Random Stew It seemed like a good idea at the time.


The Splinter

Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt. --William Shakespeare

On December 20th, I am scheduled to test for a 1st dan black belt in karate. As the date approaches, I'm recalling how I used to feel every semester in college as finals approached -- a strange mixture of anticipation and dread. I'm eager to prove myself worthy of the honor, yet wondering if I'm truly up to the task.

Logically, I know that I wouldn't be invited to test if my Sensei didn't think I was ready for this challenge or worthy of the rank. And I'm confident that I know the material and can perform well. But there's still the little splinter of self-doubt that has burrowed into me, causing a bothersome worry out of proportion to its size. A single heckler plainly heard over a large audience.

When in doubt, sing loud! --Robert Merrill

So, how do I pluck the splinter and quell the doubt? All I can do is to keep training and honing my skills, while trying to keep perspective on how far I have progressed instead of dwelling on my weaknesses and shortcomings. In other words, focus on the journey traveled instead of the remaining distance. I've heard it expressed as "not thinking in the gap". When assessing your progress towards goals, focus on your progress and accomplishments instead of obsessing over the gap between your current capability and the idealized goal. Because by the simple striving for the goal, I have progressed mightily and greatly increased my capability.

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do. -- Pope John XXIII


Peeling Onions

My partner was recently awarded his first degree black belt in Danzan Ryu Jujitsu. In order to achieve his shodan level, he had to demonstrate his knowledge and proficiency in 160-odd techniques (throws, chokes, joint locks, etc.). While I was congratulating him, he made the comment that now he can go back and explore those techniques in more depth; he feels he has achieved a breadth of knowledge and now wants to deepen that knowledge. As a middle-aged martial artist, I appreciate the mental and philosophical aspects of the martial arts as much as the physical aspect, and Scott's comment echoed an essay I had just read by Dave Lowry in his book Moving Toward Stillness. Lowry tells the story of when he was young judoka (judo practitioner) witnessing the award ceremony for 5 new shodan black belts. Acting as one of the proctors and attending the ceremony was an extremely high ranking judo practitioner. Each of the testers congratulated the new shodans and gave bits of wisdom. Lowry recalls how he listened intently to see what words of wisdom the master would impart to the new black belts.

"You have taken a big step forward. Now, I hope you will take a big step back."

Peeling an onionMany teaching systems use a "peel another layer" or cyclical approach to learning. Although a system may appear to be linear as students progress through a series of ranks such as belts in the martial arts or grades in school, in actuality most systems are layered and cyclical. Recall your grade school years; every year you studied the same basic subjects (the 3 R's plus history), but each year was another layer of depth and understanding. When you graduated college, you had a broad knowledge of your subject field. But you weren't an expert until you garnered a few years of real experience and had internalized the lessons learned in school. In fact, the practice of putting the lessons to work forces you to take a new view of the lessons, and provides a new perspective into their meanings and truths.

The martial arts are similar. A beginning student progresses through the ranks in a seemingly linear fashion, learning new techniques, katas, and movements. However, even though the student is eventually competent with advanced techniques, he/she is still expected to practice endless repetitions of kihon (basics). As they become more accomplished martial artists, the constant repetition of kihon leads to a deeper understanding and internalization of the art --peeling another layer.

Watch a class of beginning karateka practicing punches and you will see a group of students performing the gross motor movements necessary to perform a punch and, in fact, they may be able to throw an effective punch. Watch a group of first degree black belts performing the same techniques though and you will see a huge difference; there is no doubt that a shodan is able to throw an effective punch. While the beginner thinks at the surface layer of hitting a target with his fist, a shodan has discovered and internalized a number of layers of knowledge about the technique; solid stance, elbows in close, rotate your fist at impact, relax until the moment of impact, strongly chamber the non-striking hand, power flows up from the floor, snap the punch back, etc.

Even so, the shodan is not an expert. Achieving shodan rank is an important rite of passage but, in fact, a shodan is considered to have a thorough grounding in basic technique and ready to begin serious training. The gap between a shodan and second degree black belt (nidan) is as large as the difference between a white belt and shodan. And the difference is not so much one of breadth of knowledge as it is depth of understanding. The difference between shodans and nidans performing the same techniques is palpable, just like the difference between beginning karateka and shodans.

I suspect this pattern is prevalent in most endeavors. Most accomplished musicians probably warm up by practicing scales and basic exercises on their instruments. I imagine they compose songs in a layered fashion; revisiting the song and adding nuances with each iteration. Artists learn a breadth of techniques and mediums, and become true artists when they begin to weave their technical skill with an understanding of the interplay of light and composition. Magicians will eventually learn a huge library of tricks and will concentrate on the nuances of performance. Writers imagine a general plot, compose an outline, and develop a story through layers of drafts.

So, where am I going with this somewhat rambling post? I don't know, but I feel as if I've peeled a mental layer while writing this entry.

P.S. Congratulations, Scott.