At a recent seminar, Sensei Jonathan Bannister gave a small, but incredibly potent lecture on trust. I won’t try to paraphrase what he said here; but I think the issue is a very interesting and very important one.
Any student/teacher relationship requires a level of trust. The more complex the subject matter, the more that trust is required. From the student standpoint, we need to trust that our instructors not only understand the subject matter, but are competent enough to teach it to us. (There are are many people who are experts in their field, but lack the ability to impart what they have learned to others.) From a teacher standpoint, we need to trust that our students are focused on learning. It can be frustrating, as an instructor, to spend so much time planning a class, only to discover that your students are really uninterested in what you have to say. (I don’t know how high school teachers do it, sometimes!)
This issue of trust is even more important when one studies a martial art. In this context, we are not just learning something that will help us improve as a human being; we are also learning something that is supposed to help us protect ourselves from harm. I can have a bad physics professor, for example, and the main consequence of that is that I will learn little about physics. A bad martial arts instructor, on the other hand, will leave me either understanding little about self-defense–or worse, an incorrect understanding about self-defense. Given the fact that self-defense is, at its core, about life and death, I think a bad martial arts instructor has a much more dire impact on the average person.
Because martial arts focus on life and death, it is critical that both the instructor and the student trust each other. In a striking art, such as Karate, this trust is easy to validate. Our fight-or-flight instincts help us understand rather quickly how a given block or strike is effective. The physical sensations alone are often enough to validate that our instructor is teaching us something worthwhile. We can feel that a given block works. We can tell that a given punch or kick has a powerful effect. Because we can feel that it works, we can trust our instructor more easily.
But what about an art like Kokikai Aikido? This is not a striking art. In fact, one of our fundamental principles is that the whole notion of fight-or-flight is no longer valid; that it is often an out-dated and ineffective response. Instead, we focus on relaxation, positioning, and timing. Unfortunately, these concepts are not always as easy to accept. A correctly applied Kokikai technique leaves an attacker helpless and, quite often, safe on the ground. But there is no actual sensation that tells us if we are correct. In fact, it is often said that when you move correctly, it feels like…nothing. If we combine this issue with the fact that new students often have to move slowly (to ensure safe practice), a fact that leaves movements feeling inelegant and rhythmless, it is easy to see why new students might be reluctant to trust their instructor.
Of course, it is not the job of the instructor to have to “prove” the techniques work at all times. Nor is it the job of the student to blindly accept everything the instructor says as “truth.” But in an art like Kokikai Aikido, in which we are asking new students to embark on a journey that requires a radical restructuring of how to move and think, we do need to look at this trust relationship between Sensei and student and how we can foster that relationship. Currently, I think the best solution is, as the instructor, to encourage students to ask questions, and to remind them about why we practice certain ways. We need to acknowledge that our movements can be difficult to understand, let alone imitate. We can’t count on students blindly trusting us; therefore, we need to start with little ideas, concepts are easier to understand. For example, I enjoy using our third basic principle, correct posture, when talking about techniques with new students. After all, the notion of “keeping one point” can sound very foreign, and the idea of being “relaxed” is hard to understand. But everyone can check their own posture, so this third principle becomes a concrete method through which new students can see if the art makes sense.
In a martial arts setting, a student must be able to trust his or her instructor. Those of us who teach must remember that we need to do everything we can to encourage that trust, while simultaneously illustrating the full beauty and effectiveness of Aikido.