“Corey, no, no, no! No, no, Corey!”
The familiar ring of Sensei’s voice carries all across the gymnasium and I know I’m doing something wrong.
I don’t know what, so I just stop where I am in the sequence of moves forming the first of the omote tachi kata and wait for Sensei to explain what it is I’m screwing up. There never seems to be a shortage of mistakes and misapprehensions on my part, that’s for sure.
But one thing I learned studying martial arts — or at least studying with teachers like Sugino Sensei in Japan (and now Sherbrooke) and Skoyles Sensei in Calgary — is that correction is a gift, a gift that must be treasured and embraced and deeply considered. When Sugino Sensei comes running over and grabs my arm to pull it into the correct posture (usually laughing at my awkwardness as he does so), he is gifting me with his attention. And the attention and consideration of a man like Sensei is nothing to be treated casually. He has spent decades learning this craft, learning from his father and the piled-up ages of experience within him, which now reside in the son. It is a rare and precious thing to be granted even a small portion of that experience.
Not only does Sensei know swordfighting (at least the form swordfighting takes within the Katori Shinto Ryu curricullum) inside-out, he also a gifted instructor, who knows just what change to make to a student’s stance so that they will understand a particular move better. With one adjustment of my right wrist Sensei completely changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the basic overhead cut of Katori — the very first thing I ever learned at his dojo fourteen years ago.
Watching Sensei at the class at Sherbrooke was wonderful. He would wander between the rows of practicing students, seemingly aimlessly, and then something would catch his eye and his whole body would electrify, and he would rush over to one pair or another, stop their activity and offer correction and guidance. Usually he would laugh his good-humoured booming laugh and then be on his way again, wandering without apparent direction until something else caught his eye. If I’m paying attention, I can learn nearly as much watching him correct others as I can having him correct me.
The parallels with writing are, perhaps instructive — as much for the similarities as the differences.
When someone reads my work and offers comments, I find that if I can treat their comments as a gift, and accept them humbly and with gratitude, they are far more valuable to me than if I get defensive — thereby denying the validity of my reader’s feelings. I have learned to avoid trying to explain myself, even when it seems that someone has misunderstood my intent. I might ask a question to establish that the reader did in fact read the words that I wrote, but I try never to challenge my reader’s impressions.
I try. I’m not actually very good at behaving this way — the urge to explain and to try and demonstrate my own cleverness is strong and I often give in to it, but I recognize that this is empty, pride-fueled behaviour.
You can’t reason with Sensei. Asking questions serves little purpose when receiving correction — typically when I do ask questions I’m simply trying to make Sensei realise that I REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. That I’m wise and clever and skilled. It’s the same in writing.
The only required response to ANY feedback is “Thank you.” Whenever someone takes the time to consider what I’m doing and offer their input, I am required to thank them for their efforts. I don’t have to say anything else. I don’t have to agree with them or demonstrate my acceptance of their correction, but I do have to thank them for the effort.
But in writing it’s rare to have access to a Sensei. Writing stories doesn’t have the kind of rigid standards that Katori Shinto Ryu has. In Katori, if my foot isn’t turned out, that’s just wrong. It isn’t “my style” or an interesting challenge to overcome; it’s wrong. Turn the foot out. In writing stories, ANYTHING can work okay if I can make it work okay. Experience is valuable, to be sure, but anyone’s point of view has something to offer me as a writer.
Erin mentioned the notion of “Beginner’s Mind” at dinner the other night — the idea that if you can approach your life from the point of view of a beginner, and lose your attachment to your own self-image as an expert, you learn more and are happier thereby. This idea is coming up a lot in The Fifth Discipline — that living with humility and a willingness to learn from others provides a life of richness and constant learning.
In life, even more than in writing, a Sensei never really shows up. Nobody can show me how to live my life — because nobody else is living MY life. Who then can I learn from? Well, from everybody. If I’m willing to accept correction and feedback as the precious gift it is, and if I can remember not to react defensively or pridefully when people offer me the benefit and aid of their experience, everyone can be a Sensei to me. I’m certainly not qualified to be an expert on any subject whatsoever, so it ought to be easy enough for me to find teachers wherever I go.
Which does seem to be the case. Certainly everyone I met in Sherbrooke had much to offer lonely little Anglophone me. Folks were tremendously hospitable and welcoming — Patrick who took me to lunch, Michel who graciously lent me one of his hand-made bokken, Izad (I’m almost certainly spelling that wrong) who helped me with re-learning yoko-men, and of course Martin Sensei and Tong Sensei who were responsible for my being there in the first place. I learned an immense amount.
Now (and this is just as true in writing as in swordsmanship) the challenge is for me to take all the feedback and correction I’ve received and try to turn it into action. It’s one thing to hear and accept that information — it’s quite another to use it to transform myself.
Ah, well, that’s what makes it fun, I guess.