Date: Sunday, November 27 starting at 11:45am in the Heritage Lounge at the JCCC
Participants (4): P. Schramek [5D], M. Suen [3D], P. Suen [3D], Yunle [2K]
Topic(s): In the presence of masters
It's interesting how a change in scenery can often open your eyes to things that were always right in front of you. Over the course of our discussions, we've inferred multiple times how each individual is different. They have different body types, different perspectives, different personalities, and a multitude of other peculiarities that make a person unique. With this understanding, it's not surprising to see, that with a greater variety of experiences, the more one can learn.
Michael, Hanna, and I have had the privilege to train with a variety of Iaidoka in Canada, the United States and Japan, and we've only begun to scratch the surface. With over 20 years in Iaido, Schramek-sensei was able to provide us a story of his own. It's unfortunate that I can only paraphrase a story that brought such evocative imagery of a time and place related so closely with our lineage.
It was over twenty years ago when a group of us, lead by Nakamura-sensei, made a trip to Japan to practice Iaido under Yamashibu-sensei (It wasn't clear which brother). My first impression of the man was how small he was, but he had such a bright demeanor. He was always smiling. Because of his size, his cuts looked amazingly big. It was just...wow!
You should know that, at this time, Nakamura-sensei was very new to Iaido as well. We were all really experiencing this martial art for the first time, and until this trip, had not known what real Iai looked like. We didn't even know what Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (our koryu) was, as our brief training was in Seitei only. Although from the same lineage as us, Yamashibu-sensei's MJER wasn't all that similar. Due to his large sword and small body, he had to angle when drawing or sheathing. (Our dojo teaches MJER with Nukitsuke and Noto as straight as possible towards the opponent)
Yamashibu-sensei would later take us to Ohara to visit Haruna-sensei, a person who defined another level of mastery in Iaido. Haruna-sensei was great because he was able to show his Iai in a way that you just know is right. Like perfection. Now, obviously, no one can attain perfection, but when you watched him demonstrate, it just felt complete. Even my wife, who knew very little about Iaido, could see his balance and control. He was able to perform the optimal movements for his body.
The training was arduous, but rewarding. There was very little talking, even from the Sensei. Occasional corrections were given, but mostly the influence came from showing us. When space was limited, we would take shifts on the floor. It was quite different than how the seminars in North American when the Sensei visit from Japan. Due to their limited time with us, they try to cram as much information as possible for you to work on during the year. The focus is on the group, rather than the individual.
Iaido has changed so much in the last 20 years. With each new person reaching the highest level of the art, they add their own interpretations and views, but all within the framework of the basics. In the end, there is always a best way to cut, a best way to walk. That is why is it so important to master the basics.
What are the benefits of training with the masters?
I remember a description Stephen Cruise-sensei once told us about how he trained in Japan, as well as how he runs his class. The open class, free practice setting, where the dojo is training as a whole, creates a shared environment. Although you are training on your own, your peripheral senses take in the sights, sounds, and energy of the rest of the class. There is a connection between everyone in the dojo, working hard, building on each other's accomplishments. So imagine what it's like to build on the abilities of the best in the business.
How do we learn?
- Words - Low effectiveness due to the need for multiple interpretations. The Sensei must first interpret their actions/knowledge into words. Then they must speak those words. As you listen, you must interpret their words so that you may understand. At this point, you may already be far off course
- Watch & Repeat - By watching your Sensei demonstrate, it's like an imprint in your mind that fades quickly. Before that happens though, you feel like you're doing their Iai. Like a ghost/spirit helping guide your movements. Although it is still not optimal as your mind is busy recalling the performance and your personal style takes over.
- Working simultaneously - Like a puppet letting your Sensei draw you around. Training together allows your mind to be free to examine and think what, how and why you are doing certain movements. In a sense, you become connected like the example of Cruise-sensei's dojo.
The human brain takes in more than you consciously realizes. When you allow it to be free and not let it become rigid and stranded on specifics, it will teach itself the optimal way to act. That is why it is important to trust in your proficiency of basics. Allow your body to figure things out within the framework of the basics.
An example of this: A hypnotist asks his audience to try to recall how many lamp posts they passed on the way to the theatre. No one could remember. But when put into a trance, each and everyone of them was able to recall the exact amount. You see, the brain might not have consciously recorded this information, but the information is there, nonetheless.
Professional athletes use a similar technique. Before each competition, they spend time thinking about what they are doing. Swimmers doing strokes. Sprinters doing a starts. All of this, in an attempt to re-ignite the pathways in their brain that they've experienced and reaffirming them so that when the time comes, it just happens. Ultimately, you are at your best when you're not thinking about what you're doing. Conscious thought is slow.
An example of this: A specific point for the Seitei kata #3 Uke nagashi requires your foot to be placed along a line. Initially students would have to keep checking and correcting, until naturally their foot is placed in right place for maximum balance (see MMKDG #6) and power.
However, each person arrives at this point differently. We all learn differently. As we examined in the MMKDG #4 Analysis of Hachidans, we all do things differently. You must continue practicing until you become less dependent on instruction (note, not independent), and more dependent on self-realization, because only you know how you feel. Take all the words and just do it. Within your understanding. Within your body capacity.
What about teaching?
Schramek-sensei's mindset is: If a person is supposed to be doing something horizontally, why is he not? What is he thinking? What part of his body is the cause?
This approach is about looking for the cause and fixing it from the basics, rather than fixing the effect which may not improve the overall foundation.
I've experienced this personally with Japanese Sensei in Canada and Japan. Each correction they gave improved my ability and understanding of all kata, whether it be Seitei or Koryu. It improved not only my overall Iai, but even outside of Iai, in the case of body posture, breathing, balance, power. These types of influences can be worked on for years on end. So take advantage of your time with the masters and then come tell us your stories.