Growth Through Subtraction

In the US, we have an independent mindset that defaults to  “Yeah, but why should I?”

Why should I obey this stupid law?

Why do I have to step back instead of sideways?

Why, when I begin a martial art, do I have to do all this bowing to everybody?

Once we are convinced why, then we want everything to become a step-by-step process. First, stand up straight. Second relax your knees and roll your hips forward. Then… add steps until the process is defined, a nice recipe. We supercharge the rational part of our engine. Knowing the how and why of any process is an intellectual bragging right.

But the zen mindsets (shoshin, zanshin, fudoshin, mushin) are mostly subtractive. Quiet that forward processor of your brain. Shut it down. How and why are important questions, and helpful in training, but we also train to let the process go and more deeply experience what is.

For example, I could write out each motion of how to do a basic throw well (I’ll return to the idea of doing a throw “well” further on). And then I could write essays to defend why each step exists. And then I could debate with others why I put steps in order ACBD and they put it in ABCD and go back and forth on the nuances of motion and sequence. Which is, I’ll say it again, a useful part of training. But it isn’t the whole of what we train.

As we test up through the kyu ranks, each test is additive, so the ten techniques on the first test will be repeated on every test in addition to new techniques. For the 5th kyu test, we encourage students to just go through the motions. Memorize a few key technical details per technique. Get the basics of how it works and don’t worry about the why.

By black belt time, there are several techniques we have demonstrated four or five times. Each test we refine those basic techniques. Students grow from “going through the motions” to one of two outcomes: “going through the motions a lot better” or “the motions are starting to arise from actual connection and leading.” Either is growth. But the first can happen through purely intellectual, cerebral understanding. The second seems to come from a different part of the brain.

Doing techniques well was a driving force for my early tests. Perform well. Aim for external technical excellence even if the aiki part is elusive. Show outward excellence.

Then I realized that drive was creating a form of tension dulling my perception and slowing my adaptiveness to feedback. So one night I consciously chose to stop doing well. Just relax my body. Let my attacker be a part of my broader peripheral vision. Then, when the attack comes, just move. Don’t do ABCD. Just move like ABCD will happen.

And aikido got easier and smoother for a while. Most throws felt better. Some were worse, but they weren’t failures because in my mind I wasn’t trying to do anything particularly well. I became more aware of my body and the attacker. What was happening rather than what I thought should happen. I thought less and perceived more.

Then my need for achievement cropped up and I trained that way again for a while.

This feedback loop is part of the reason I wrote about the zen mindsets in previous posts.  Because it was clear that the way I work, the way I have been habituated to excel, is not universal. Sometimes it isn’t even useful. There is a time to train the how-to of technical expertise and a time to train letting go. Judgements like “doing well” and “doing poorly” have to be subtracted sometimes. Empty the mind (mushin) of judgement. Let go of the “next step, next step, next step” process and experience the moment (zanshin). Let “If, then” reactions evaporate into clarity of focus in the moment (fudoshin). Delete the need to grow and experience the joy of learning (shoshin).

Subtracting “doing well” from my training was an odd decision, but aided my aikido and personal growth. Partly because it also subtracted “doing poorly.” It weakened the compulsion to avoid failure. Then it eroded the definition of failure itself. Being present without compulsion, judgement, or evaluation isn’t easy. It’s a practice.

If subtraction is something you want to try in your practice, the following mindsets have helped me.

  • I’m not going to do this exercise. This exercise will happen.
  • I’m not going to throw my partner.
  • I’m not going to reach.
  • There is no success or failure. Just experience.
  • Feel it now. Evaluate it later.

Image credits: “old tools” by lars hammar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | Featured image from Spinster Cardigan CC BY 2.0