Training & Learning

Several years ago, I found myself in a position of having to deal with some distinctly unpleasant “stuff.” Dealing properly with this stuff necessitated me being away from my teacher, Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center, for an extended amount of time. This was the first time I’d ever been away from training with my teacher for such a long time, and it was unusual for me, to say the least. There was nothing formalized about my absence; my teacher and friends didn’t even know what was going on – just that I was no longer at the dojo; and for all intents and purposes, I was pretty much gone from everything.

I was determined, however, that I would keep training. Even though I was away from my teacher, I resolved to continue my training at any opportunity. I consoled myself with this resolution, thinking that I would be able to return to the dojo and pick up where I left off. So as I dealt with the situations in my life that mandated my absence from routine and normalcy, I found opportunities to apply a lot of what I had learned. I also found opportunities to visit several other dojo associated with the art I study. I thought that was a good thing. And again, I told myself that even though I wasn’t with my teacher, I was still training. And that would help my skills continue to grow and improve. I had, by this time, already earned my 5th degree black belt and felt pretty confident that I could uncover new things to learn and practice.

So I kept training as much as was possible. I honed certain skills, I had my own techniques tested in a variety of ways, and I kept trying to continue the practices that I’d learned under my teacher’s guidance.

Eventually, as do all things pleasant and unpleasant – my time away ended and I returned to the dojo. I still remember vividly the first night back, climbing those steps and smelling the familiar tang of sweat in the air as I approached. I was home. At last.

And I was ready to pick up where I’d left off.

Instead, I got a serious wake-up call.

Foolishly, I’d expected that my time away wouldn’t decrease my skill. That despite being away from my teacher, my skills would at least remain at the level they’d been when I left. And that I’d be able to pick up anything new that had been taught during my absence.

But time didn’t stand still just because I wasn’t there. My teacher had kept on teaching; my friends had kept on learning and evolving as practitioners; and flow of the art itself had never ceased moving through the universe.

I’d been training, yes. I’d learned some rather unique lessons as well.

And yet, I’d been left behind. Far behind.

I was angry with the forces over which I’d had no control for depriving me of the time that I could have spent training with my teacher. I was upset that despite my attempts to retain my training schedule, to retain my level of ability, it hadn’t seemed to matter all that much. I’d been out of the flow; I’d been away from the learning. And I was upset with myself because my ego had once again sabotaged me. I’d conned myself into imagining that as a 5th degree black belt, I was astute enough and accomplished enough to be able to teach myself what I needed to know in order to continue to evolve as a practitioner.

I suddenly learned there’s a HUGE difference between “training” and “learning.”

It’s possible, after all, to go out and punch trees for a few hours and then congratulate yourself afterward for all the hard training you just did. But despite the training, you didn’t learn anything (except perhaps how utterly stupid it is to punch trees). You can, after all, go to different dojo and work out with other individuals and different body types and practice techniques. But that doesn’t mean you learned anything (except perhaps that your technique either works or doesn’t work as well as you thought.) And you can, after all, spend your time away creating excuses and allowing your ego to convince you that you’re still training.

But you’re not.

Throughout the course of the history of this particular martial art system, there have been instances where a practitioner was forced to be their own teacher. The 34th Grandmaster found himself alone when his teacher passed on. He had to spend years trying to find his way through the maze of notes and scrolls and letters that he’d amassed. Eventually, he did. And some would say he is perhaps an even better practitioner for having to pass such a trial.

Not everyone is like the Grandmaster, however. And I wonder if given the chance, would the Grandmaster have preferred to continue to learn under his teacher’s guidance instead of being forced to go it alone?

The path of this particular budo is strewn with traps at every turn. Some of those traps are obvious. But some are so carefully concealed within the very essence of ourselves that only those who have carefully and painstakingly cleaned out every last bit of untruth and mastered their ego will even see them.

For me, coming back from being away was a profound lesson. Despite the amount of training I was able to continue during my absence, despite the things I actually did learn during my time away, I hadn’t evolved as a practitioner. I returned to my home dojo to find that my skills were no longer at the level that I expected them to be because I hadn’t been continually exposed to new training and new challenges from my teacher. I had to acquire a lot of new knowledge in a short span of time to get back to the level of expectation I set for myself.

It’s easy to imagine that after a certain duration in studying this art that we no longer require the guidance of a teacher. There’s something inherently romantic about the notion of going it alone, or being some pioneer out on the edge of exploration. I know. I’ve been there.

But the reality is this: why do you want to go it alone if you don’t have to?

My absence from my teacher was mandated by things in my life I couldn’t control at the time. I had to take that time and be away from him not out of choice, but of necessity.

What’s keeping you from being with your teacher? What’s holding you back from “learning” instead of just “training?”

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