Learning the martial arts

From The Iaido Newsletter, Dec. 1989

Occasionally in the martial arts you encounter a student who has a natural talent for translating something said into body movement. These students are a genuine pleasure to teach, correcting themselves and rarely needing to be shown more than once what to change.

Personally I can't stand these people. Not being this type of student, I have to struggle for every piece of knowledge and be corrected at least 23 times for each point learned. I suspect most of us are the same way.

Just what is it that those perfect students have that we don't. How do they learn so easily, and how do all of us learn the Budo at all.

Memory types

One thing is certain, the type of learning done in the classroom will not suffice on the dojo floor. No amount of listening and note taking will make a bit of difference to the performance of a motion. Learning and remembering the words doesn't get the job done. How many times have you been told to put one foot forward, remembered which foot is supposed to be forward, and then gone ahead and put the other foot out there for the instructor to stomp on. It's embarrassing!

Take heart, there may be a very good reason why you are not doing it correctly. Recent work on memory has been pointing toward a theory that Budo instructors seem to have known for a couple of hundred years.

Our memory for facts, words and other linguistic type things may not be the same as our memory of motions. Most research so far has concentrated on the rational memory. How we deal with words, numbers and other pieces of datum. Even here there seems to be a couple of different mechanisms of storage, one example being the difference between long and short term recollection. What has come to the surface recently however is that motional or "somatic" memory may have nothing at all to do with the mechanisms of memory studied so far.

So much for "psychocybernetics" and visualization? (More on these later.)

So what would this "somatic" memory mean. It means that the body has its own mechanism for learning and remembering what it should do. In high school we were taught that by doing the basketball drills we were setting up motor-response feedback loops or some such gobbledygook. Maybe we were just allowing the body to learn and remember.

This has some pretty profound implications as to how we should learn the Budo or any other physical art. It also has some pretty stinky ramifications for us here in the University since it implies that we are probably quite unprepared to learn. After all, our training is toward the rational mind. We know how to listen and remember words, numbers and other data but nobody has ever taught us how to learn with the body.

Kuchi Waza vs Teaching

Why say that Budo instructors have known of this somatic memory for hundreds of years? They don't talk.

Well, that's a little extreme, they talk your ears off if you give them a chance. Just like the rest of us. What I mean is that they don't talk when they are trying to teach you how to do the movements of your art. They show you once, maybe three times then they tell you to do it. At least the good ones do, the ones

There is a bit of a split in the ranks of martial arts instructors. There are those who practice kuchi waza and those who don't. Kuchi waza means mouth techniques and it is not a complimentary term. It means someone who talks at you and tells you how to do something without doing it. Someone who says and doesn't show.

The way that Budo is taught is that the instructor does it, looks at you and says please do that. You do it and he looks pained. He does it again and you do it again. He looks a little sick and goes back to basics.

The practitioner of kuchi waza tells you how to do it, you do it, he tells you that was wrong and then goes on to tell you how you should have done it. If you still can't get it he goes on to a more complicated technique. At least it sounds more complicated.

Of course some things must be explained, why you do this motion here, what the metaphysical implications of this are, and other such information suitable for those who have to know. It's just that none of these things are strictly necessary to learning the art.

If you don't believe that, how do you think that a man who knows no English can teach a class full of people who speak no Japanese. It happens all the time.

How to learn

So how do we as students help ourselves along and perhaps keep the instructor from looking a little green whenever he watches what we're doing.

The secret is contained in the way that good instructors teach. They demonstrate once, you do. This doesn't give the rational mind any chance at all to pick up all of the information needed to do the technique. It is the way that these instructors have developed to shut down your "discriminating mind" and bring out your "everyday mind". You simply can't think about it, you see, you do. Just like driving a car. See the pedestrian, miss the pedestrian, think about what you just did.

This is what those perfect students have learned. They have the knack of taking what their eyes see and translating it into body motion without getting caught up in whether this or that foot is forward. They see the technique and somehow "feel" their body moving in the same way. In effect they've already done it once by the time they stand up to try it. This doesn't mean they've thought about it!

If you want to really mess one of these people up, ask them which foot they had forward. They won't know and will have to go through the technique again to figure it out. You already know that trick, its the same as asking a golfer whether he breaths out or in on his swing. Really messes them up.

Of course I did say that these perfect students could be "told" something and correct themselves. This is true. The mechanism is the same one that messes people up when they start thinking about how they do something while trying to do it. (Hit the golf ball, step with which foot.) The mind and the body are not two separate things.

Getting back to visualization and psychocybernetics (a very 70s word for visualization). Quite simply, a good student can take something heard and bypass the rational mind to apply the information to the body. This is the same mechanism as looking at the instructor and then doing the movement. They "see" the words in their "mind's eye" and translate that sight to the "feel" of the new motion in the body.

Here is the problem. Only a good student can do this. The rest of us are trained to put "heard information" through the rational mind. If we hear it, it goes into the discriminating mind, especially if we are University students used to sitting in lecture halls and listening. This means that the words get nowhere near the "somatic" memory and go into rational storage instead. Therefore when we try to do the motion in the corrected way, it comes out the same as before. Our bodies have "heard" nothing at all that is new.

So how do senior students help juniors learn. Don't for goodness' sake explain what Sensei just showed them. Let them do it instead. At the most, show them but keep the kuchi waza for after practice.

What the masters say: Basics

Any master, any sport. They all say the same thing. "Well, I spent a lot of years on the basics and I think that that's what got me where I am today". You think maybe it's all a conspiracy to hide their real secrets from us beginners? Maybe there isn't any secret. Maybe by doing so many years of basics they learned, and their bodies remember. No pill, no secret technique, no special initiation, no flashy uniform, just a lifetime of practicing the basics.

Surely this makes sense. You need a certain "library" of words and concepts before you can do nuclear physics. Why wouldn't you need a library of motion before you can do the advanced techniques of a martial art. With the basic vocabulary the instructor can go on to teach the advanced concepts without a lot of time wasted defining terms.

AH HA. Maybe that's why doing eight months worth of six martial arts doesn't get you as far as four years of one. The words and concepts of zoology aren't the same as for physics. Not to say that they aren't sort of close, which may be what tempts us to do multiple martial arts.

Learning from books

Yeah, right, like this article will teach you how to be one of those perfect students. Books have a certain use but learning a martial art?

Books can teach the history of your art, they can give you the comforting or encouraging words of teachers that are passed away, and they may even give a certain number of useful tips to those senior students who have a large enough vocabulary to understand just what the hell the writer is talking about. Books may even twig you as to whether your instructor is pulling your leg or not about what he said last class but learn from them?

X for beginners, An introduction to Y, Z made easy. Run away. Look for books for seniors and instructors, read them now and then in a year or two when they may say something else. Just don't expect your somatic memory to get anything out of words on a page.

Of course those damn perfect students probably can.