Archive for respect

A Question of Respect

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on September 27, 2010 by serpentstaff

I’ve decided to post a question, because I’ve been too busy to write a good post in quite some time, and this trend might continue. It’s on one of my favorite subjects: Respect- what it is, what it means. Here’s the question:

Who shows greater respect for a superior–
1) a person who keeps quiet when he disagrees with important statements or decisions; or,
2) one who speaks up for what he believes is right?

[Note: I originally said “speaks up to defend an opposing view” — see comments.]

By ‘important,’ I mean to suggest issues or matters of principle that most people would consider worth speaking up about under ordinary circumstances. But in an authoritarian, hierarchical organization like a dojo or martial arts association, circumstances aren’t always ordinary.

Context matters, of course. I’m not talking about disagreeing with a superior when they are teaching class, because I think it’s clear in that context: Respect always requires keeping quiet unless called upon, and approaching the disagreement, if it’s really necessary, by asking polite questions, perhaps after class.

Let’s limit it to things like policy decisions or personnel matters, at the dojo or larger organizational level. If the boss makes an official statement or decides to implement a policy you believe is badly mistaken, is it respectful to speak up or to keep quiet? What if the boss has made it clear they don’t really care for advice?

I look forward to your thoughts.


I Lost a Student With “Too Much Philosophy”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on April 9, 2010 by serpentstaff

This was quite a few years ago already. And while the student in question did not use that exact phrase, I don’t think he’d disagree. But let me give the background.

As you’ll know if you have read other parts of this blog, I do have a strong sense of a philosophy underlying traditional training, and I try to teach in accordance with it. I am also respectful of the style/organization of which I’m a member, and I ask my students to meet that organization’s requirements in terms of learning a code of ethics and certain other tenets.

Yet I almost never talk about philosophy during class, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I believe the important philosophy is embedded in the practice. Further, I don’t think a student needs to know or embrace any particular philosophy, so long as they meet the practical requirements of working out in my dojo. If they can do that, I believe, the philosophy will seep in through their pores. If it doesn’t — their loss.

Those requirements include such basics as showing courtesy and respect to instructor and students, following the rules and rituals handed down by the tradition of our style (they’re not excessive), doing what you’re asked to do during the workout to the best of your ability, keeping talk and questions to an absolute minimum during the workout (but questioning as much as you like outside class), cultivating focus and concentration… Really, that’s about it. Train with intensity if not reverence; develop a respect for what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should talk more often and more clearly about philosophy to my students — usually when I see people “not getting it” — and I’ll resolve to do so. But it tends to go by the wayside because, frankly, we’re too busy training.

The exception happens when there are students in class who aren’t working hard, who are disrupting training or in other ways going against dojo practice. Sometimes I will bring the class around while they’re catching their breath, and talk about philosophy a bit, directing it toward whatever the problem may be. Even then, it’s only after trying a simple, direct approach with the students, such as asking them to “train, don’t talk,” or reminding them about etiquette — or having an assistant instructor remind them.

Now, back to that lost student. He had some experience in another art before he joined my school, and like many people who join a new school or style, he had trouble letting go of old ways. This is understandable. However, this fellow — give him credit — was enthusiastic, wanted to earn rank, and even — after a year or so — announced his plan to get a black belt and teach within our style. So after a good long year, I pressed him harder to begin using our terminology, bring his techniques to our standards as best he could, and make an effort to perform drills as I asked for them instead of as he might have done them at his old school. And I pressed him, as I pressed everyone, to work out with his partners instead of talking and instructing his way through class.

One evening when far too much talk was going on, when this fellow in particular was resisting corrections on a drill and instructing his partner in how he would have done it at his old school, I called the class around and asked whether everyone knew the story of the empty cup (that old standby for traditional martial artists). Many did not know it, so I told the story. When I reached the punch line, “If you want to learn anything new you must empty your cup,” there was a loud, derisive snort from the fellow in question.

I admit I was surprised. I’d expect polite disinterest, polite interest, puzzlement or understanding, nodding or furrowing of brow, perhaps a question — but derision? The story is about having an open mind, about not drowning out new input with your own noise. One can read it as shallowly or deeply as one likes, but it hardly seems controversial.

Within a couple of weeks, his bad back started acting up, and he took time off. Time passed; I received an email explaining that he had decided not to come back, that he felt he was being pressured to live some sort of “martial arts lifestyle” that he didn’t agree with, with this whole “empty cup” thing. He also cited having been asked to memorize the style’s code of conduct (a simple test requirement), which he felt wasn’t very creative, and he should have been asked to write his own code. (Ironically, he could have done just that if he’d stayed till 2nd kyu, when we begin asking students to write papers for rank tests.)

It was hard for me to resist arguing, but I had to let it go. Those of us who believe in the value of what we teach and how we teach it — we “Zen evangelists” — believe everyone would be better off if they learned our favorite lessons. But often we must accept that those who seemingly need the lessons most, may be least likely to stay around and get them. There’s no forcing it; we’re dealing with free North American adults. And after all, perhaps the lesson was for me.

“Your superiors are beyond praise”

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , on April 19, 2009 by serpentstaff

No one ever had to tell me it would be inappropriate to praise my instructors. I knew instinctively—or maybe I’d been raised to understand—such praise would be presumptuous. As if I were in a position to evaluate the expert, and pat him or her on the head! I would no more have done that, than I would have presumed, as a beginner, to criticize the instructor’s lesson plan. Praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If you wouldn’t use one side, don’t use the other.

Yet I saw many classmates having to be taught that bit of etiquette, and I see it to this day. In America, this particular take on good manners is a minority position—indigenous, but rare; whereas in Japan and perhaps much of Asia, it is the default position, understood by everyone.

Consider a parallel discussion on workplace etiquette. American “how to” guides on workplace success often suggest praising one’s superiors as a way to give them recognition and at the same time become better liked. Contrast that with this succinct paragraph from the book Japan: Doing Business in a Unique Culture, by Kevin B. Bucknall:

Your superiors are beyond praise

Do not praise your superior for something he did […], it will not please him. In your culture it might be considered polite to do this; in Japan, it implies that you have raised yourself on a pedestal above him or her and are actually daring to offer a view about his or her behaviour. This actually seems quite a shocking thing to do in Japan.

As I said, a similar perspective does occur in the West, and I want to draw it out a little bit. I think everyone gets it in cases like this, which are extreme for comical effect:

“That’s a very good poem, Mr. Frost. You should try to get published!”

“That’s a really neat equation, Mr. Einstein. Is science a special interest of yours?”

“Ms. King, you look like you’re pretty good at tennis. We should play sometime!”

The speaker in all three cases will be embarrassed when they realize what they’ve done. They’ve condescended, or set themselves up as equals, when addressing someone they should have recognized as a superior. And we westerners do understand it; that’s why the jokes are funny. It shouldn’t be so hard to transfer that understanding to the dojo.

Still, it requires education and reinforcement, because it goes against our western natures in more than one way. We are egalitarian, and so resist putting anyone on a pedestal for any reason (an instinct that is at war with our simultaneous genuine desire to show respect for individuals and their expertise). Furthermore, westerners are an enthusiastic bunch who seemingly can’t resist blurting out praise whenever they feel it. And they see it as a nice thing to do.

Even so, the lessons about respecting one’s superiors, and about speaking to people respectfully, are absolutely worth learning. We shouldn’t drop those lessons just because our culture sometimes appears to lean the other way.

Now, does this point of etiquette mean we must never evaluate teachers and classes? Not at all. Human minds are in a constant process of evaluating things, praising and critiquing as they go. One can hardly put a stop to it, and it’s part of learning.

Etiquette is about time, place and manner. In this case, it means keeping your comments to yourself long enough to learn what you need to know (unlike the people in the jokes). It might mean asking questions instead of commenting, to avoid being presumptuous. But most of all it means taking your comments outside the dojo, where you can hash through all your thoughts, theories and evaluations with fellow enthusiasts on your own time, without speaking foolishly to your teachers. That give and take with your peers is, in fact, a time-honored part of training—and much of the fun of it as you come up through the ranks.

That brings me to one final point—about blogging. As an instructor who cringes when students praise (or criticize) inappropriately, I wondered for a brief moment whether I should feel similarly about comments from beginners on my blog. Others have wondered whether it’s appropriate for students to blog about their training at all, since it will inevitably involve the kind of praise and critique of one’s superiors that we’ve been discussing.

I think it’s obvious the world wide web is not the dojo, and we are willingly engaging in open discourse. One must absolutely use good manners, and choose respectful words—but isn’t that always true? To try to apply dojo rules to the blogosphere would be to misunderstand the nature of the pursuit. Martial arts bloggers are like students getting together after class to argue their passion over beer, or meeting behind the gym on their days off to practice and try things out. These activities are important in the development of any martial artist. We all did it; we still do it; and a good instructor knows to let it be.

That, at least, is my thinking. But let me know yours.