They are THERE. They are in the dojo every day. They practice diligently without questioning. Sure, there are always moments when we get stuck on something, fall into a rut, get bored, or lose focus. But remember, it is normally a force from outside the walls of the dojo that is causing the distraction. When in the dojo, and all there is is practice…you vs. yourself, everything falls into place. The dojo or Sensei’s lack of wowing you in class is never the issue. Now, to give you an idea of how the learning process is structured in a martial arts environment, we should touch on the topic of “Shu Ha Ri”. Shu– To Protect/ Obey/ Adhere The introductory level. You do exactly as you are instructed. You do not question. You accept and you dedicate yourself to simply learning that which is shown to you. Ha– To break down/ break away. While continuing to do as you are taught, you also internalize what you have learned; modifying, experimenting, questioning. You begin to make the art your own, as you become a part of the art. Ri– To separate from Taking what you have been taught and integrated into/for yourself, you strike out own your own to teach and learn. The trunk of the tree is your teacher, you are a separate branch; connected and integral, similar yet distinct. Now, this all sounds reasonable, until it is put into perspective. One is at the SHU level until around 5th Dan (5th Degree Black Belt)! This is quite possibly where the problem with practicing martial arts in the western world arrives. We tend to want immediate results or, at worst, to at least be told when in the near future we will “get it”. We need to erase this concept from the memory banks. It takes between 15 and 20 years to reach 5th dan with REGULAR daily practice. So, the correct acceptance of what the SHU level means is the basis for our focus in the dojo. Practice. For 20 years. Now, the kids are a different story. They don’t care about this…they want to have fun. So, my advice to the youth students is to have fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy martial arts training one day at a time. There are going to be days when it is hard work, some that are constant fun, and some that are boring. The problem is usually as stated earlier…outside influences. When class becomes boring, is it because EVERY class is boring or because every class YOU HAVE ATTENDED is boring? If you are coming in once per week or two times per week EVERY OTHER week, then it is possible that you are hitting classes that are naturally falling on a “boring” day. But again, this is not Sensei’s fault…it is your fault. Sensei is there 7 days per week, 5 hours per day. Every black belt in the dojo has a full time job or school, family, and countless other things going on. A dojo’s class “cycle” is always in flux. There are kata days, fighting days, self defense days, basic days, conditioning days, etc. These specific activities are spread out over the course of a week, month, even year. If you are not attending class regularly, it is doing more than allowing you time to do “other stuff”…you are fighting the dojo cycle. Regular practice allows you to FLOW with the cycle of the dojo’s training regemen. Now, this is not a big deal if you understand what is happening. But don’t be bored and don’t think that the classes, for some reason, are all of the sudden less interesting at the same time you are only attending class one day per week. If you can’t attend regularly, then you must make the most of it. But the dojo cycle flows whether a student is there or not. So, we end with the question, why are we training…what is ultimately important? I’ll use an analogy if I may: When we were preparing to get married, my wife and I attended marriage classes conducted by our church. Our ceremony was to be overseen by Father Andrew Fischer, a young outstanding representative of the Catholic Faith. A similar conversation was had by us over lunch one day. The Pope was to come to town (Washington DC) and Father Fisher was a part of the clergy responsible for receiving him at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. So, anticipation was high with what important message or epiphany the clergy was going to receive with the Pope’s visit.As the Pope’s caravan approached, everyone waited with stars in their eyes at the curb. The Pope pulled up, got out of the vehicle, and rushed immediately into the church. “Oh, we will be given a private sermon!” everyone thought. The Pope entered the cathedral, dropped to his knees and quietly said a prayer. Minutes later, the Pope exited the cathedral, went back into the vehicle, and was on his way down the road… to the dismay of the clergy waiting for a life-changing quip from the Pontiff. It was only then that a moment of clarity arrived on the hearts of the clergy. Prayer. The fundamental principle of people of faith. There was nothing else the Pope needed to show the clergy. He demonstrated the most important thing he could. No matter what one’s position is, no matter how busy, or what others THINK they need to continue down their path, the most fundamental principle is prayer. And of course, the wise leader gave the priests exactly what they needed. A lesson in what is important in life. So, while the martial arts are not a religion, we do have a fundamental principle that supersedes all other dojo functions and has done so for hundreds of years. Practice without any expectation of anything else but sweat on your brow. Achievement or enlightenment is not the goal. It is the result of not having a goal and simply being. So, relish boredom. Anticipate the mundane. Expect nothing. Do not show up for class every day expecting a specialized seminar level of instruction. Daily dojo practice is a maintenance program. The same thing done on a regular basis. There is wisdom in the old adage “It is not the destination, it is the journey.” Your Sensei is a guide but you are the one that has to walk the path. Alone. Make the most of your training and rediscover regular practice in the basics.