108) The Dojo Environment: September 2013
I may be the owner/operator of the business enterprise named Aikido Arts of Shin-Budo Kai, but in reality, it is not just my dojo. I have always referred to this dojo as belonging to all of the teachers and students. This is a very important idea for people to consider when choosing to train at a particular school. The head of a school may set and enforce a set of rules and regulations, but that responsibility does not mean that this person is wholly responsible for everything that goes on at a dojo. Each and every person who trains in, and teaches at the dojo contributes to the continual creation of, and maintenance of the dojo environment. One of the hardest, unspoken tasks of the head of a school is to see to it that this ever-changing environment is a safe and fulfilling training experience for the dojo (as opposed to each and every person).
We have a tendency to recreate our “personal world” where ever we go. This is a generalized habit that not enough people pay attention to. By not paying attention to this tendency, people tend to leave one place, in hopes of “starting anew” and then recreate their environment in another place. We can gain a lot of control over how we live our lives, by simply paying careful attention to how we recreate our “personal world” in the world around us. If we are aware of this pattern, we can take serious ownership to this pattern and begin the process of making changes in what we create around us.
This pattern of recreating our experiences in a dojo can create difficulties in the overall functionality of a dojo environment. The study of martial arts is a study of managing interpersonal conflict. The arena of interpersonal conflict management is difficult for most people to navigate in their daily relationships, let alone in a dojo environment with many people and many different interpersonal patterns. Dysfunctional patterns of handling anger, fear, anxiety, and trust issues create real difficulties for students and teachers to manage. The dojo environment becomes a crucible for people to learn how to mange these complex, deep-seated issues. If people do not manage these experiences carefully, people stand a real risk of being hurt (emotionally and physically) while training in a school. My many years in martial arts have exposed me to both the successes and failures in my own handling of these issues, along with witnessing the successes and failures of others as well. These life experiences, along with the knowledge that I have gained in my many years of work as a psychologist, have led me to be quite overt in how I oversee and manage these issues as they emerge in our school. I will try a categorize some of the areas that I look at when managing our dojo.
The Physical Space: I worked hard to create a physical training space that encourages students and teachers to look beyond the physical aspects of what we are doing. In my dojo rules, I talk directly about the students role in maintaining this space. I recognize that the upkeep of the environment waxes and wanes. It is not uncommon for some event in the dojo to spark some self-reflection of the space that people train in (internal and external), which then gets reflected back into how people care for the space. I was very happy to see that this issue was recently reflected in some communications between the students in our school. Many years ago, Imaizumi Sensei wrote about the spiritual practice of cleaning the dojo. Cleaning one’s internal and external space, in order to train at high levels, is an important consideration. When students do this, they are assuming real personal responsibility for control these aspects of their environment, which commonly leads to serious growth in the student.
Internal Space: I wrote a blog several years ago in regards to checking one’s ego in at the door when entering the dojo. People should re-read that blog. It is very important that we see to it that we manage our personal space carefully when we are in the dojo. None of us walk into the dojo always in the best of mental spaces. That being said, we are still wholly responsible for our own mental space and how we manage that mental space when we are in the dojo. The dojo can be a wonderful place to get rid of a bad day (week, month, year,….). The dojo is not a wonderful place for someone to dump one’s negativity onto the other members of a dojo. If you cannot learn how to manage your negativity, do not be surprised when you find yourself having a difficult time with your training partners. If you do not figure this out quickly enough, you should not be surprised when I begin to intervene. I am primarily concerned with protecting the best interests of the dojo, not any one particular member over another. A person may be a good person, but simply does not seem to find a way to function effectively within the dojo at large. Most people change dojos when they find that they are not comfortable with the fit. If the person does not recognize this pattern developing, I will point that out and give a person the opportunity to change in order to remain at the dojo. If a person simply cannot make things work for him/herself and the other students, I will be forced to ask a person to leave. The older students know that several years ago, one of my first students had to leave (this person’s choice- because this person refused to claim ownership for the problem and make the necessary changes). The bottom line is that personal ownership is a critical part of maintaining your personal space in a dojo. The higher your rank, the more challenging the training, necessitating genuine, personal ownership of your personal space.
Interpersonal Space: We live in a world inhabited by other occupants (whether we like it or not). We cannot expect to always interact perfectly with those around us. When those interactions do not go so well, conflicts tend to occur. Martial arts training BEGINS with the assumption that you are having to address a conflict with another person (or more). In order to learn how to “play better” in this arena, you NEED to TRUST your training partners. By this, I mean that you need to trust that no one in the dojo will intentionally try and harm/hurt you. Inadvertent accidents do happen, but that does not equate to the act of intentionally harming/hurting another person. That means that each teacher and student needs to be in control on him/herself when interacting with the other members of the dojo. That means being in control of your thoughts, feeling, and actions. Students and teachers need to be able to communicate effectively and respectfully with their fellow students. Students and teachers need to be open to genuinely listen to any and all feedback, regardless of how positive or negative it may seem to us. If the teachers (that means Ukes and instructors) are always trying to accurately gauge the level of the student in order to keep the student on the successful side of the edge of success and failure, then everybody is bound to experience failures, frustrations and negativity. None of us are perfect and none of us act perfectly all of the time. When the negativity exists, the real challenge is to look for the wisdom contained within the negativity that can help us better manage that physical, personal and interpersonal space that we find ourselves in.
Training in a dojo affords us the opportunity to explore the physical, personal, and interpersonal space that emerges when we are confronted with a conflict. This “opportunity” places a lot of personal responsibility on each and every member of the dojo. We are fortunate to have a dojo with caring, idiosyncratic, good people. I personally trust each and every member in this dojo. We all have days that are better than others, and we all sometimes bring “stuff” to the dojo that would have best been left outside. None of us are perfect and all of us are dedicated to improving ourselves through our practice at this dojo. As long as these conditions exist, we all are afforded the opportunity to better ourselves in our training at this dojo. When these conditions falter, we all should endeavor to support each other in finding a way back to creating the best training environment possible. When we are not able to do so, and the safety and well-being of the dojo at large is jeopardized, I will act with the best intentions to see to it that our dojo remains a place where we all can benefit.
August was the first of three months in which I will be away from the dojo for ten day periods. Senior students have had to, and will continue to run the school in my absence. The teaching experiences give students a real appreciation of what it means to keep our dojo as a place of training excellence. The issues related to maintaining this training atmosphere only serves to better all of us. This month’s blog should hopefully make all of us more cognizant of the role that each one of us plays in creating and sustaining such a wonderful dojo.
Marc Abrams Sensei