Thursday, December 11, 2008

Teaching, Perhaps

Thinking about teaching and martial arts and fighting and what I really believe.

Martial artists are among the worst teachers because most have so much untested ego vested in it.  I read something interesting lately that compared martial arts to the S&M/B&D scene.  The difference being that people into bondage and stuff are aware of what they are doing to each other and have safeguards built in.  They tend to be very explicit about boundaries.  They deal with the power dynamic right up front.

There is an often unrecognized power dynamic in martial arts. The sensei/student relationship, especially with some of the weak egos who are drawn to martial arts (more analysis of that on request) is ripe with dominance. Everyone recognizes this. Where else in America would it be socially acceptable for one person to call another 'Master'?  But there are some more subtle threads in this as well.  Conflict is about dominance. Sometimes for one participant it is about survival, but even there the threat is trying to dominate. Don't read a value judgment into that. I like numbers and surprise and scary-looking equipment because if I can dominate psychologically there will be no need to dominate physically, and physical domination is where people get hurt.

In a martial arts class, stripping away the window dressing, you have one alpha male (who may be an alpha only in that one context) attempting to teach others how to be alphas.  You should be able to see the problems with that and predict some of the outcomes: the teacher who wants tournament winners but savagely 'demonstrates' on students who are doing well against him; instructors blindly imitating what they think a 'wise warrior' or 'man of knowledge' would look, act and talk like; the pretending to spiritual secrets when physical skills start to fade...

If you are an alpha teaching someone to be an alpha, you cannot keep your position and be successful as a teacher both. The math doesn't work. That may have something to do with the arcane hierarchies that are invented.

Fighting is also hard to teach.  It is about breaking people.  You can dodge that as much as you want, but the essence of a martial art is how to do damage to another human body. The problem is that if you actually break people, you run out of students.  You have to teach fake stuff and you have to teach a lot of fake stuff to safely acquire the real stuff.  Then you have to keep the real and the fake stuff separate in the student’s heads. Then they need to be able to access the right stuff, the real stuff, when they need it completely disregarding the fake stuff that they learned it with.  That is not an easy thing to teach.  Really, really hard in fact.

It is even harder if the instructor doesn't really have a clear idea of what he is teaching- obedience and respect (what I think most parents really want when they sign up little kids for lessons) are exactly the wrong mindsets to instill if you don't want your children victimized.  Mindfully learning to crush a throat is incompatible with compassion- no matter how hard you visualize or how deep your meditation on your skills, if the first time you break someone's bone or make them scream it bothers you, you weren't honestly mindful- practicing violence to acquire a peaceful nature requires a willful blindness. Practicing violence to be safe enough so that you and others can live peacefully is an entirely different matter.

To top it off, and this is entirely from my point of view at this stage in life, most instructors don't teach right.  Not necessarily poorly. I mean that they are neither teaching what they think they are teaching or what the student is expecting.

Some teach like it is a product:  "I have a skill, I must give you that skill.  That is teaching."  I don’t see it that way any more.  That mindset winds up in one of two similar places.                                                       Either:

1) A rigid precision where a perfect technique looks and feels a specific way. Hell, I don’t move the same way or even think the same way in different fights.  What makes a good punch a good punch is a huge mash of power generation and distancing and target prep and conformation that you only have partial control over.  Rigid precision is neat because you can work for decades on minute details and always feel like you are progressing.  It’s just that applying it to fighting is like measuring something with a micrometer that you need to bulldoze. It is sharpening a sledgehammer.

2) Trying to clone the instructor.  You will never be me.  You will never fight or think the way that I do.  Sorry, but that’s the way it is.  My duty as an instructor is to get you to fight better than I do. To survive and win in situations that I might not and I really don't give a damn if you look like me when you are doing it. If I try to clone myself in you and you don't have my strength or speed or will, I am dooming you to fail. It's a flawed platform.  Unless you are extraordinary in your own right it won’t work (an extraordinary student can make great progress despite a shitty instructor).

To me, the teaching process isn’t a commodity.  I have little to give you.  Learning is growth.  Teaching is guiding growth.  That is all.  I need to work with the student as they are and lead them to the place that they want to go (ah, the place they want to go? Or the place they think they want to go? Or the place they need to go- usually three different things.) Even if they have a talent I lack, as an instructor and strategist I should be able to teach them how to exploit it and build on it.

This works at the apprentice level or with private students.  I love doing it with seminars because it just becomes a big “here’s something to think about and play with for a year or two” and benefits everybody.  The dynamic can be awesome.  But what I like to teach could never be a system without becoming a product.  Once it is systematized there are things inside and outside the system.  There becomes a right and wrong way.  Not, like in real life, grades of effectiveness from, “Damn, that was sweet!” to “So, I bet you’re feeling pretty stupid right now.” (That's the verbal scale, the physical ranges more from 'nothing happened' to ...some pretty horrible stuff. A coffin for yourself is not the worst possible outcome.)

Most of the people I work with are serious martial artists and most have some deep damage (sometimes damage they have been trained to think of as strength) from that.  Healing is growth and can be learning.  It’s very organic. 

It’s also not for everybody. Sometimes the expectation of what the relationship should be really gets in the way. If you really want Master Po or (who was the guy in the Karate Kid?) you probably won't be happy with a smart ass in boots who keeps telling you 'you already know how to move' and 'sailing through the air is fun!' and 'what were you feeling when you did that?'

Deep learning is growth. It's not about increasing information- what you know- so much as changing who you are. Sometimes, often, you can't even articulate what you've learned. It bypasses a lot of that verbal level of your mind. A student and I sat down with a notebook once after class- she’d mentioned that she always brought a notebook and never wrote in it because there weren’t any words.  Sitting down and looking for the words it was over two pages. 

That’s not the kind of teaching that people are usually used to or like- but the part of your mind that thinks in words is somewhere between useless and counterproductive in a fight.  It’s not you anyway, it is just some words in your head.

So, I’m not teaching here.  There are a couple of people I roll around with.  Growth may happen. It’s all good.


Anonymous said...


I've not trained with you, as I've not trained with Tristan. Not even had the chance, yet, to meet you. But don't think for a moment that you both have managed to _avoid_ teaching me. Can't for as long as you write the way you do.

Be well. [Ferran]

Kami said...

The name you're looking for, the Karate Kid's master, is Mr. Miagi. I have no idea if I have the spelling right.

So, do you think the dynamic is different with a woman instructor if she's gone through the ranks of an established system, like traditional karate? In my experience female instructors are softer, more analytical, but they're still as strident about form if not more so. Which is good in my mind in some ways--form is more useful to me than, say, sparring skills. The format/system is taught as they were taught, but the feel is really different, I'm guessing due to the social dynamic of an 'alpha' female. I know, much smaller population, harder to make generalities ...

Steve Perry said...


I think maybe the alpha analogy is a bit overstretched here. In a wolf pack, the alpha male (or pair) dominate the others, but it's only a serious challenge from a beta that is cause for potentially deadly violence. Even then, once either submits, the rumble is over -- else the pack would get real thin real quick.

Submitting to a mugger might work, and it might get you killed. Different rules amongst the clothes-wearing animals.

Hegemonic masculinity in humans might resemble wolf behavior, but it's not quite that simple. If I'm attacked with serious intent, I'm not concerned with domination but with survival. Establishing the pecking order twixt me and the mugger isn't the aim. And if I give up and bare my throat, if the guy is psychopathic, he might just cut it for the fun of watching me bleed out.
No self-respecting wolf would do that.

But: The notion that a teacher is a guide who helps a student achieve his or her own potential is becoming clearer in your expression. I've always liked the idea of "Who learns teaches himself." (Or herself.)

Kai Jones said...

Not so much a response as my thoughts on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Good observations. I wrote a post on this subject a few weeks back, but decided not to publish it on what I intend to be a "family-friendly" blog.

I want to point out that compassion should fairly go beyond concern for the attacker, to concern for oneself and other potential victims. Violence is no more incompatible with compassion than a scalpel is incompatible with medicine. Or, as Jet Li's master in Shaolin Temple put it, "Buddha shows no mercy to devils."

Elinor said...

You teach classes? I would imagine a class taught by someone who actually experiences violence would have a better understanding of how to resolve violent situations / prevent them, than a majority of martial 'artists'.

I have to admit, even simply speaking with you at Orycon helped me in an almost instructional manner; it reminded me of the lesson I need to feel more comfortable with, of reminding my concept of morality that my social culture tries to instill in me, that I need to forget about it in a violent situation. There are plenty of examples when I was younger where I was able to bypass that and end violent situations quickly when others thought I was someone to victimize, but I attribute that to being very early in my process of trying to 'make myself more normal' like we'd talked about briefly.

My favorite teachers are those who are not trying to remind me throughout the situation, that they're an alpha. It says to me that they're insecure, and they shouldn't be if they are confident they have something worth sharing. Alphas don't need to remind you that they're an alpha, they just are. Something that gets forgotten in novels frequently as well.

Coffee is my friend, I should have more of it before trying to comment coherently. This was a good post that made a lot of sense to me after taking classes in Kendo and Iaido.

Elinor (from Orycon)

Anonymous said...

The sensei/student relationship, especially with some of the weak egos who are drawn to martial arts (more analysis of that on request) is ripe with dominance.

Well, here's the request. ;)

Very good post Rory. These days I think of the members of my group as training partners whether they are teaching or being taught. Much easier on the ego when I get beat by the rookie, or even when I beat the experienced guys. It also makes training somewhat easier as nobody is trying to impress the "sensei" and more focused on getting down what's being worked on.


Rory said...

Ferran- Hmmmm. It would be cool to visit Spain...

Kami- Yes, no, maybe. I've seen some female instructors (and officers, for that matter- the dynamic can be similar) who were afraid of losing control and wound up becoming shrill martinets; some who created a very warm family feeling in their dojo while maintaining excellent discipline (Dana Sheets comes to mind) and a fair few who really wrestled with the problem(s): to demand respect or expect it; feeling that they had to earn their students respect and attention when it was assumed for their male counterparts; pondering whether they would have to hurt someone in order to be listened to. These were voiced concerns, the problems may or may not have existed. I think that since the situation is rarer and has less expectation on it, the woman instructor has a lot more freedom in defining the role, but that's just a guess.

Steve- Dominance vs survival in an assault already addressed in the post, but it wasn't the focus so only one line. But, yeah, teaching is the key here. This has been sitting in my computer since you commented I should be teaching here. I'm still working out what teaching means to me and why a "martial arts class" feels like such a wrong idea. I think "violence-prone adult playgroup" is more my style.

Kai- Nice. Teaching isn't a choice, something that happens for good or bad whenever you are observed. Good point.

Chris- That sounds like a sophistry to me, but this would definitely turn into a long conversation over a beer. Some stuff echoed in this post and I may touch on it later.

Elinor- Good to hear from you. Sorry if I got to lecturing at Orycon. I talk too much sometimes. There's a great power in not thinking like other people if you can just use it as the gift it is... but you know that.

Mike- I knew the request would come from you. I think a lot of things come together- the dominance dynamic, what the student hopes to learn and even compassion. Let me think about finding the connections and I'll try to get it all down.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rory, for pointing out that I've become too predictable. Or maybe I'm just your straight man. Burns to your Allen. LOL ;)

I think that master/servant dynamic in many MA schools is interesting. People are taught to be subservient but the goal in a confrontation is to at least avoid that from happening.

"violence-prone adult playgroup". I like that.


Steve Perry said...

Hey, call it whatever you want, but I see this stuff in your future. Writing/teaching on the subject, you already have a platform with the first book, and that will get broader with the second one.

You can limit your students to those with a certain skill level already or not; you can bypass a lot of the crap in how you offer the training. Here's is what we are going to try and do. If that doesn't interest you, don't come.

Check my logic and see if I'm wrong: If you are in a MA class and it keeps pissing you off, then it would seem that you already know what you don't want to teach.

You have a systematic way of moving, whether you have laid it out or not, the principles are there. Could be as basic as balance and flow, but there is no such thing as totally free-form dance without recognizing the nature of being a biped.

Bruce Lee had a line, I saw it posted on a picture of a tombstone in a magazine articles years ago. As I recall it: "Dedicated to the memory of a once fluid man, jammed and distorted by the classical mess." (Though he had to go through the classical mess in order to transcend it, if you are already past that, then what's stopping you?)

You seem determined to avoid boxing yourself in, and I can understand that go-with-the-flow attitude, but you are limited by the nature of the equipment, so figuring out the most efficient ways of using the gear makes perfect sense. Yeah, yeah, shit happens, things changes, worlds move, but that is part of your flow already, right? We aren't discussing whether that's true or not, only how best to approach it.

Turning your "instinctive" reactions into cut-and-dried rules ain't gonna happen, but you can evaluate students, see what tools they have, and help them figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. It's not like you have to play the same set every gig, you can follow your nose. Even we do that all the time in our class -- something comes up, question gets asked, the teacher takes a right and goes down another road -- knife? Sure. Let's look at this.

Having rules for writing doesn't kill the spontaneity of making up a new story; neither would it -- in my mind -- kill a system of movement. What you teach today doesn't have to be what you teach tomorrow.

You have the tools. You need to trust them. Stop dicking around and just do it.

Stephen Grey said...

Don't have too much to say here, I'd just like to say you have a great blog, many well-written and interesting posts on here. I'll buy your book.

Well, there is one thing I will say that may be tangentially related to the subject matter of this post.

Ever notice how many real weirdos there are in martial arts? Further, ever notice how many of them seem to achieve a fairly, or even very high, degree of skill?

Anonymous said...

No, sophistry would be pointing out that compassion means "suffering with", not "suffering for". ;)