Psychoanalyst Wendy Winograd interviews Chris Goedecke, 8th Degree Black Belt and Karate Sensei on the relationship between play and the transformation of identity in the Dojo.
Transcript of Transitional Space in the Dojo
Wendy: Hi. This is Wendy Winograd, social worker and psychoanalyst. Today’s podcast, The Dojo as Transitional Space, came out of my interest in the role of play in the formation and transformation of human identity and out of my own martial arts training. In my practice of psychotherapy with children and adults, I often think of D. W. Winnicott’s idea of transitional space. A psychoanalyst and pediatrician, Winnicott called the theoretical space between our inner reality and the outer world transitional space. In transitional space, he theorized, you play around with the notion of what is me and what is not me. In a sense, we can create who we are and perhaps change who we are by spending some time in that transitional space between inner and outer. I think about how in psychoanalytic therapy, we create a kind of transitional space, not quite real and yet very real, in which people can think about who they are and perhaps who they want to be. I have had similar thoughts during my own martial arts journey. For some years now I have studied karate with Chris Goedecke at the Wind School and we have talked many times about how students of martial arts transform themselves through the discipline of karate. Like the psychoanalytic consulting room, the dojo is a kind of transitional space. Fighting in the dojo is quite serious, but it is at the same time play. Through the study of karate one can effect physical, mental and spiritual transformation. I sat down with Chris, who goes by the Buddhist name Hayashi Tomia, to talk about how he has observed his students alter their identities in the dojo. Hayashi, an 8th degree black belt, who has been teaching Isshin Kempo karate for 48 years, is the author of several books on karate including The Soul Polisher’s Apprentice and A Martial Kumite About Personal Evolution.
You’ve talked with me in the past about how people can literally change their identity and sense of themselves through karate. Can you talk about that and how you think that happens in the dojo?
Chris: There’s a lot of historical examples of people whose lives have been dramatically changed by their introduction and long-term practice. One of the most famous masters in the world, father of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi, was a sickly, thin child lacking in confidence. He went on to become a historically great figure, obviously gaining a great deal of strength, and I think when people are exposed to disciplines or events that pick up their confidence, this is where we see a great deal of positive change coming into people’s lives. Things that they didn’t think they could accomplish for whatever reason once they do accomplish them, we see that their options for choosing their future broaden, and they tend to strive more towards those larger accomplishments. Smaller accomplishments when you’re not confident because you’re afraid to step outside the box of your smaller self. So in martial arts one of the things that you learn pretty much right from the get go is you have options. And with those options you have the opportunity to explore your self identity in a way that people can’t do when they don’t have any options.
Wendy: Can you talk about what some of those options are in karate?
Chris: So one of the things that I enjoyed about martial arts right away is that we deal with the tangible realm, the physical body. I’ll give you a very simple example. Your teacher asks you to stretch out and touch your toes. You bend forward reaching down toward your toes, and you realize you are 8 inches away from touching your toes, and as far as you’re concerned that’s so far you’ll probably never be able to touch them. That was my experience. I didn’t have any back issues as a teenager, I started when I was 17 years old, but I was nowhere near touching my toes. My teacher said, “Don’t worry, if you apply yourself appropriately, a little bit every day, you’ll be able to do it.” Now I can bring my hands all the way down and place them flat on the ground. That was an eye opening experience for me because if I can do that and I didn’t realize I had that potential to do that, what else could I do with my physical body? And since my mind is directing my body, it’s not too far away to follow the line of thinking what else could my mind choose for me that I didn’t think I could do? And this is not exclusive just to the martial arts or just to karate. This would be a component of any type of therapeutic, physical, even psychological discipline, even the kind of work that you do. One of the things that psychoanalytical study or talk therapy has enabled many people to do is to think outside of the smaller box of options that they have. And how many people’s faces light up when they realize, “You mean I can do that? I have permission to do that?” So I think that’s where karate has been effective with the general US public. Certainly with the physical arena. “You mean I can actually learn how to defend myself? I don’t have the confidence to do that, but you’re telling me that I could have that confidence.”
Wendy: So, I’m wondering if we could tie this back to play, because it sounds like martial arts, play, how does that relate? How does that add up in class, in karate class or in the dojo? What’s going on that’s playful?
Chris: I think that there are some students who enter the dojo in which it’s not play. It’s a serious engagement. Perhaps they have been abused or they’re being abused. And they haven’t gotten to the point where they have the confidence or the freedom to choose to be more spontaneous. These types of individuals can benefit a great deal from the martial arts, but I’m not sure if they’ve reached that play mode. That play mode comes when you allow yourself to be spontaneous in the moment. When you drop some of that rigid conditioning that is telling you that little voice in your head, you know, don’t make any mistakes now because you don’t want to be called out for mistakes. The other half of the students, however, they do come there to play. This is fun for them. One student in particular who has been studying karate for 17 years is quite outspoken about it. He says “I’m here to play with my friends.” He knows there’s a measure of safety in the class. Of course people can be hurt, but then you know there should be some element of unknown, there should be an element of unknown in some form. Because if we know what’s happening, where’s the excitement in that? Part of the excitement in life is that we’re not quite sure how this is going to play out. Maybe I’m going to lose. Maybe I’m going to get hit by the ball. Maybe someone is actually going to punch me when I pretend that I’m able to control the situation. So I think that play is part of a personal evolution where someone realizes they’re safe, they’re getting permission to engage another person or themselves in a way they’ve never experienced before, and this gives them a release of new energies. I think this is where the play comes in. There has to be excitement, there has to be an element of unknown, there has to be some type of engagement. If we think of just general play with children, they’re engaging with a ball or they’re engaging with a group of friends, and they create a boundary. I find this interesting. In all types of play, there is a boundary that is created. It is a oftentimes unspoken boundary when someone says “Do you want to play a game?” and everybody shakes their head. The boundary protects the players while they’re playing.
Chris: Until somebody opts out. In martial arts we have that boundary right away. You’re going to take off your normal, everyday garb that identifies you as a member of your community and you’re going to put on an all white garb. It’s kind of like a blank slate. The karate uniform, is a white gi, a blank slate. You’re no longer Wendy the therapist, Wendy the mother, Wendy the wife; you’re now Wendy the white-garbed woman. And you’re going to enter into a boundrified space with some ritual that helps us move into that play-like environment and be exposed to a new set of conditions, in the case of martial arts, a new set of rules. You’re going to move now to the pacing of the instructor, a sensei, in front of you whose going to direct you to experiences you’ve never had before. Holding your body against a forceful push or pull. However, what’s interesting to me is there is a pretend aspect to it. We enter in with a partner taking on the role of aggressor and defender. You agree to be the defender. I agree to be the aggressor. I put on the wolf costume with fangs and drool, and I say I’m going now push you as hard as I can. And I’m going to give you an option for trying to control me. To me this is primitive play and probably play at its best because the oldest physical disciplines in the world are the fight, which could be interpreted as the struggle to survive, and the celebration of the fight, which we would know as dance. So fighting and dancing become complementary physical experiences. The dance we would relate more to as a playful experience. We’re celebrating that we didn’t get eaten by the wolf, we didn’t get pushed over by the student who assumed the role of the aggressor and we can dance about after the fact. Which many people do when they see that they actually have options that give them the ability to control the situation or allow them to survive in the situation, maybe even thrive in the situation.
Wendy: So I think you said something that is really important which is that there’s an aspect of pretend in the dojo. It is a fight and it’s not a fight, at the same time. Maybe a primitive fight might have been a real fight to the death for someone, and the dance the celebration ritual was celebrating that you didn’t die. I don’t think that most of us who go to our karate class expect that we’re going to die or think that’s even a possibility, so there is a safety factor built in but also the pretend. But I’m wondering about times when you observed people moving close to the edge of the pretend. Cause we’ve talked a little bit about that before, too, about what gets stirred up in people in this otherwise playful experience.
Chris: Yeah, I’d like to step back for a second and address Winnicott’s primary observation that play seems to emerge in that special space between the subjective and the objective world, where these two worlds seem to come together. I would tell you that in a martial art class, there’s a special boundary that is formed to bring these two worlds together. And then the rules, the protocols, are explained and the players, the individual martial arts students at different levels, are then encouraged to begin to engage one another. Now there is little deaths that occur. It’s true you’re never..I remember one individual in his mid-40s who was referred by another student to join our class. And I happened to see him and was walking next to him as we both entered into the dojo. He looked a little tentative, and he turned to me and he said, “I’m not going to get hurt, am I?” and I said, “No, no, you’re not going to get hurt. It’s going to be okay. In a good martial arts dojo there should be no injuries.” But we can say the same thing of children playing a game of tag in a room. If a child said, “I’m not going to get hurt, am I?” We would say, “No, generally, not,” but there will be scraped knees, and people are going to bump into each other, and the same thing happens in the dojo. People are going to bump into each other. Now where it gets fascinating is when we start to implement those pretend roles where I as the sensei begin to direct two students. It’s my responsibility as the sensei to see just what role would be appropriate for somebody. I tell young teachers it’s extremely important who you pair up with whom. You’re not going to ask a bully to play a game with you because there’s a basic fear about that bully stepping over the boundary and hurting you. In a martial art class there are a lot of underlying psychological posturings that people are doing. I’ve seen women come into the class who express through their body language uncomfortability with perhaps a certain type of male student. I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen males be uncomfortable with how to relate physically in a martial context to a female. Do I just assert my maleness or do I not overwhelm them? Now that becomes my job to make sure somebody’s not overwhelmed or underwhelmed because when people get shut down in a martial art class, it’s the opposite of the playful experience. And those inner/outer worlds do not have a chance to flourish. I happen to have a very rich inner world, and it’s easy for me to imagine lots of different scenarios. As a martial arts teacher, I have to constantly come up with different course formats. People would say to me, “What are we going to learn today?” and I would say, “I don’t know until everybody’s in the room because I don’t know whose going to come in the room.”
Wendy: So you’re playing, too.
Chris: So I’m playing too, that’s right. I’m playing with my set of tools and the hopes of being able to choose the correct tools so there’s an elevated experience taking place in the class. I don’t just want it to benefit the black belts. I want it to benefit the white belt as well, so my challenge is can I create a game, can I create an engagement in which everybody says, “This is cool, this is interesting, this is really picking me up, I didn’t know this,” which is not easy to do when you have a mixed class which could be somebody with 30 years of experience next to somebody with only a month worth of experience.
Wendy: On that topic, why do you choose to teach mixed classes?
Chris: Well I don’t think in today’s martial arts world you could sustain a class where you were just teaching particular belt levels. There wouldn’t be enough students to do that. And I also feel it’s important to experience the nature of variety. One of the things we like on a walk in the park is the variety. If the park had only one kind of tree, of one height with one size canopy, and you know all the grass was green, there was nothing but green grass, we’d probably say, “Well, it was an okay walk, but it wasn’t really that interesting.” What is it about play that it engages us and draws us in? It’s the unknown, and more than likely, variety The unknown and variety would draw me in. The same, sometimes we say, we played the game with the same people, there’s nothing new here. Two martial arts students can actually become quite stale with each other. In fact, sometimes one student will pick a familiar student, I see this with children. One boy will always pick his brother. He doesn’t want to step about into the unknown where he could really learn something more than being with his brother. His brother is safe. Now in martial arts, there’s always concern with safety. Would I say that’s an aspect of play? It probably is but we don’t think about it.
Wendy: It’s kind of like balancing the need to be safe with an atmosphere where you can take a risk and maybe move into a dangerous place or somewhat dangerous place.
Chris: Yes, I think with the adults there’s a great fear of rejection, which inhibits a lot of people. So you could say that an inhibitor of play is fear of being rejected. If we sit down and play Monopoly, nobody is going to get physically hurt, but somebody who loses, depending on the attitude of the winner or the winners, might take advantage and say, “Oh you’re a loser, you’ve lost again,” in which case, we’re not going to play. The invitation has to at least suppress the idea of rejection or nobody’s going to do it. You wouldn’t even sign up for a martial arts class if you felt in the class the attitude of the sensei was condescending and rejecting.
Wendy: So how do you think you manage that in the class and maintain kind of a playful atmosphere rather than one that’s so competitive that people feel they have to worry about losing?
Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question because I have watched lots of teachers. I’ve seen some extraordinarily good teachers, and I’ve seen some horrendous teachers whose egos are so dominating in the class that all the students are twisted by the power of the ego. And I sometimes feel that that environment is cemented by individual who choose that out of a sense of familiarity. I wouldn’t choose that type of instructor, personally. So you ask me how do I go about doing that. I am a good example of the benefits of martial arts because when I started I was extremely excited about it, I had very good martial experiences, and I was an introverted young man. I was confident, but I was more confident in my inner world than I was with my outer world. Looking back, I didn’t feel I had a lot of physical confidence in the world of men, particularly older and larger men. I’m very tall and I’m very thin. And I just assumed that an overly muscular man would just tie me up in knots and toss me aside. So I was a little tenuous there. So I would say that I wasn’t timid but I was certainly quiet. And martial arts pulled me out into that world, gave me the confidence, and I think it’s my sensitivity as a man that didn’t get twisted that allowed me to see the dynamic of my classes today and realize that there are shy, quiet introverted, people and there are very aggressive, overtly intimidating individuals, and I will not have a successful dojo if I’m not paying attention to the level of interaction taking place with these students. So it’s very important to me to feel the classroom atmosphere and to make choices on the basis of my own personal experiences of who might best be paired to who, who could lift somebody up. Now you know this because you’ve experienced this. We do something very unusual. I don’t think there are many dojos in the United States that do this. We haven’t done much of it, but I call it conceptual kumite. Now kumite in general is an exchange of physical techniques between 2 individuals. It’s oftentimes either pre-arranged, where I tell you you’re going to be pushed by someone, a specific push, and this way you can get used to one technique without being overwhelmed by all kind of options. And then free style kumite is I say, “Wendy, I’m going to attack you in any way I can and you’re going to defend yourself in any way you can.” Conceptual kumite is taking a concept like aggression. I pair you up with a student, I give you that word aggression, and the two of you must build upon it. Because the way I teach, we want to build both a conceptual maturity with the students and a physical maturity alongside that. I think it’s important that we understand concepts like play or transitional space. I think that it’s important that we understand how that fits into our development as individuals. Cause I’d say that everybody who comes into a martial arts school, everybody who comes into a therapeutic situation has some conscious or unconscious desire to move out of the space that they’re in to a different space. Great if you can do it in a playful way. Not everybody sees it that way. Maybe the question is what’s the best environment, this is just kind of reflecting on this, my observation is what’s the best environment that I can create with a group of people to move them through the experiences of the martial arts, and play seems to fit the billing as the answer for that. Because we know, from research, that children learn best when they’re having fun.
Wendy: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s been surprising to me in a discipline that is about conflict is how much fun it can be. Because I don’t think I’ve always thought about conflict as fun. But in the dojo I know we’re often laughing and having fun.
Chris: That’s that nervous letting off steam.
Wendy: I don’t know if it’s always nervous. Maybe some of it is.
Chris: And Winnicott was specific in the information that you gave me that he considered certain types of play serious fun. So that’s what I would say about martial arts. It’s not just fun, though there are certainly fun aspects to some of the training. But it’s serious fun because the implications of our training are that we are trying to understand the nature of conflict, particularly if it were to come at us in a form of physical hostility. In children, I tell, sometimes in conversation, I say that there are 2 fundamental behaviors that you will always witness in children. Even amongst a group of children who don’t know each other when they enter a room. I have observed this my entire martial career. They will always seek the hiding places, the high and low places in the room, and they will almost always play tag. And this is a fundamental built into our DNA form of play of predator versus prey. All of the play, in my opinion, when you look underneath it is about survival. If you play Monopoly you want to win. Why? Because you want to survive better than somebody else does. Playing tag with children is you be the predator, I’ll be the prey, you try to catch me, I’ll try to get away. I’ll go and hide up there behind those boxes, I’ll hide underneath that table, I’ll do everything I can to try to avoid you. You’ll do everything you can to try to get me, and that is the essence of martial art practice. Is that play? I think it’s play. Is it serious play? Yes it is. Play isn’t always characterized by laughing and giggling. It’s sometimes characterized by being in an intense movement, but I think where play is distinguished from real life is that there is an element of safety, there’s a safety valve in there. There’s a teacher over there who’s going to stop it if it gets too intense. Or you are being told that you have a right to stop if it gets too intense. Young children don’t know that. They might get lost in that. The dad is coming at the little 5-year old son. He’s playing the monster. All of the sudden the 5-year old son forgets that it’s the dad and now it’s the monster, and he starts crying and running away to mom.
Wendy: Right, and that is true about little children.
Chris: There’s that really fine line in that transitional space where the subjective and the objective worlds suddenly become negative, and if you don’t know you have the option to turn it off…
Wendy: When play becomes real somehow. And in that moment when something you are pretending, when you don’t have quite a grasp on what’s pretend and what’s real.
Wendy: And young children are still figuring that out.
Chris: And some adults are still figuring that out.
Wendy: That’s true.
Chris: We’re a very affluent culture, and if there’s a problem, we call the police or we call a lawyer, and we’re terrified of the prospect of somebody actually invading our space before we can get to our phones or call a lawyer, that we might actually have to defend ourselves. So it’s terrifying on the one hand, but it’s also compelling if you know that there’s a way for you to actually be able to defend yourself.
Wendy: How do you think that changes people? Because I kind of want to come back to this idea that taking these classes, engaging in martial arts the way you do it, allows people to change essentially who they are, through this kind of play that they can really change. I wonder if you even have a story or an example of that, so we can begin to talk about how that happens.
Chris: I think maybe your story may be the best story. Because you are very intellectually sensitive and engaging, and you yourself began to realize in the classes that you had no substantial familiarity with the kind of physical transgressions that somebody could do to you. Now you may never be physically transgressed upon, but there was something very deeply moving about that observation on your part that compelled you to want to learn more about yourself in the light of “What if somebody were to physically aggress upon me?” Now I would say that you’re intellectually qualified to debate them to death. To debate them to the corner where they cry uncle. The question is, “Could you handle it physically?” If they said forget this debate, they’re just going to reach out and try to choke you. That moment of concern engages your psyche, if you feel it’s important enough, to want to look into this potential issue. And this is where the change comes. When you’re willing to look outside of your normally conditioned behaviors. The class and myself supports the fact that this can be achieved, but in order to achieve it, we have to play a game. We have to play the “what if” game. What if, Wendy, somebody were to actually attack you? What would you most likely be able to do? I remember early on you would laugh nervously and say “I, I, I, don’t know I would probably just get killed.” But you know deep inside you would never want to be killed, and your flight or fight response, your physiological reaction to such an intense moment, would bring out in you a primitiveness that might startle you. We all have that built in. So I think that this is what is taking place with a lot of people, that they’re being brought to the edge of possibilities, and will they have the courage to step over that edge, and I say “Yes!” if they take small steps. Maybe some men come in, and they’ve already been in the military service. They might even have seen combat, so they’ve already taken those steps there, and I don’t need to have them take those steps in my class. I had a woman once who joined a woman’s self defense course. She was middle-aged, well-dressed, and we started off the class with pushing. I said I’d like to break some ice about physical bodies. In martial arts we’re learning how to protect ourselves from having someone trespass on our physical space, so we’re going to start out very simply. I’m going to ask everybody to take your hands and just push your partners shoulders. And I’m going to give you a way to stand, a posture, that you won’t fall down, so everybody should be okay. And this woman said, “I, I, I have never done anything like this,” and she was stuttering like that, and she goes, “I, I, I don’t know if I can even do this,” and she never came back to class. That was it. This was a role she was not willing to take on.
Wendy: But I think actually the pushing exercise, now that I hear you talking about it, is kind of about how we figure out our relationship to other people. How much are we going to insist on ourselves and how much are we going to give way to the other? And that kind of goes back to the central tension that Winnicott talks about between developing your own identity but then in the context of relationship with other people. So you can’t just block them out. They’re there. And she, it sounds like, she was someone who really wasn’t going to be present. She wasn’t allowed to be present herself in relationship with someone else.
Chris: That’s right.
Wendy: And maybe she felt that she could psychologically or in a non-physical way, but I think maybe they’re related. That’s what I’m getting at here. I think they’re related.
Chris: They’re absolutely related. So here I am the sensei, and I’m observing a class of multiple people now, paired up pushing back and forth. And perhaps an observer comes in and sits down, someone who is not familiar with martial arts and says, “Oh look at that large man pushing that middle-aged woman over there, look at that young teenage girl really going at it with that slightly older teenage boy.” What I see when I’m observing the class is “Look at how that middle-aged woman is processing being pushed by that taller male.” I’m saying to myself, “Look at how that taller male is processing pushing that middle-aged woman. He’s totally insensitive to the fact that she’s expressing fear through her body language.” I might take that opportunity to stop the class not to embarrass anybody but to talk about this internal dynamic that’s going on. To me, it’s less about the overt experience. It’s what I’m sensing as the covert experience. Is the middle-aged woman shutting down, which I don’t want, or is the older, taller, adult moving into a psychological stage of further domination, which I don’t want. So I have to become something of an alchemist when I pair people up. Here’s a very practical example, something easier to understand. A timid woman who has been physically abused comes into karate class. She shares this with me when we first meet, so I know that she has to be engaged with partners in a very particular way. I will not choose a very outgoing, aggressive male to be her male. This will be too overwhelming for her to deal with. I have to find individuals that can work with her by degrees; in fact the ideal state would be to put her with a male that is not that confident with his physical body and allow her to be in the role of dominating the exchange. She gets to be the aggressor. Now she’s not going to be intimidated. The male is going to be, he’s not going to be intimidating, but she’s not going to be able to assert in a way that she’s been previously abused. It’s an interesting experience to watch what happens when she’s placed in with a male in which she’s put in the position of control. Now I wouldn’t tell you this happens over night, but over time if these exercises are conducted appropriately, this woman is actually going to stand differently, speak differently, she may even start looking differently as she realizes, “Ah, I do have a means of control here.” And then when the time is right, you pick somebody out that’s about on the same plane as her. You ask her to step to the edge of the unknown. Are you willing to take the next step to gain a certain amount of freedom in your ability to express who you are? I remember one time the entire class was seated. It was time for testing. Students are often individually tested. They must come up in front of the class. If you have performance anxiety, it’s going to be tough. You have to understand in martial arts we cannot send you out in the world as a pretend martial artist. There’s a point at which the game has to become real. We can play our whole lives, but there are moments in which there’s going to be a serious exchange. I would do an injustice to you and to myself to make you feel that you are confident when in fact you did not possess the ability to do that. By standing in front of the class, we are re-creating some of that nervousness that you might feel if somebody were pressing on you physically. So, here I was the class was seated and it was a woman. And she was probably at that time in her 30s. I had already been given a heads up if she were ever asked to step in front of the class to perform by herself, she would rather quit than to perform. Now I was told that many months earlier, so I continued to work where she was up in front of the class with a small group. I figured, I think she is ready to step up by herself. I called her name. “Mary Beth?” There was silence in the room, and I looked over at Mary Beth, and I could see in her face there was a kind of like the angel and the devil where the devil was panic, outright panic, and the angel was “You can do this you can do this.” I could see this, and I wasn’t sure, and all of the sudden she got up, she got in front of the class. She performed her 50-movement sequence, she went and sat back down. From that day on, whatever it was that held her back from herself, that felt embarrassed or overly exposed, disappeared. She had no problem getting up in front of the class. What a great experience for her to have that situation occur.
Wendy: So now you’re talking about how this discipline can actually change you–you see it in the dojo–but I’m sure these people that you’re talking about can take this outside as well.
Chris: Yeah, There was a late British scholar, Nagaboshi Tomia in one of his essays stated if your martial art is not changing you in a substantial way, you’re not doing it correctly. Because I don’t think that just learning kicks and punches is necessarily changing somebody. That would be watching an action drama on channel 5 and then you turn to an action drama on channel 7 and then another action drama on channel 9. You’re not really–you’re changing the channels, but you’re really doing the same thing. So I look for those substantive changes where somebody who lacks confidence suddenly gains confidence. Remember it’s the confidence that gives you the freedom to make broader choices, and game playing is a safe way to go to the unknown and try to gain that confidence to become the winner of the game, control the ball, whatever it happens to be so you can make broader choices. “Wow, I played that game that I never played before and that was fun.” Why was it fun? Because you’re taken to the edge, the unknown. You don’t know if you’re going to win or to lose or fall down or get hit in the head with the ball, whatever the game happens to be.
Wendy: So I’m thinking a little about how another way that I think people change through this discipline. You spoke before about your role watching the body language in students and pairing them appropriately, but I think that I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that by the time you get to black belt in your dojo you can do that, too. That the black belts in our group are noticing those kinds of things, and I wonder if you have some things to say about that, about that change, because then they’re changing how they see others and how they interact with others, and I know I’ve said this to you before. I always feel more comfortable when I’m sparring or working with a black belt because they seem to read things more accurately, and so do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Chris: Yeah, so I’d say that if I was observing a group of new students, I would characterize them as enthusiastic, because they’re choosing to do it, and spontaneously inefficient. They’re just being who they are, but from my standpoint as a martial expert, they are not organized, and this is why they’re inefficient. Maybe by analogy let’s say you have a great love to play piano, but you’ve never played a piano before, but you’ve got incredible tunes going on in your head. These tunes could be up in the number one hits. But when you sit down in front of the piano, you can’t play. So we say that you’re spontaneous because you have this sense of wanting to engage, but you’re inefficient because you don’t know how to get those tunes through your body. So we start that way in the martial experience, and we move to higher states of organization. Physical organization–you increase your ability to balance better, your coordination improves, the strength of your movements, the accuracy of your movements. Simultaneously, there’s an event occurring in your mind. Body and mind are not separate events. As a Buddhist, I can tell you that whatever takes place in your body is simultaneously in your mind and vice versa. You may or may not be aware of I,t but it’s occurring that way. So these students that are advancing are becoming not only more physically organized but they’re becoming clearer about what the exchange is all about. They’re in a class. Here’s another student coming in as a white belt. So a black belt isn’t going to go, “I’m a black belt. I’m going to destroy you.” They’re saying, “Okay, I was once a white belt, and I was not that organized, so I’m going to encourage you, like a father would encourage a son or a mother would encourage a daughter to go ahead, it’s okay to walk out there on your own. I’m right here behind you; you can take a few more steps. You know when you see very young children and they walk 10 feet away and they’re always looking back to see that mom is still there. So we’re having that same type of experience. These black belts are becoming more autonomous. They’re becoming freer thinkers. They’re taking responsibility for their actions, and they’re making discerning decisions of how they should engage a student. Now I’m still the overseer. I’m like the uber sensei because I have to say, “That was a bad decision.” If I’m across from you, and I say, “C’mon let’s put up the hands and go at it,” and I see in your face pure terror, I’m going to say, “Okay, wait a second, how are you feeling right now?” “I’m terrified!” “What are you most terrified about?” Let’s get into a conversation because I don’t want you to be terrified because you’re not going to learn being terrified. Now there’s martial artists, martial teachers, who are on the opposite side of that spectrum. You want to learn how to swim? Throw the baby in the water. This is life. This is the way it’s going to be. The Spartans put the baby on the hillside. If he lives, he’s my son. If he doesn’t live, tough. He didn’t live up to it. So I have to tell you that when we look at martial arts’ ideologies, I would say there are two significant ideologies. One is what we call the hard path or the armoring path. I’m going to make you tough, insensitive, aggressive so that you can get what you want when you want it. The other path, the path that I teach is, I’m going to make you super sensitive and more connected to your environment, and you’ll still be able to get what you want to get. They are very different tools, so when we talk about, say, the transitional space, there may be more of an element of play and growth in one way and more an element of growth and play in another way, in another way that’s more traumatic. People will grow with traumas, but the thing is, do you want to sign up in a school in which each experience is going to be traumatic and potentially negative? I don’t think so.
Wendy: Right, so I think without knowing it, your school sort of follows Winnicottian principles of development in a way. And you’re like Winnicott’s good enough mother. You stay very attuned to the children or the infants or all of us that are in your classes, and that’s the tool that you use most.
Chris: Yeah, I do remember something about Winnicott, and it was that Winnicott made a statement that at one point in time the mother will fail the child. But I thought about that, and I don’t agree with it. I think, in fact, that the mother knows that she’s playing a game with the child, and the game has an emotional impact on the mother. In order for the child to individuate and to form its identity, she has to play the game of letting the child have to survive on its own. She’s off in the distance, but when that child cries “I want that rattle that’s next to me, but I’m not going to roll over to get it,” and the mother decides, “I’m not going to come into the room, I’ll just peek around the corner, I’m not going to get that,” I think the mother is well aware of the fact that “I’d really like my child not to individuate and be my child,” but the mother would know that that would be an immaturity on her part, so she has to play the game of let’s see if you can get it. And I think that’s how we all grow. And we can see this serious fun element, though, that Winnicott does say coming into that issue. You can’t run up to your child every time your child wants something. There are appropriate times to have the child be dependent on you, but there are other times when the child must not be. And in karate we see the black belt as that autonomous, individuated stage has been accomplished. It’s not that you’re being pushed out of the nest at black belt. I think you’re being pushed out of the nest closer to green belt, which is about the halfway mark, but this would be the mother and the baby and the individuation would be the same dynamic that’s occurring in the dojo. I could protect all of my students, you could all be my children. I will make all the decisions. I will take on all the responsibilities, but that would not be mature on my part. And at some point, I will hit a wall. So there’s a lot of give and take that is going on, and sometimes it’s not even that easy for me. Sometimes, the individuals have expectations that are not planted in reality, and they get discouraged because those expectations are not met, and therefore they leave. So there’s a measure of students’ wanting to kill the instructor, so to speak. If I can beat the instructor, then I’m gonna be top dog. Well, I don’t want to get out there and have you be violent with me to prove to yourself that you’re top dog. I think there’s a healthier way to do that.
Wendy: So, in some way, it’s about individuating without having to kill the mother or the father and also to stay in a relationship with that person.
Chris: That’s right. Isn’t that interesting, because what if a child were to have for a moment in an adult mind and mom did not come in and give me that rattle. Would the child press a button–mom’s gone?
Wendy: I think sometimes babies wish that.
Chris: That’s what I’m saying. Sometimes parents say, if we never had kids. Sometimes I’d like to kill my kids because they can drive you crazy. That’s true on the fringe edges of martial arts. Oh my god, I can’t believe that student did that to that other student, and they told me they weren’t going to do it, and they went right ahead and did that, and now we have some kind of an issue there and we’re going to have to talk about it. So I think that any organization, including a family, including your self, your own personal organization, must strive for authenticity, must strive for some kind of grounding, something real, something meaningful. Otherwise, you’re left off balance, and isn’t that where all the issues come in, when you’re off balance, when you play a game but somebody’s cheating, somebody’s being unfair, somebody pushes you hard because they want to get the ball before you do? Now it’s not a game. So we have real life unfolding with any game, or we have real life unfolding within a boundrified play, and then we also have play emerging within the every day. Now I think the goal of life on one platform is to have play emerge in your every day, to not be so hamstrung, so conditioned, so fraughtful about stepping to the outside. That in fact each moment can be re-created as a playful moment. Even in our conversations, we get to choose to talk within the subject matter, which is our boundary, but we can say all kinds of things.
Wendy: Right, when we feel free to.
Chris: Yeah, you’re not saying you can only talk about this and don’t use those words. So there’s a freedom there, but there’s also that “What if I mess it up?” It goes back to that rejection. We don’t want to be rejected.
Wendy: Right, But we do want to be allowed to become our authentic selves.
Chris: And I think at black belt, we allow ourselves, we give ourselves permission, and we realize that even if we are rejected that does not take away from who we are. That’s an important point that you get to a level of self acceptance, self love, that it doesn’t matter what somebody else says to you. And I think that’s what some people fantasize about the concept of the black belt. Someone on the outside looking in goes “Wow a black belt, they’ll never be hurt. No one can ever reject them. No one can ever take advantage of them.” And we see it in the movies, the stereotypical masters, they may be old, wispy beard, wide eyebrow, three guys with axes are standing around them, and they’re unflustered. They’ll take care of the situation. We love that. That’s why people flock to see those types of movies. We want that for ourselves, but part of that’s not realistic. There will be bumps and bruises even with the best of them, the best level of skill, that is. I can be hurt. Just because I’m an 8th degree black belt doesn’t mean I can’t slip on a banana peel. And I’ll catch every punch that comes. So for me, it’s important too that the students that engage in the play don’t see me and put me on a platform. I’m an aging man who’s confident and competent with my abilities, but that is no guarantee that we’re not going to be hurt. That’s hard for a lot of people to accept.
Chris: Even in a non-martial context. It just makes me feel like we need to play more. In some cases we need to play more, and we need to play harder.
Wendy: Maybe we do.
Chris: Maybe we do.