Last week a new woman started in my aikijujutsu class. We trained together all evening, and had a ball. But still, she kept saying, Sorry, you must be so bored! or Sorry, I feel really guilty for spoiling your training. It didn’t matter how many times I assured her I was having a great time.
And I understand why she felt that way. If I was in her position, I would surely be just as worried about my partner feeling bored.
But I was genuinely not bored in the slightest!
Brian Johns has an excellent article on the reasons to teach beginners in the martial arts. His main reasons are:
- To practise empathy and compassion – you were like that too once!
- To refine, expand and experiment with your teaching
- To challenge yourself – because beginners haven’t yet learned the “programmed” moves and responses of more experienced students
These points are spot on. I would add that there can also be an emotional richness and beauty in working with beginners. Something clicked in this lesson; and I suddenly realised that different partners are just gateways to different parts of the whole.
It’s like the famous story explains:
The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.
A king explains to them:
All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.
The black belt on the other side of the room can offer me plenty of things this beginner can’t – the opportunity to express and receive more power and intent; and an enjoyable sense of stress and risk. He or she can probably also show me more subtle and advanced aspects of the techniques.
But this new woman can offer me other valuable things, including exposure to her pure “beginner’s mind” (to cite the classic Zen Buddhist concept).
The martial arts are so complex and rich, we are never going to learn any more than a fraction of the whole anyway; so in that sense there is no rush.
Teaching her just one throw was fascinating; as every tiny movement within it needed attention and focus. It felt like slowing down time and learning the movement with a new intensity and attention to detail. Like an infinite fractal opening up . . .
I think of William Blake’s opening to Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand.
An anonymous online writer explains this line as follows:
One can find vast truths in the smallest of things – or to put it in fashionable literary terms, he’s dealing with the microcosmic as representative of the universal. So, knowledge of the whole world can be gained from examining its smallest constituent part.
My Aikido teacher says: The older I get, the deeper I want to go into narrower topics. I could write a book – or three books – just about kamae! [combative stance].
Even as recently as a year or so ago, I admit I would have felt a sense of losing out by being partnered with this beginner all evening. I would still have helped her because it was the right thing to do; but with a sense of noble, slightly injured self-sacrifice.
Something’s changed. I think it’s a growing confidence that there is enough learning to go round; and that I can genuinely learn just as much about martial arts from training with the vulnerable as with the powerful; from the inexperienced as much as the expert.
This reflects the Ninjutsu historian and author Antony Cummins’ description of moving through phases of your own spiritual development. In the early stages, you may go through a phase of finding those who are less developed dull, and even beneath you in a sense. But in time, you move beyond this phase, and the world becomes fascinating.
So one partner is genuinely no better or more valuable or interesting than another. Antony Cummins writes:
[…] the martial path has no end; linear thought is a process of modern man. There is no end, you realise that you are no longer working towards an end goal but it’s the journey itself that is the fascinating aspect. (To Stand on a Stone pp.274-5).
So if you’re a beginner reading this – in any martial art or sport – have faith! It’s very likely that your teacher or training partner really is enjoying working with you as much as they say – and not just pretending, to spare your feelings!
Hang in there, and one day you’ll hopefully realise the truth of this for yourself – as you join another beginner in the exciting early stages of their own journey . . .