Better than Best!

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Posted by admin | Posted in Buddhism, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu | Posted on 06-11-2009

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Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is one of Japan’s most legendary warriors, credited with having never lost a duel.  By the age of thirty, he had already fought over 60 duels.  However, after thirty and until his death at 61—although his understanding of technique appears to have advanced exponentially—Musashi fought barely 10 duels.

What happened when Miyamoto Musashi turned 30?

“At the age of thirty, I reflected, and I saw that although I had won, I had done so without having reached the ultimate level of strategy.  Perhaps it was because my natural disposition prevented me from straying from universal principles; perhaps it was because my opponents lacked ability in strategy.”

Miyamoto Musashi (Gorin no sho: Writing on the Five Elements; ISBN-13: 978-0-8348-0567-5)

Miyamoto Musashi, considered the greatest warrior in Japan, was able to objectively look at himself and conclude that not only did he have much room for improvement, but also that his past successes “may have been lucky.”  Miyamoto Musashi had conquered his ego.

In martial arts, I have found that ego is the largest obstacle to learning.  When the teacher demonstrates a technique for us to learn, some students will:

  • Attempt the technique very fast, trying to demonstrate how instant they absorbed it.
  • Resist the technique, trying to show how that technique is ineffective on them.
  • Perform a different technique that they know, trying to show how successful they are, even without the technique being taught.

(The list above is not exhaustively inclusive; these are just some of the things I have observed not only in other students, but in myself as well.)

The source for all such behaviors is ego.  We are so good at what we do that we don’t need to learn any more.  I am better than you.

In a dojo, I have found three sources of feedback: the instructor, our training partner, and ourselves.  The first two are external, although students may tend to treat them differently.  Generally, students will always listen to the instructor’s feedback.  (Even then, ego will sometimes prompt the student to raise an excuse as to why the instructor’s feedback doesn’t apply to “them.”)  It is much more difficult to accept feedback from our training partner.  They just learned the same lesson too, and our ego tells us that we are smarter than them, and thus we know the lesson better.  Our techniques always work; we don’t fail.  Our ego tells us their feedback is incorrect, although only our training partner has firsthand knowledge of the effects of our actions.  In a large class, the instructor will seldom be able to simultaneously observe all students, but our training partner is a constant source of feedback.

The third source of feedback—ourselves—is internal, and can also be further categorized.  The first category is “extraspective.”  This is the feedback from our senses; our tactile and visual inputs usually, but all of our senses.  Our ego will sometimes interfere with how we interpret these inputs, but we tend to believe them outright.

But the hardest feedback source from which to eliminate ego from is introspective; taking a look inside ourselves.  True honest introspection requires us to admit that there is something about ourselves that could be better, that we are “suboptimal.”  It forces us to realize that there is such a thing as “better” than “best,” as Musashi was able to conclude.  With honest introspection, we realize that if we didn’t get the technique to work, it’s because WE did something wrong.  We realize that although we managed to take down our opponent, it was because we did something else, or applied extraneous strength and/or speed.  We realize that although we did manage to do the technique properly, we don’t know why it worked.  We learn.  We improve.

Ironically, being honest with ourselves first also makes it easier to accept external feedback.  Once we acknowledge that we can improve, we look for information that will help us improve.  The easiest sources are external, and we actively seek them.

If suspending my ego accelerates my learning martial arts, what other aspects of my life can it help me improve?

All of them!  Taking a hard, critical look at ourselves helps us discover—and acknowledge—those important areas in our lives in which we are performing suboptimally, and the steps we have to take to improve them.

The same sources of feedback apply.  A martial arts teacher is an “authoritative” figure, akin to a parent, supervisor, et al.  A training partner is a “peer,” akin to a coworker, a sibling, a friend.  The same tools are available!

But how do I eliminate my ego?

Begin by assuming that it can’t be done instantaneously.

A simple yet surprisingly effective tool that I have used in the past is the Tendai-Mikkyo meditation Sange Mon:

  • Warning:  Sange Mon is a meditation that can be done alone.  However, the exercise contains a subtle power capable of adverse effects when the mind isn’t completely open.  It is difficult to properly convey the full instructions—and the potential pitfall—of the meditation in written form.  I highly recommend finding a “guide” to lead the first iterations of the meditation.

1)      Clear your mind.  (Everyone has a method that works best for them.)

2)      Review your events and actions from a period.  (Usually the previous day.)

3)      Identify an event in which you acted suboptimally.

4)      Understand that each of your actions stems from a choice or decision that you made; take responsibility for those decisions.  Identify the decision and the point in which it was made.

5)      In your mind, relive the relevant actions that took place exactly up to the decision point.  Make the same decision that you made.

6)      In your mind, play out the consequences of your decision exactly as they happened.

At this point, you may be swarmed with negative feelings.  Regret, embarrassment, chagrin; these are all consequences of your decision, and are part of the meditation.  NEVER stop here.

7)      In your mind, once again relive the relevant actions that took place exactly up to the decision point.  This time, make the optimal decision for that situation.

8)      In your mind, extrapolate the consequences as they would have played out based on your optimal choice.

There are numerous effects to this meditation, and two people will never feel the same.  There is no guarantee that it will even work for you.  It is simply a tool.  I can only attest that it works for me.