Friday, February 27, 2015

"Long Quiet Highway"

There is a book from the early '90s I recently re-read, called: Long Quiet Highway by American author Natalie Goldberg. It is a autobiographical memoir of a writer who is immersing herself in Zen study while maintaining a career as an author and writing instructor. In the book, she reflects upon many aspects of Japanese Buddhism, including, in one passage, what it is that makes a good teacher. The fact that Goldberg is referring to Zen isn't necessarily the point. The skills and ideals are transferable to instructors of any kind.
"That is the work of a teacher, not to get caught in the likes and dislikes of a student, but to come forth always with the deepest teachings. Often the student does not like this, thinks the teacher is mean, unfeeling, but a good teacher knows that if he or she plants a real seed, someday, maybe years later, even in the most ignorant of students the seed may sprout. So the teacher's job is to close the gap between the student's ignorance and the teachings, but often the student does not understand any of this. That is why the student is the student. The teacher understands this. That is why the teacher can have abundant patience."
In the next paragraph the author discusses being a student, and what pushes us to want to expand our minds.
"But if the student doesn't know about the gap, how can she learn? There is something in us, an urgency to meet the teachings on the other side, that gnaws at our ignorance, that desires to meet our own true face, however lazy and comfort-loving we may seem to be. This something was working in me, albeit slowly, and often underground."
As a student of martial arts, I understand this. As a student of life, I also understand this. That is why finding the right teacher is so crucial, no matter what it is you wish to learn. And the responsibility of being a teacher is maybe even more immense. One has to be selfless, patient, and look at everything as a whole. After all, a teacher is really a student as well, as in the end, teaching and learning are one in the same.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Confidence is good. But overconfidence can lead to a disconnect when it comes to real life violence. It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking aptitude in the dojo means one is automatically safe in the real world.
I've seen this in adults, from time to time, but where I've really noticed it lately is with teenagers who have put in a couple of years, and achieved some level of success when it comes to class. You see the confidence increase, which is good, but sometimes there develops a slight arrogance, and a belief that a high belt colour means you can hold your own with anyone, in any type, of situation. But it's just not true. It's not the way life works.
Unfortunately, sometimes, depending on the student (and to a large degree the teacher), success in the dojo can be comparable to being book smart at school. Good grades don't necessarily mean intelligence outside of the classroom.
Once, for example, I was watching a class where the teenagers were having semi-formal grappling/wrestling matches. A new kid was there, and he, because of his size, was paired up with an experienced brown belt in the class. Everyone was thinking, he's going to get destroyed by the senior student, and the group gathered around in a circle to watch. However, within seconds of the beginning of the match, the new kid pinned the brown belt on the mat and the match was over. And then he did it again.
Luckily, it was just a friendly match in the dojo.
In fairness, most of us who have put in any amount of time training have likely felt increased confidence because of our increased abilities. I get it. But what some students don't yet realize, and it may take many more years of training and real life experience to understand, is that humility needs to be one of the key attributes discovered along the road of training. Use your confidence, but don't waver from caution; don't think yourself invincible, because no one is. After all, if we are to never underestimate an opponent, it means to never overestimate yourself.
Real life violence cannot be duplicated in a dojo for the sake of training. Real violence is ugly and unpredictable. It should be avoided, if possible.
I guess I just worry some of these students, with their new-found confidence, will put themselves in bad situations because of, well, being a bit naive. Because confidence can only take one so far, and some of the book smarts have to be interpreted and/or translated into realistic thinking.