Physical Training Nov 2008
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Good Iaido Versus Good Iaido Practitioner [1]

Iaido Conversation #4[2]

copyright © 2008 Chris Gilham, all rights reserved

“What about Jakob?”

“I think I know where you’re going with this.  Before I jump in you should tell me what you mean when you ask me about Jakob? Then we can reflect on this.”

“Well, you know, he’s not very good at Iaido.  He just doesn’t seem to get it.”

“Sempai, I wonder if there’s a lot in what you just said which reveals some of your assumptions or values for Iaido?”

“What I mean is he doesn’t learn the techniques very well or very quickly.  That’s what I mean when I say he’s not very good at Iaido.”

“When you say he’s not very good what you mean to say or rather what you’re really saying is that to be good in Iaido one must be technically proficient.  Would you agree with this?”

“Yes.  I would.  To be successful in Iaido or to progress in Iaido one needs to progress technically.  You often don’t teach students new techniques unless they’ve shown you that they can do previous techniques well.”

“Most of the time I’d say that’s correct.  Is it fair to say that I teach or share techniques with students in the club differently?”

“Yes.  It’s fair to say.”

“Why do you think I do this?”

“Well that’s pretty obvious.  Every student has a different ability and they work at their Iaido with different levels of motivation and persistence.  Also, some students show up all the time for training and some do not.  So for every student it’s really case by case isn’t it?”

“Yes it is and I’m glad you picked this up right away. What is interesting about your initial question is how you have noticed a case which is unique – different from what we might call the mean or average. This should be a good conversation because although we will not actually research this particular case – the case of Jakob, we can talk about his case for what it might teach us about other cases, or about Iaido in general. The atypicality of Jakob’s learning in Iaido should be very instrumental for us here.”

“Glad I can help us to be functional and purposive.” 

“That’s one reason why you’re Sempai – the senior student in the club. Back to what you said about case by case criteria: For the most part, those criteria you mentioned serve well enough to help determine the ‘case by case’ learning for each student.  For example, you’re the most senior student not only because you have been with us the longest but because you have attended the most consistently.  Furthermore, you work very hard when you’re at training.  Your hard work pays off: your technical proficiency in Iaido is strong. You’ve also tested successfully and hold the highest rank in the club besides myself. I will also add that you have shown other qualities which exemplify what one might define as essential to ‘being good in Iaido’ or a ‘good’ Iaido practitioner.”

“Thanks sensei. That’s very kind of you.”

             “From what I have just said do you see that to be good in Iaido is not simply and only a question of technical proficiency?”

“I do.  That doesn’t change the fact that Jakob isn’t very good at Iaido.”

“Be careful my wise student: moments ago you yourself clarified that Jakob isn’t technically proficient and we both agreed on this.  What I’m trying to show you now is that to be good at Iaido doesn’t entail technical proficiency as a mutually exclusive criterium.  Also, although we might say there are a ‘standard set of criteria’ for what makes one good at Iaido – things like commitment, motivation, perseverance, respect - those criteria are not applied to everyone universally.  Human beings are not production line model cars. We should be viewed case by case. Look at Samuel, for example. He works very hard, and is profoundly reflective. He also has a family and is an extremely dedicated father. Iaido is but one piece of his life and so although he may not have a higher level of technical proficiency one can’t say he is not a good iaido practitioner. Jakob is yet again another case from which we can learn about what it is to be well with one another within Iaido, and by extension in life. These cases can help us understand Iaido much more deeply.

In the question of Jakob we are agreed that he’s not technically proficient.  So let’s look at whether or not Jakob is good at Iaido within a larger and deeper, more important meaning, truly.  After all, I have said to you many times that Iaido is more about being a better human being than it is about one’s ability to swing a sword around.”

“Sensei, I understand that Iaido is more than technical proficiency but really if Jakob were ever to be seen by other Sensei or students from other clubs most would universally agree that he’s not good at Iaido. He certainly wouldn’t pass his grading test.”

“I’d agree with them if by that they meant his technical iaido isn’t good: That he has poor iaido. If these were their key or main impressions of Jakob, that is to say, if they used his technical proficiency as the main criterion for assessing whether or not he is a good iaido practitioner, then I would say to you that those sensei and students have not reflected enough on an interpretation of Iaido that best fits our modern day context and the purpose of the Way arts.  Jakob has good attendance, works very hard when he is at training, and most importantly, shows the right attitude towards his learning and the learning of others.  Clearly, these attributes are much more important than his technical ability to swing the sword.” 

“I agree that they are but really Sensei, there is a standard of technical proficiency expected to pass a grading. How do we explain Iaido within this reality?”

“Easily. Grading as it is currently used and emphasized does not encapsulate the essential core value of Iaido. I have always told you that grading is not important.

Grading is like provincial achievement tests in schools. Students and schools are given scores based on a one time performance – that performance covering years of study. This is not deep and broad assessment of an individual over time. This is not the collection of various types of data in order to create a whole picture of student. This is one moment in time and that moment in time should not represent that student as they are, or for what they are capable of. Besides, one does not have to be technically proficient as a teacher or higher rank in order to teach well and guide students towards advanced levels of technical proficiency. You see this all the time in the world. How is it that an 85 year old martial arts teacher can have students whose technical skills are exceptional, and far surpass that of their teacher? It’s a non-argument to say that those who pass gradings must have high technical proficiency because they need this in order to teach others. Some of us know that the highest ranks in Iaido are sometimes given for reasons completely outside of technical proficiency. Let’s call it for what it is. I think an Iaido rank should be given based on an assessment that includes a grading of technical skills as one component among several that come together to create an Iaido practitioner profile. That profile then should reflect greater, more important Iaido values than just technical ability.”  

“That’s a very interesting thought Sensei. Despite these thoughts you still grade.”

“I do, and I will not deny that for most of us grading serves as a future goal to work towards. They motivate us. They motivated me for many years. For one, the idea of a future goal to motivate us is not easy to escape since this is embedded within our culture and thus embedded within us. Ironic isn’t it, how the modern ‘Way’ arts emphasize gradings and yet have origins in eastern cultures – places where ‘being’ is more important than ‘getting to’ some future place? We’ve lost the mindfulness of the doing - of the moments in Iaido. I could train in Iaido for the rest of my life without ever grading again. Sometimes I believe I should no longer grade. On the other hand I also want to grade because at the next rank I will be able to sit on grading panels and it is here that I may be able to influence the national organization and perhaps begin to shift us away from a strict technical proficiency model.

Let’s get back to my point with Jakob. Would you not agree with me that Jakob learns in a profoundly different way than most others in the club?””

“Absolutely.  He’s slow.  When you watch him you can see the gears turning in his head.  Every class it’s like this.”

“And often times you are responsible for teaching him.  I hear your frustration.  Sometimes, I see your frustration.  Why do you think he’s slow?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe he’s got something wrong with him.  Maybe it’s just that - he’s slow.”

“Is it his fault that he’s slow?  Does he choose to be slow?  Does he like to be technically poor at Iaido?”

“No. Of course not and I don’t mean to say that something’s ‘wrong’ with him.”

“When you’re frustrated with him remember he’s doing the best he can with what he has and because you recognize this it’s your responsibility to find ways in which you can assist him to learn more efficiently so that his technical proficiency increases. 

Critically, it is our collective role as members of a social group to continue to support Jakob so he has a sense of belonging and his training provides him with meaningfulness.  This is the essence of Iaido.  Although we practice alone we are always engaged with others as part of our learning.  How we engage one another is critical to how we transfer and interpret knowledge: knowledge for technical Iaido and also knowledge of self and our place in the world with others.  Jakob is slow and he’s not technically proficient at Iaido but he is a good Iaido practitioner. 

Aristotle, in his famous work The Nichomachean Ethics, noted that the doing alone could produce both poor and good lyre players.  Aristotle wanted us to understand that as a human being what makes us good is more than just doing.  Reflection and deliberation are important parts of learning.  Jakob reflects and deliberates on his learning – the proof of this is in his continued attendance, hard work, eagerness, respectfulness, and that ‘gears turning in the head’ look we all see in his face when he’s training.  It’s simply the case that his ability to reflect and deliberate is different than most of our abilities in these regards.  Although he may always be technically poor at Iaido, thus far he has shown an exemplary goodness for this Way art.” 

“Summarily, you’re saying that to be a good Iaido practitioner does not require technical proficiency. Is this right?”

“Yes.  To clarify: one can be a good lyre player and by this we mean they play the lyre well. Likewise, one could argue that to be a good iaido practitioner one has to use the sword well. On one layer only, a light topical layer, yes. Rare would be the practitioner who has all the other pieces in place and does not become technically proficient. Jakob is just such a rare person. We might call him ‘Learning Disabled’ or some might say he has poor ‘Kinesthetic Intelligence’, but I would not say that he is a poor Iaido practitioner. All the other pieces are in place and those pieces are more important than the technical piece, if we are to understand Iaido fully and deeply. This is really what our conversation is about:  What is Iaido?”  

“It’s hard to see past the technical inefficiency when so much time and effort is put into it. I do understand your position though.”

“It’s hard to see past this because of what our culture values, unfortunately.  Once more of us realize this and see the deeper, fuller, more ‘valuable’ values within Iaido we can say we have taken significant, important steps along the path of understanding self and others.  This is not to take away from the earlier steps that were needed to get us to this understanding.

Specifically, understanding a human being like Jakob and working with this understanding towards Jakob’s continued involvement in Iaido is primarily the work of being - and helping others to be - better human beings. In the future you may be able to foreshadow such a case and therefore have your experiences with and understanding of Jakob to aid you. What we have done is asked ourselves what could be learned here from your initial question about Jakob. What we’ve done is a form of inquiry, really. What we’ve constructed is something that moves beyond Iaido: we’ve constructed an understanding of knowledge that does not apply to Iaido alone. Think of school classrooms and students like Jakob in them; of work places and all the Jakobs’ out there; of the people living on the street who we might describe as ‘Jakob’. This is what I see as Iaido’s potential: learning to be better with one another through the practice of this art. Such learning can come out of the ‘doing’ of Iaido.” 

“It’s really unfortunate that our national organization equates technical proficiency with ‘good Iaido practitioner’.”

“It is unfortunate, indeed.  Perhaps we can talk about this in more detail another time. Perhaps its better left alone for now too. Remember that it is not possible to for us to know and therefore be able to tell the whole story. It is important that we honour Jakob’s case right now as we have detailed it. Surely, there is a lot more to say about Jakob as there is to say about the organization. We run the danger of thinking too much about the organization and not enough about Jakob and also too much about Jakob to gain from this particular conversation. Our understanding could be hampered by too much generalizing to the broader context. There is a tension to adjust to in thinking about Jakob and his particular situation, and the broader context of the national organization. Right now I think our tension can be eased if we start training.  When Jacob shows up today I’d like you to work with him.  Are you OK with this?”

“I am.  Thank you for this conversation Sensei.”

Thank you. Engaging other in conversation is what brings out our own understanding, even as teachers.”          


[1] This field note paper was inspired by Dr. Field’s comment regarding Aristotle’s reference to ‘poor and good lyre players’ on my last field paper. 

[2] Iaido Conversations 1, 2 and 3 were papers for previous graduate courses taken in GDER.

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Physical Training Nov 2008