January 22, 2015

Be Zero. Not Zero-Sum.

Conflict itself is arguably a zero-sum event - gain is achieved through harm - but that doesn't mean our training has to be.

A zero-sum is any situation in which a gain for one side is a corresponding loss for another. The term is most often used to describe economies. In fact, some like to believe America's economy is a "zero-sum game" in which the rich get richer by stealing from the poor (except for this. Oh, and this too.).

So is training a zero-sum endeavor? If we train ourselves in one area are we necessarily stealing skill and ability away in another? For if today we train in sword, we are not training in, say, shuriken, or rope, or tuck and rolling out of cars pulling a sweet drift, which ostensibly denies time to gain skill in that specific ability.

This pretty much sums up all Russians to me.
If true, then it seems reasonable to infer all martial skills acquired must by definition be "perishable" - if unused, it diminishes (otherwise, we would simply train such skills until mastery and move on to the next). And if that's the case, golly, which skills ought we train and how often ought we train them? One could compose a literal unending list of skills that even over the course of the whole of one's life could never be accomplished. I mean, how can I possibly make enough time for my backflipping hatchet throws a midst my inverted bowshooting, Kinji-Te, and testicle toughening?! Seriously, I have to quit my job. That Kinji-Te is, like, 50 moves alone.

And if we're unsure which martial skills to train and how often to train them, how do we know said skills will hold up under conflict and actually contribute to our's and others' protection and defense? It seems to me this kind of thinking would make one anxiously uncertain of their training, paranoid they were wasting time in one area when they could be spending it in any one of a plethora of others. But which others?! My god, man! Which?! Others?!

Step 1: Buy leggings. Step 2: Buy hand pedestal.
Step 3: Shoot bow with feet.
In this case, one could never know for sure because of a simple truth: it's nuts. This is technique-based training on crazy pills, leading inevitably to fundamental issues of comprehension and confidence. Worse it can lead to a reliance on information as the end goal, purposing one's training to seek ever more minutiae, regardless of how it is understood and applied, which can lead to "end in itself" training. It certainly makes the above thinking more palatable - the amount you know providing the warm fuzzy for lack of actual overlapping, stable ability. (Here's a good example of a "perishable" skill.)

So wrong? Or so, sooo right? (Cue sexy sax)
And if accrued information is how we judge ourselves, surely we'll apply that same perspective to others, judging "high ability" by how rich one's collection is on any particular subject - viable tactical ability by activating core principles under conditions be damned. This can then unfortunately lead to false comprehension and its confidence (don't call it "Internet," when we all know it's called "Inter-narcissist").

The facts are this: we all know when we don't ride a bike often we tend to get a little rusty when we hop back on. But provided we have learned to ride at all, we can quickly regain ourselves and get to where we're going. In this sense, refined control of the bike may be a bit dodgy, but the balance and equilibrium to be able to ride the bike at all is not. In other words, the underlying, fundamental principles of bike riding are not perishable (if they were we'd have to relearn them like a child). Neither is overlapping, stable activation of the principles of the martial way and its Taijutsu, provided we have trained them that way. And there's the rub.

Samurai with nagamaki.
This year, Hatsumi sensei has apparently chosen sword and nagamaki, a rather obscure weapon, as themes for training. Two such distinct weapons will make a great pairing as the nagamaki is a pole-arm-ish (depending on the design) tool and the other a more personal weapon.

The weapon systems within martial arts are a broad category. Some share aspects, others do not. A staff, rokushakubo, shares design and technical features of use with many other weapon tools - it is hard, straight, and made of wood. But some weapon aspects are obviously distinct by design - blades share a metallurgic technology that staff weapons do not. Thus they are often considered separate and idiosyncratic in terms of the results of their use - blades cut, staves crush. Obviously different.

But they are not different when it comes to their use with the principles of the martial way's Taijutsu. For it is there the tool of use, regardless of its design, is commanded by the very same strategies and tactics, even when their idiosyncratic fundamental techniques are different. The takeaway: we ought to be able to use a nagamaki (or whatever) successfully (viably under conditions) even if we have never trained with it or laid hands upon it - ours or others' lives may depend on it. To me that's (at least) one meaning to being a "martial artist." I have written about this in the past, most notably, Ode to a Warhammer, one of my most popular posts.

This kind of compartmentalized thinking in which one weapon's or unarmed tactic's use is not like another is ubiquitous in martial communities and makes perfect intuitive sense - if we've never handled the weapon or done the tactic, if no one has shown us the means of its use, don't train with it (we'll get bad habits), and certainly don't teach it to others.

But the view is short sighted. I get the fact this is a popular way of thinking especially since so much of martial arts is compartmentally presented to begin with. Commercial schools operate by it: segregating the training not because it has been the tradition of antiquity, but so as to dole it out to paying students drip by drip, otherwise they might have trouble staying in business. Unfortunately, it is the model we have come to understand and accept.

However, if we were expected to abide by the kind of specificity in technical detail between the likes of sword, bo, and the rest, why has Hatsumi sensei and the Shihan "taught" all these years the way they have, akin to treading water in the deep end rather than perpetual reenactment and imitation of kata one sees in classical kobudo training? (Of which preservation of the kobudo art itself is one of, if not their highest value.) And lets face it, without our self-reliance we could not enjoy the inspirational leaders among us that individual interpretation and expression fosters in a diverse organization that essentially allows one to be as good (or as bad) as one wishes. If everyone is meant to train the exact same way it'll be because information collectors have set the rules, and left no room for personal voices for they're deemed "out of line."

Look, one can never really know the principles of working Taijutsu if they only ever believe they are accomplished through the unending rules of idealized "form" that - by the way - is exposed so obviously under the actual conditions of its use. For even if the supposed technique is performed exactly precisely as one has mastered in the dojo, it's a square peg in a round hole if one has not first provided the safe opportunity for its use and taken advantage of that tactical moment to the degree the technique itself - the final piece of the puzzle - cannot be countered or stopped, under current conditions. Hey look, I did the technique right! Is that a knife in my throat?

The answer here is painful: mastering martial technique and form unto itself is a fiction, existing only within and amenable to our intuitive mindset. The answer is anti-intuitive: To apply techniques in a manner that cannot be countered or denied under the conditions of use is to master their form. Function is the form. (Kinda like this guy.) There is no form except that of its viable functionality under conditions, for how could "ideal form" be "ideal" if it cannot be actively employed under the stresses and variable of conflict itself?

(And just in case someone thinks the definition of "ideal form" is to be able to use such under the conditions, then why not freely train the conditions of use in the dojo with weapons and tools one has never been taught in order to train it? The resistant conditions, such as partners/opponents, will quickly lay down the parameters of said use at each individual's level of ability provided everyone is training honestly.)

We can't have it both ways: either martial technique's form is a distinct and separate aspect unto itself, memorizable and useful in its exactitude and replicable for all involved, or it is a malleable expression, proportional to its user, and rather indistinct until it aligns to provide results under contextual conditions. But there is no case when martial form's alignment is a thing unto itself, since by sheer definition of the word, "alignment" is only possible when it references the context of another - as in "aligned to (this thing)" - which is the target of its use, and how well, where, and when it accomplishes its function by martial principles and internal structural resiliency under the context and conditions of use. Even human movement is not in reference to itself (the body), but to the topography, environment, and most important the context of use - in walking to work one's form/alignment differs from climbing a mountain.

To believe in some ideal martial form, is to think there is some idealized form to driving that somehow does not involve the road, its quality, environment, weather, traffic, and any unforeseen spontaneous, bizarre variables - in other words, under the conditions - that anyone can encounter at any time while doing the technique known as "driving." Whenever we train to drive, we are always driving, and always driving under conditions.

"Paper champion!"
No "safe defensive driver" can drive safely in summertime, but not safely in winter; safely in no traffic, but not safely in traffic. Either we are or are not a "safe defensive driver" no matter the conditions since not violating that particular part is what authenticates and justifies any claim to the title. If we did not exhibit overlapping, stable ability here, Clubber Lang would call us a "paper champion."

Defeating technique-based compartmentalist thought means perceiving things differently. It means training in such a way that no matter what we actually do, we gain overall ability and in all areas. Which means activating core principles time and again under the conditions of use to be able to apply any technique (masterful or shitty, depending on one's level) into the advantage we have created for ourselves.

Improving that ability has to do with setting conditions under our control - shaping the space through context - much like one does as a "defensive driver." Pay attention to the context - are we trying to "escape" or "confront" and/or "subdue" a resistant opponent? These are completely different goals that alter how we might respond even if utilizing the same technique or weapon. Shaping action by context enriches our perception of not only technical layers, but also reveals how we can better apply those finer points to protect and defend self and others, which is what martial arts is all about anyway.

Building up and accruing information only to compartmentalize its use has never been the goal. Instead, we are removing our own unnecessary-ness and refining our overall, broad movement for secure and stable application under conditions of variable change no matter what's in our hands.

Teachers, mentors, and peers are absolutes - essential to training for we cannot improve without them. But if we believe there is no improvement whatsoever without their ever-strict grip to instruct and permit us to be able, not only have we placed parameters upon how we know truth, we inadvertently accede responsibility for our training, needlessly burdening them. We ought not give up self-reliance here - our training is ours, do not revoke the right to deepen and excel at it. This may be culturally insensitive, but the best way to honor our teachers and training is to provide others with the very best opportunity to improve themselves.

This is a resurgence of old school thought (Bushi no michi), the kind of broad-minded, self-reliant warriorship able to understand a plethora of tactics and strategies all aimed at undoing the enemy to protect and defend life, yet emanating from a single core or root perception, like a Rosetta Stone of martial comprehension. 

Idealization only occurs when conditions of martial training are artificially controlled to bear no consequences for misuse. But without consequences, there can be little success. Success in training is a moment we can inhabit when we reduce our failure inducing faults - think "less wrong," not "more right." Artists need to grow and only we can give ourselves permission to do so. Since failure is integral to track success, if we don't fail, and fail a lot, we cannot learn to fail less. Less faults under conditions, means less failure under conditions, and less failure means a greater chance for success.
Bugei is the same way.  If one reaches to a higher rank, he need only eliminate his faults.  It may sound easy, but eliminating faults is very difficult to accomplish, because we tend to think we are faultless.  Faults can be translated into something different in Budo.   They can be suki (unguarded points), or carelessness, presumption, arrogance, etc. - they all become our fault.  No fault, zero condition is the best.  I am ZERO.  I joke that the Soke (GrandMaster) has no Dan.  Zero, no fault - that is the target of Bufu Ikkan (living through the martial winds). 
- Masaaki Hatsumi, adapted from Tetsuzan
Soke recommends we move toward zero - zero faults - not zero-sum.

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