Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Need to Understand

Some of you know that in one of my other lives, I'm a martial artist. I started Dan Zan Ryu jujitsu in 1982 and I hold the rank of nidan (second degree black belt) in the style. A little over a year ago, I started Chen style Tai Chi: I need a style I can do in old age, and DZR is hard on the body, I've always wanted to study Tai Chi, and I've wanted to take classes with Sifu Alex Feng for a good long time.

When I started jujitsu, I was what you might call a talky student. Now, the jujitsu organization I've been in for all these years is talky; American martial arts instructors generally talk too much. In a traditional Japanese dojo - and you can see this in many or most Aikido dojos - there's not much talk. The sensei demonstrates an art, everybody does it or tries to do it. And tries and tries and tries. I'm not sure when students get to ask questions; the emphasis is very much on learning by observing and doing.

Anyway, I was a big talker. I asked a lot of questions when I was on the student end, I talked a lot when I was teaching. (In the school where I started, after you were okay'd on a set of techniques, you were given assignments to teach them to lower-ranking students, even when you were both beginners.)

This went on for a pretty long time. At some point in my practice, I heard the late, and deeply lamented, Professor Pat Browne say "Don't listen to what we say, watch what we do, because we'll lie to you and we won't even know it." This eventually sank in, to the point where my most frequent question became "Could I see that again?" I've asked that question at conventions, classes, and workshops with all ranks and with only black belts on the mat. I figure if I'm not sure what the instructor is doing, a bunch of other people also want to see it again.

I also spent a lot of time - a LOT of time - teaching at a school where the head instructor had great arts but wasn't much of a talker. I tried to STFU in part because it seemed only fair and only polite. This was someone I could talk rings around any day of the week, and because she was the school head, it would not have been right.

So when I started Tai Chi, I took my strong, silent persona with me. I'm a baby beginner, for one thing, even after a year, even though I am an experienced martial artist. But mostly I just wanted to learn by doing, and that means repetition. Do the set. Do the set again. Do it again. Repeat repeat repeat. When I'm learning a new movement in the form, I will ask to see it again, often several times, and occasionally I will ask Sifu Alex for clarification on something. That is a once every two or three weeks occurrence, because mostly I just watch him as closely as I can.

Repetition is the key. You learn martial arts with your body, not your head - believe me, I have seen people who were even more in their heads than I ever was, and who are fairly advanced students. It's just a fact of life that you have to get out of your own head so that you can feel what's going on in your own body and so that you can connect with others. Connection is important in both DZR and Tai Chi; in DZR you can do serious damage to your workout partners if you can't tell what's going on with them physically. For that matter, you can do serious damage to yourself by not knowing what's going on in your body, by not being able to anticipate without thought the effects of a particular choice.

There's a student in the school where I'm studying who has learned a few more elements of the set than I have. He likes to ask questions. Sometimes they're general questions, sometimes they're quite specific. But once he asks a question, there tends to be a discussion, with the instructor answering, more questions, and so on. A conversation. I'm usually standing thinking "In the time we're talking about this, I could do the set twice over, and that would be more helpful to me than this chatter."

He said something last night about needing to do this because his brain tells his body what to do. At some point, I might try to catch him after class and say something about my own experiences as a martial artist. I can't recall whether he's one of the people who knows about my past (Sifu Alex does...he trained in DZR for many years and we share a lineage). He hasn't yet learned that in the martial arts, doing precedes understanding. You do, and eventually you understand. Your body trains your brain, not the other way around.


pjwv said...

Thanks, I love this entry and its implications: it reminds me of all the times I've wished a conductor would just shut up and simply play the new piece twice instead of trying to "explain" it. Or the times I've wished a fellow student wouldn't hijack a class with his/her own need to talk. And it's about how performers (particularly dancers and instrumentalists) use muscle memory to produce interpretive art. Love it!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you. I've made a couple of edits for correctness and clarity, and added a couple of things.