Dojo Gossip: Let’s Kick Some Scuttlebutt! (Part 1)

In Buddhism, they have a set of tenets called the Eightfold Path that serve as a guide for moral action and to relieve us from suffering. Amongst it’s precepts is “right speech,” which includes avoiding lying, hurtful speech and today’s topic, gossip!

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In the post Dojo Disillusionment, I touched on drama in the dojo. This topic received a strong reaction from the martial arts community.  It seems this gossip fuelled phenomenon is not unique to one person, club or style, but is universally experienced and fostered across MANY fighting systems around the globe.

The martial arts preach about the nature of respect, discipline and any other typical word or phrase that implies honour and we know very well that gossip and drama do nothing to help us in our individual progress. Then why is it that the martial arts seems to foster so much gossip? What is it about the martial arts that attract such drama?

By applying the insight of “Can Gossip Be Good?” (written by Knox College Psychology Professor Frank T. McAndrew) to the martial arts community, I hope to be able to provide plausible answers to these questions—in the end, helping us realign our compass along the path that can sometimes “become skewed in the mist of frivolous nonsense that seeps into our practice brought on by human inadequacies.”

Social Bonding

2015 Gasshuku Go KU

It’s strange, isn’t it? In an art where we constantly practice how to demolish the human body, we can build such meaningful and long-lasting relationships.

Just as overcoming adversity, whether physical or otherwise, can act as a form of social bonding, so can gossip. Ron Dunbar from the University of Liverpool says, “gossip is a mechanism for bonding social groups together, analogous to the grooming that is found in primate groups.”

According to Frank T. McAndrew, this type of social bonding helped our ancestors address problems such as “remembering who was a reliable exchange partner and who was a cheater, knowing who would be a reproductively viable mate and figuring out how to successfully manage friendships, alliances and family relationships.” Surely, we can all think of ways this applies to the martial arts.

“Reliable Exchange Partner”

For some, the term “reliable exchange partner” might stand out in the previous paragraph. Although McAndrew uses the phrase to refer to those who our ancestors might have had monetary investment in, as martial artists, we might think of those whom we exchange blows with, our training partners. At seminars or even our own classes, we take into consideration whether or not we can trust the people we work with.

We wonder:

“Can I work with this person and not get physically injured?”

“Is that person here just to be physical with the opposite sex?”

“Are they good at what they do?

“Can they help me improve?”

Where possible, we rely on those who have had previous experiences to help us guide our decision to work with specific people. Gossip, then, serves as a means of determining who will help us thrive in the martial arts, while at the same time avoid situations that could be detrimental to our safety; in other words, it acts as a means of self preservation and protection.

“Cheaters”

In the martial arts, those who are dedicated have a lifelong investment in their teachers, style and dojo. Hence, knowing whom McAndrew refers to as “cheaters” through gossip, we can learn who is loyal and will help in the progression and preservation of our dojos, its culture and the people who encompass it. 

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Perhaps you know people who try and cheat the system to attain a new rank, giving those who have the power to promote them the impression that they are training hard and consistently, when in reality they are amongst the lowest in skill, effort and attendance. Others may praise a teacher to his face and secretly poison his name behind his back. Gossip serves as a means of exposing these “cheaters” as unworthy exchange partners for the greater good of the community.

“Deep Trust”

Our relationships in the martial arts are heavily dependent on trust. Based on trust, we allow other people to come within millimeters of breaking our limbs and spend years of our lives investing in instructors who we believe know what’s best.

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McAndrew goes on to say that “sharing gossip is a sign of deep trust because you are clearly signaling that you believe that this person will not use this sensitive information in a way that will have negative consequences for you; shared secrets have a way of bonding people together.”

As we see in the movies, the Master only shares his secret techniques with his most dedicated pupils; this is also true with gossip. When the instructor shares his experiences about instructors of other styles or dojos, he is not only doing so to help protect his pupil against “false prophets,” or those with low ethical standards, but also demonstrates to his pupil that he has faith in their discretion. It communicates to the student, just as learning the “secret technique” does, that this information is meant for them and them alone—in the end, building a stronger bond between pupil and instructor.

Human Beings First

Ultimately, we are human beings first and martial artists second. As human beings, we are social creatures; we crave acceptance and deep social bonds. Gossip, in it’s most innocent form, is simply a form of social bonding. It helps build trust amongst those in our dojos. We share the appropriate information to help others protect against potential physical or emotional threats that can occur in a seminar, tournament or class. This act also serves as a means of preserving those who share our values and isolate those who are untrustworthy or disloyal. In doing so, we create a community of like-minded individuals built on trust and friendship, where we can practice our art safely and free of fear.

Yet . . .

As we all know, there is a very dark side to gossip, used as a means of manipulation and deception. In the upcoming blog, Dojo Gossip Part 2, I’ll explore how the dark side of gossip is a reflection of ego and thrives in the martial artists’ competitive natures, which we so often ignore.

A Charmed Martial Arts Life

My mother always said I had a charmed life—not necessarily in the sense of extreme luck such as winning the lottery, but more in the sense that I’m presented with fortunate circumstances that allow me to make the best of any situation.

I feel especially charmed when it comes to people. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who seem to be willing to invest in me.

This has been extremely influential in my pursuit of the martial arts.

I know wholeheartedly that I would not be as successful in the martial arts if it weren’t for those who took the time to challenge, teach and encourage me. I value them especially because I know I am an imperfect human being. When I feel, I feel strongly, and on more than one occasion when my passion gets the best of me I’ve challenged them in return, often with great bluntness and sometimes without courtesy.

But, this is, of course, the nature of the student-teacher relationship. It is not simply an exchange of knowledge; it’s more than that.

It’s a mutual dialogue built on trust and friendship.

It’s camaraderie that helps us find our way through the twists and turns that the martial arts and life throw at us along our path.

And, very often, it is a test of wills.

With that said, I would like to take the time to recognize those who have helped me in my most recent martial arts journey: The Martial Arts Muse.

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In October, The Martial Arts Muse exceeded my goal of 10,000 views within the year. I strongly believe it would not have been as successful if it weren’t for those who encouraged me to be a little bit better than I was the day before.

Hanshi Patrick McCarthy 

My Australian-based instructor is the Director of the IRKRS and head Sensei of Koryu Uchinadi. Sensei McCarthy has probably forgotten more than we will ever learn. Many of the concepts and ideas I touch on in my blogs I learned through my experience training with him and those who are a part of the IRKRS. He is the central hub through which I could find a community of like-minded individuals in which to share my point of view.

Renshi Mike Coombes

Renshi Mike Coombes is the head instructor of Hatsuun Jindo Martial Arts and a Sandan in Koryu Uchinadi. Although he might be unaware of it, many of our conversations have served as inspiration for my writing. Through our conversations, I’ve learned that the issues that I once thought unique in my own sphere are actually shared amongst others in the martial arts community. This emboldens me to continue my writing in the hopes to inspire others to overcome the challenges we sometimes face in the martial arts.

Renshi Cody Stewart

Renshi Cody Stewart is a Godan in Koryu Uchinadi and the YouTube personality of KU Quick Tips. I don’t think anyone challenges me as much as he does. It is because of this he is my favourite person to postulate theory with. I feel he adds equilibrium to my writing by asking the right questions, so I may come to my own conclusions. And he is also a savagely meticulous editor. Without his help I would certainly have much less to say with far more grammatical errors.

Josh Stewart

My dear husband, Josh is always the first and last to see my writing before I officially post it. A martial artist and writer himself—and a far better one, at that—I turn to Josh during my greatest insecurity in search of support. Whenever I ask him to read my work, he always has the right answer, “It’s good. I like it!” This is the little push I need to finally press the “Post” button and gives me the courage to expose what are sometimes intimate thoughts on the art I so very much love.

Chonin Kan and Toronto KU Study Group

My students and those I train with are my greatest muses. I feel a strong emotional investment in those I work with, both at my home dojo and in the Toronto KU study group.

As I mentioned before, when I feel, I feel deeply, because of this I feel their successes and failures, optimism and frustration concerning training as if I was experiencing it myself. They not only give me something to write about, they give me someone to write to. Many times, I’ve written blogs with specific individuals in mind. I don’t know if they’ve always read them, but like a message in a bottle, even if it doesn’t reach its intended destination, if it reaches and resonates with someone, it’s worth it.

You, the reader

I don’t know who are, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised and humbled that you chose to visit The Martial Arts Muse. I sincerely appreciate the time you take to read what I have to say. As a female martial artist, it’s not uncommon for me to experience a greater amount of questioning and interruption when expressing my opinion on the martial arts; it’s easy to feel like my voice isn’t heard or, at least, doesn’t hold the same value as if it comes from my opposing gender. The Martial Arts Muse has served as a means to overcome this and is an unimpeded way to shed light on issues that many of us are sometimes afraid to address.

I am sincerely grateful for everyone’s support this year. My life as a martial artist is truly charmed. I feel beholden to you. 

 

A Good Training Partner Is Hard to Find

There you are. . .

At your first seminar with a big, important Sensei. . .

Once you enter the dojo, you start to size up the Karate folk around you—wondering what rank they are, how long they’ve trained and with whom.

Then. . .

The Sensei says “Partner up!”

You look around at your options and you think. . .

“That partner looks too hard. . .”

“That partner might also be too hard. . .”

“That partner looks too soft. . .”

“Ah. . . That partner looks juuuuust riiiight!”

But somebody stole them!

Suddenly, you’re paired with the 6’7” 400lb reincarnation of King Kong! Which might be fine for some things, but not necessarily the best-case scenario for learning throws or ground work, especially when you’re significantly smaller.

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Sure, you don’t always have a choice on who you partner with, but if you did have the choice, who would be the ideal partner to get the most out of your training?

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1. They’re better than you are and challenge you in the right way.

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If possible, you want to work with someone who is better than you are and can pick up on your mistakes. They won’t allow you to get away with being lazy or doing things incorrectly.  If you do something wrong, they call you on it. They know how to build you up from passive resistance to aggressive resistance.

2. They’re a similar size.

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When first learning a new exercise or principle, it’s ideal to be able to focus on execution alone without any further barriers which can arise with someone who is a lot bigger or smaller than you are. For example, if you’re working with someone taller than you, it can sometimes be hard to find the right leverage when their limbs are so much longer.

3. They are trying to learn (Not Compete!)

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They’re not trying to prove themselves, but to IMPROVE themselves and appreciate the learning process. They work WITH you through the learning process, rather than use you as means to impress the head Sensei or make themselves look good and feel better about themselves.

4. They have good hygiene

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I realize this one is a little strange. But, we all know it’s true! The last person anyone wants to work with is the guy who hasn’t washed his gi in a week, has bad breath or hasn’t clipped their finger and toenails.

5. They have fun!

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If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point? The best partners don’t just know how to work hard, but have fun and laugh at their mistakes.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work with different sizes, ages and levels; there’s plenty of value in doing so and should be included in the training process, which I touch on in Lady Looks In a Mirror – Part 1.

However, in the initial learning stage of any technique or concept, especially if you have a full day of training ahead of you, it’s best to have a partner who can push you to improve in a way that is both fun and safe.

So, choose wisely!

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Dojo Disillusionment

The martial arts world attracts strong egos, big politics and more drama than a high school play.

Maybe, someone received a rank that you felt they didn’t deserve or someone of high esteem lacks what martial arts writer Dave Lowry calls “moral stamina.” Perhaps, there’s constant gossip and you hear more about the people training than about the skills you should be mastering.

Because of this, at some point, you may feel disillusioned and disheartened. You might even have the urge to quit and think “I don’t need this drama in my life. If this is what the martial arts attract, why am I still doing this?”

That is the question, isn’t it? Why am I doing this?

Japanese martial arts have been likened to a path. As many of us know, the term “do” is attached at the end of martial arts, like Judo and Kendo, that means “the way.” This suggests that the martial arts is a journey that goes beyond the cultivation of physical skill, and hones both mind and spirit.

There are many things that attract us to the martial arts when we first begin our journey. Some pursue the martial arts for self-defense, physical fitness, to avoid boredom and even just for a sense of community.

But, there’s something beyond physical reasons that makes us return to the dojo time and time again. It’s an intangible, not qualified by how hard you kick or the belt you wear.

Koryu Uchinadi Black Belt

Something more. . .

Something deeply personal. . .

Something else. . .

It’s the calm that radiates through the dojo when you’re the first and only person in there practicing.

It’s the final breath of your kata, when you know it’s the best you’ve ever done it, but bow with the knowledge it will never, ever be perfect.

It’s the effortlessness in which someone slams to the floor when you get a throw JUST right.

It is the moments that lie between aggression and tranquility. A harmonious combination of our most animal nature with our greatest serenity that paradoxically brings us into a frame of being that transcends words and our human imperfections.

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An internal stillness propelled by breath and what I call a “return to centre.”

It’s sometimes easy for our compass to become skewed in the mist of frivolous nonsense that seeps into our practice brought on by human inadequacies.

So, when you lose your way along the path, focus on the most basic of human functions, breathe and return to centre.

It’s in that moment you realize there was no trick of the light. . .

No magical unveiling. . .

And, there was no illusion to begin with.

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You Failed Your Grading; What’s Next?

So, you went for your next belt and you failed!

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But, just because you failed, doesn’t mean you should lose sight of your purpose; rain, after all, is just a falling cloud. . .

And, everything that falls can rise again!

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I mean, we’ve all been there. You don’t know what went wrong. . .

Maybe. . .

You were truly ready, but just choked—mentally unprepared.

Maybe. . .

You think you’re better than you actually are—a hard truth.

Maybe. . .

You worked hard, but just didn’t pay enough attention to the details—damn those details!

No matter the reason, your following actions should be the same. . .

1. Listen, REALLY Listen.

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In my experience, students fail to pick up on the specifics of a lesson because they perform what they perceive to be the right thing and focus more on pleasing the Sensei rather than actually listening to what’s being asked.

The conversation usually goes like this. . .

Sensei: I’d like you make your stance wider, so that you have a better base for. . .

Student: (Cuts off Sensei, changes stance slightly). Like this Sensei!? 

Sensei: No, not quite. I’d like to see you have your… 

Student: (Cuts off Sensei, makes stance even more wrong). LIKE THIS SENSEI!?

Sensei: No, I want you to put. . . 

Student: (Cuts off Sensei, stance incomprehensively wrong). LIKE. THIS. SENSEI!?

Sensei: (Mental face palm). No. 

So, really listen to what the Sensei is trying to tell you, let it sink in, then try, try again.

2. Remember it’s about the journey, not the destination. 

A Zen Proverb says, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.” The point it’s trying to make is that one should give their full attention to the steps to achieve the goal, not on the goal itself.

I’ve had many students ask about belts, usually concentrating on what they need to know to receive one or when and where the “test” will be. Yet, if they just focused on the things they need to work on to reach their goal, they would achieve it as a natural consequence of following each step of their journey.

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I know we’ve all heard this and it usually gets across. . . Until we have to be graded, that is.

It’s not only true in class, but during the grading as well. When you focus on each step and not the result, you’ll find that your nerves melt away.

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3. “Train Hard, Suck Less”

This saying was coined by my Calgary-based teacher, Sensei Cody Stewart. Simple and almost crude in its phrasing, its meaning is of great value. When you train, “train hard” to the best of your ability and with your full attention.  And, “suck less”, a humble expression of success, is both an act and a result of your focus and work ethic.

Sensei Cody Stewart

Although there are many paths to success, remember that failure is a key part of the learning process.

In reality, as my first Sensei once said, “There’s no failing in karate” as long as you’re always progressing. And as long as you’re always moving forward, that is success, no matter the belt you wear.

So, just keep training!

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January’s Video of the Month: Rika Usami

**SNAP!**

No, that’s not the sound of a bone breaking.

That’s the sound of Rika Usami’s gi!

(Seriously, what does she put in that thing?)

Her performance is the epitome of precision.

She demonstrates different templates from Bassai, Kusanku and other katas while surrounding herself with dominos that, unlike her opponents, barely quiver. In fact, she is so confident in her movements that at no point do her eyes gaze down.

It is because of this World Champion’s flawless execution that Rika Usami’s demonstration is January’s video of the month.

 

The Muse

For those who don’t know their Greek Mythology, the nine muses are the personification of knowledge and the arts and are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. The muses inspire creativity with their grace and skills in writing, song, dance and theatre.

9 Muses

A muse is a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for creative artist, or in this case a martial artist. The purpose of this endeavour is for me to share my own insight, creativity, and passion with other martial artists to bring out the best in our practices.

Ideas

With that said, I make no claim of expertise above and beyond my fourteen years in the martial arts.  There are far more knowledgable experts out there in the martial arts. I am still in my infancy.

Rather, my intention is to:

  1. Help others navigate through the sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding learning process
  2.  Inspire ideas for teaching classes and seminars
  3. Promote the martial arts, its teachings and philosophy