Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Steal the Technique

At the Kogen Budo blog, Ellis Amdur discusses the traditional method of teaching a martial art: "Stealing the Technique." An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Any modern sports science expert would cringe at the instructional methodology of classical traditions. The traditional method is often referred to as waza o nusumu (‘steal the technique’). It could also be termed, ‘learning by osmosis.’ An extreme example of this can be found in my recollection of account of a traditional Ainu midwife. She said that she attended births from the time she was a little girl. Her mother had her sit directly behind her throughout the entire birth. All she could see was her mother’s back. One day, when she was a teenager, without warning, her mother said, “You birth this one.” To repeat, she had never seen the birthing process itself, merely observed the movements of her mother’s back, shoulder and arms many hundreds of times. She stated that she simply reenacted those movements, which she had been doing in sympathy for most of her life as she observed her mother – the birth went smoothly and it was the beginning of the rest of her life.

Koryu bujutsu is primarily taught through kata. These are not, generally speaking, the one-person solo choreography that is so common in Chinese martial arts (they do exist in some Japanese arts, by the way; they are just not so common). Instead, these are almost exclusively two-person pattern drills, in which chains of lethal techniques are linked together, done in such a way that the multiple finishing blows are redirected (through management of space, timing or target) so that one’s reflexes are trained as if in a melee: fighting multiple opponents in a single engagement. Thus, although the drill is only among two persons, each exchange is, theoretically against a successive opponent.

The training partners are broken down into senior and junior practitioners, referred to by a number of different names, depending on the martial tradition. To use one set of terms: shitachi (‘doing sword’) and uchitachi (‘attacking sword’), the shitachi is usually the junior of the two practitioners, and (at least viewed) as the lesser in skill. The shitachi role in these two-person pattern drills is to learn how to kill using the techniques/weapons of the school. 

The uchitachi, usually the senior, has the responsibility of utilizing his/her knowledge of how to kill, to challenge the shitachi to the peak of his or her capabilities. The uchitachi is not a practice dummy – rather, s/he is also training killing tactics, but is expected to hold himself/herself apart at the same time, to gauge what the shitachi needs to learn. (And instruction, which could include a counter-technique, a blow to the body, wrist or head could be a remarkably harsh lesson). At advanced levels, kata can be ‘broken,’ or overlaid with other kata so that one approaches ‘live training’ from a variety of angles. It is not true that the essence of classical Japanese martial arts was always a rote reenactment of pattern drills, with no element of chance or danger within the practice, even though that is what the vast majority of classical traditions have defaulted to in this present age.

Nitta Suzuyo, the 18th generation headmistress of Toda-ha Buko-ryu, practiced for a number of years, not only with her teacher, Kobayashi Seio, but also with several seniors. She only practiced the shitachi side of the school’s kata, learning the complete curriculum. 

After Kobayashi sensei was felled by a stroke, Nitta sensei became the next headmistress and was now responsible for teaching, her seniors being regarded by Kobayashi sensei as not being suitable to the role. Nitta sensei now had to take on the uchitachi role with all her students, even though she had never practiced it. However, she was so attuned to Kobayashi sensei that by her own account, she knew exactly what to do at every moment of the kata as she had been mirroring her teacher, and on an unconscious level, not only ‘mapping’ what Kobayashi sensei was doing, but learning an exquisite sensitivity of response to everything she did. It was as if her consciousness was in the kata itself – rather than just within her own body, it permeated the ‘shared body’ of the two of them while practicing.

It is very likely that this type of learning is dependent on mirror neurons, nerve cells in the brain that fire when acting oneself as well as when observing another person’s actions (the reader will note from the linked article that this is a very complex scientific issue, and we are more at the level of discussing a number of plausible theories, rather than any definitive data).  It is believed that this is how babies learn the incredibly complex information of how to function within their bodies like humans in such a short time, their nervous system firing in sympathy with that of their parents and siblings as they move and act. Mirror neurons do not atrophy as we age, but for most of us, we tend to learn though other means: conscious copying, intellectualization, analysis, etc., so that we are not as easily imprinted as a baby. 

There is a particular ‘unbarriered’ intimacy between parent/sibling and baby, whereas the autonomy we acquire to achieve maturity and individuation gets in the way of a pure response. One is ‘infected’ by one’s caregivers – I’ve seen my son do a gesture that I got from my father and he from his mother. All without any verbal instruction; it’s a particular touch of a finger on and around the nose when being contemplative – the only reason I am aware of this is my father saw me do it and told me his mother did it too. She died before I was born.

The paradox is that we usually conflate intimacy (unbarriered communication) with love. Yet, there can be a profound intimacy among people who hate each other, or are otherwise in an adversarial relationship. Intimacy can be created through a shared cause, through loyalty to something (including a tradition one studies) and there is a particular intimacy that can occur in power differentiated relationships, if the ‘beta’ in the relationship is not over-invested in protecting himself/herself from the alpha. The Japanese term for the latter is nyunanshin, a kind of pliable willingness to be influenced.

When we examine how one learns in a classical art, we usually imagine this process – where the instructor gives little to no verbal explanation and just requires the repeated enactment of a kata (pattern) – to be a slow and gradual. Thus, the metaphor I use of learning by osmosis is a good one. Bit-by-bit, the knowledge seeps into you, bypassing intellectualization and self-observation. One learns like a baby learns to maneuver food into her mouth with chopsticks or a spoon – only slower. And this is borne out in the interminable length of time it takes people to learn a classical art (and honestly, most do not learn it fully – there is far more mediocrity than mastery).

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