Physical Training Dec 2007
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copyright © 2007 Corey Reid, all rights reserved

A couple of months ago a number of us travelled up to Montreal to study 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.

At one 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.
One of the interesting things about watching other people do stuff is that 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.
In our education system, passive observation is what is asked of students. 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 expert."
As I 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 observer.

But 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.
A dojo 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?
A dojo 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.
Strange, isn't it? I want my sensei to watch us as though he were a student. 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 be.
Being 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.
Sensei 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.
Observing. 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 practicing.

Such 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.
My 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.
One of the things I love most about swordsmanship is that there's so little 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.
If 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.
My new 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.

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Physical Training Dec 2007