“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Though not entirely intuitive, according to science and engineering the answer is: No.
When the tree falls in the forest it generates sound waves. When those sounds waves are received by your ears, you distinguish the sound of the tree falling. In engineering, the transmission of a signal occurs only when there is a transmitter and a receiver. No receiver, no signal. You’re not there to hear the tree falling, there is no sound.
So if Master or Sensei says the vital ‘secret’ and you’re not around to hear it? It remains a secret. By not being around, I also mean not being present, not paying attention.
I can spend time instructing a student the correct way to throw iriminage. Then the student performs the technique as he or she did prior to the instruction. I stare, “WTF?” The student looks back, thinking, “What?” I say, “That’s not what I did.” So did the tree make a sound?
I got from Sensei Dan, who taught Aikido for over 50 years, that Sensei can only do his or her best. You can only provide the best instruction you can. Yet, Mastery is the two-way street: If Sensei is saying something valuable, you’ve got to be on your game to get it.
Over the years, I get that part of being a student is that you don’t know how to listen. It’s hard to listen with the “empty mind” – mushin. So as Sensei, my job is adding the context, making it relevant for them. That doesn’t mean regaling stories of yore, “Well, back in my day…”
When I had difficulty throwing my opponent, who is bigger and stronger grabbing my wrist, Sensei said, “Drop your elbow. And throw.” Dropping my elbow and my center “ki” allowed me to get under my opponent’s center and move him. Keeping him in my center line, I could throw without using a lot of physical force. I discovered my relevance.
Sensei never said, “You think this is hard? Back in my day…” He reminded me of his training in perhaps the less enlightened era. Sensei took falls on hardwood floors. Other Senseis would impose their will by hurting other students. As a result, Sensei Dan suffered mangled hands and wrists, and a bad back.
I got the relevance of compassion in hard practice: “Don’t intentionally hurt anyone.” Granted, Aikido is a martial art. So in the truly threatening situation: It’s ON.
I discovered relevance on the very personal level when I had pain in my knees from practicing Aikido. My circumstance was the collision of my flat feet, my imperfect body structure, and my years of intense training. I thought I might have to give up Aikido all together.
I worked with my chiropractor, Victor, who corrected my body structure, and re-taught me how to walk. More importantly, Victor got me to lighten the fuck up. Yeah, that was relevance. No shit.
Now when I teach Aikido, I don’t care about anyone having to prove that they’re tough or strong. You have to listen to your body, and do your best. That’s all I demand in the training. Oh, and: Have fun! If it ain’t fun, then why?
When I worked on my master’s thesis, I got the vitality of relevance from my advisor Dr. Tom. Although technical and rather boring, my thesis topic was linear edge detection. In plain speak: I looked at being able to distinguish either high and low regions or dark and light regions in a picture or photo.
My research was very math intensive: sums of random variables, signal-to-noise ratios, and probabilistic distributions. Simply put: It gets complicated.
When I wrote my thesis, Dr. Tom said, “Jon, tell a story that anyone could understand.” I needed to convey the forest, not only the trees. So I constructed a story.
Imagine that there’s a picture on a blackboard: half of it is black, the other half white. Now cut out a square from another piece of paper. Slide that square over the picture. You will see one of 3 things: 1. all black; 2. all white; 3. black and white. If you see black and white, then you detected an edge.
Now imagine that the picture is blurry, i.e. the picture or TV transmission is noisy. Now, where is the edge? I passed my thesis defense. Dr. Tom was proud. So was I. I got a valuable lesson from Dr. Tom: Make it relevant for others.
Back in 1999, I traveled to Tokyo with Sensei and my good buddy Ron. We were there to attend the inauguration of the new Doshu, the Chief Instructor of the World Aikido Headquarters – Hombu Dojo. While there Ron and I took morning classes at Hombu Dojo.
In one morning class, I trained with Ozawa Sensei. I think he was an 8th-degree black belt. Sensei was about my size and built like a rock. He was about 65 or 70 years old. Sensei didn’t speak English. We practiced techniques with the attacker grabbing your wrist with either one or two hands. Sensei was so hard to move, like moving a mountain. He kept motioning me to move in certain ways. I thought, “What do you want from me?!”
The light bulb lit. I got it. Sensei was that version of me, 30 years down the road. He was showing me how to move the bigger stronger opponent being my size. He taught me to extend my feeling (ki) through my hands keeping the opponent in my center line. He showed me how to move with my body, not with my arms alone. We both trained our asses off for an hour. To this day, I’m always grateful for Sensei. He made a difference for me in creating relevance.
The Art in Mastery is a two-way street. Sensei conveys something of value. Student receives that value. For that to occur Sensei must provide the context, provide the relevance for the Student. So when Sensei’s “tree” falls in the forest the student is there to hear its sound. That also applies to life outside the Dojo, where it really counts. Amen. Amen.
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