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Home > Columns > Paul Schweer > July, 2006 - Innocence and Analysis

Innocence and Analysis by Paul Schweer

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Keep showing up.

I've been saying that a lot lately at the dojo. I say it to beginners. I say it to myself. I say it to people who, mistaking me for someone who might know, ask me how they can get better. It's not their fault. They know I was there before they began, they figure I must know something. And I guess, if pressed, I'll admit I do. I know how to keep showing up. So far.

But I'll also admit to doing something else. I just won't tell what that something is.

Not trying to be contrary. Truth is, I don't know how to explain it. Which probably means I don't understand it. This is discouraging to admit. How can I be sure I'm doing what I think I'm doing if I don't understand what I'm trying to do? (I suspect questions like that are the origin of classic comments like 'shut up and train'.) Guess I could just go brain dead, hoping to get something worthwhile beaten into me. But I won't. I'm a little too contrary.

Just show up? Well, yeah. But then what?

What follows is an attempt to answer, and an exercise in asking questions.


Study of method by itself is always barren.... [1]

I assume we practice for a reason. I don't think we have to agree what aikido is, or what it could be, or what one's purpose should be in practicing, but I assume there is one. I propose we think of that reason as a problem-to-solve (the need for self-defense, the need for exercise, the need for enlightenment, etc.) and aikido the form we shape to solve it. It is the shaping of the form I want to talk about.

But perfecting the shaping process is not my objective. A serviceable form, successful in application -- solving the problem is where I want to go.

By leaning on correctness, it was possible to alleviate the burden of decision. To make the secession from responsibility effective, the copy had to be exact.

There aren't many students who, when presented with an exercise to repeat, refrain from judging the exercise's usefulness. So while it might often be best for the student to simply perform the exercise without analysis, it seems naive to assume this will happen. But 'innocent' (for lack of a better word) practice, exercise without analysis, is tempting. Especially when working with intuition.

Is practice the reshaping of intuition, an attempt to train our reactions to certain stimuli? I hope so, because I expect limited time and opportunity for thought during application. What role does intuition have in practice? Maybe it would be best for students to always just be in the practice, immersed in the problem-to-solve modeled by the class, understanding intuitively from whatever feedback how to adjust or shape their form; but wouldn't that require an innocence we don't have?

I don't expect strict disciplined analysis to produce stiff inflexible form; I expect from analysis, if grounded in purpose, increased opportunity for success. Analysis facilitates more efficient practice, allowing a better understanding of what is being practiced and explicit exclusion of what is not. Analysis is also capable of describing an innocent approach to practice, including a comparison of merit between innocent and analytical alternatives.

An analytical approach to practice is easy to criticize since the basic assumptions are openly admitted and recognized. This seems a likely challenge to the teacher, but is more a question for students. It is up to the students in the end. Students are always free to think critically, even if not free to talk about it -- should a student ever act mindlessly? One cannot escape responsibility by conforming to a style's technique or an organization's ritual.

At what point should one begin to seek more than the repetition and reproduction of technique? Does technical dogma prevent constructive criticism? Is the favoring of reproduction over investigation a means of avoiding difficult responsibility?

We should always expect to see the process of achieving good fit between two entities as a negative process of neutralizing the incongruities....

I suggested that we see our reason for training as a problem to solve. (I gave 'the need for self-defense' as one possible example.) I also suggested we see aikido as our attempt to solve the problem, and used the word 'form'. If the problem-to-solve is the form's context, we would expect to recognize good form as one that fits the context.

But what does 'fit' mean? Effortless application? Contact without friction? We know it when we see it? Maybe, but it might be easier to define misfit. A misfit is a single failure, relatively easy to describe and recognize when it happens. A list of misfits is concrete and recognizable; a description of fit is not. I may be able to reproduce or illustrate a given misfit. Given a misfit, I may be able to make an adjustment to eliminate it. I cannot wholly illustrate fit, or perfect it with a single adjustment. Might fit be approached by the gradual removal of misfits?

Context is the one in charge. There wouldn't be a need for form without context. Form is shaped to fit the context; form isn't available until it is shaped. Can form be described independent of context? If we lack understanding of context while attempting to develop form, how can we hope for fit? Isn't a context-oriented approach required for clarity, both in the form and its development?

When having difficulty it's tempting to expand the context, but its decomposition might prove more productive. If our goal is the removal of misfits, and we can recognize one misfit, that piece of the puzzle can be repaired to the betterment of the whole. This can be repeated for any identifiable part, from small individual elements to large sets of related elements. Fit for the whole can be approached by breaking the context into parts, testing the form against a set of parts, observing and correcting misfits. Understanding context makes this possible; breaking down the context begins the process.

Testing the form is an experiment easier to understand with small parts of the context, or a model of parts. (A complete model may be possible in some cases, but the context in such a case presents no problem to solve.) A model of a subset of context also models a corresponding form. Understanding context and shaping form are the same process.

Rigid tradition and immediate action may seem contradictory. But it is the very contrast between these two which makes the process self-adjusting.

I asked if practice not based on analysis, but rather reproduction and repetition, required an innocence we don't have. A better question might be, does the nature of our practice require shifting between innocence and analysis? Given an exercise, how can we fully invest in its execution while critiquing it? Don't we need to set aside doubt to fully benefit? If innocence is unavailable, can we substitute faith?

A student able to operate in the innocent mode submerges into the exercise. There is a right way to do it. One way, accepted without question. Changes to the exercise are strongly resisted. The exercise is simply repeated, and any words spoken play no important part. Misfit and correction happen together, with no argument or delay separating them. Correction is immediate, and faith in the exercise prevents change beyond that required by the specific misfit. Instances of fit provide no incentive for change. Given enough time and repetition the process is self-correcting, resulting in good fitting form.

The student in the innocent mode is required only to recognize misfit when it happens, and react to it. This is something we can all do, looking not to create but discover, eliminating misfits as we find them, one at a time. We can leave creation to the genius, summon sufficient faith through analysis, and fully invest in reproducing the creation; working on misfits as we recognize them (We're all able to critique our own execution. Hard not to, in fact. Are we disciplined, focused enough to work on only one misfit at a time? Without shifting gears, questioning the exercise, expanding the context, abandoning the innocent mode?), making a change. Doesn't need to be a good change, since the process allows only fit to survive, given that a misfit motivates the student to make some -- any -- change. The resulting form is not the work of one person. Success depends on the students' participation in the process, not their creativity.

This is a promising mode of practice, most easily entered through innocence, but one we can adopt by faith through analysis.

Caught in a net of language of our own invention, we overestimate the language's impartiality. Each concept, at the time of its invention no more than a concise way of grasping many issues, quickly becomes a precept.

Is analysis only a means to an end, a way to adopt a state of mind and mode of practice not otherwise available? What might we expect from practice that does not aspire to adopt, when appropriate, an innocent mode?

Resistance to change weakens. Change is no longer restricted to correction of a specific misfit, and numerous simultaneous changes interact. Form becomes less a constant and more the work of a single student. Desire for individual artistry, self-expression, and escape from tradition increase; but these aspirations are severely limited by a creative capacity too slight for the context.

The student may try to organize the problem, putting parts into categories. This organization becomes a burden of thought requiring constant decision making. The burden is made lighter by creating rules, partial relief from the weight of responsibility. Defense of the rules becomes important, and disregard of forms not compatible with the rules becomes likely; but misfits, too numerous and complex for the innocent to grasp except through extensive experience, may now be understood using categories and rules. These constructs are put into words, necessary for relating the rules, but not necessarily relating well to the nature of the problem. The words used were created by forces that gave us language, not by forces related to the problem, and describe well, at best, only a few examples that illustrate the actual problem. The problem's full complexity is never appreciated, and the resulting form lacks meaningful connection to its context. Rules easiest to express in words are given greater weight; facts not easily expressed are neglected. The rules, then, become law, difficult to escape and impeding recognition of and response to misfit. Recognition is eventually reserved for the degree of conformation to or deviation from the rules, and desire and capacity for a full understanding of the problem are lost.

We want our form to fit the context. An innocent approach to practice, which might be best, is unavailable. An innocent mode, adopted by faith through analysis, is attractive; but analysis conspires with time to prevent full discovery of context and recognition of fit. Analysis gives us an idea to work from; the idea is probably wrong.

Every component has this twofold nature: it is first a unit, and second a pattern, both a pattern and a unit. Its nature as a unit makes it an entity distinct from its surroundings. Its nature as a pattern specifies the arrangement of its own component units.

So we do our best, admitting we and our methods are imperfect. We operate in both analytical and innocent mode in turn, understanding the distinction is artificial, recognizing one to be unavailable and the other counterproductive. Our unexpressed and unorganized, sometimes subconscious, subjective mental picture of the actual world is the starting point; we build from the mental picture, using a process full of pitfalls, a formal picture from which to work.

Form can be discovered as a whole made of components. Each component a single self-contained element; each component a whole made of smaller elements. Smaller elements made of components that are, in fact, sets of even smaller elements. We begin by breaking up the context, recognizing elements, and arranging them in sets. Elements in a set may be various as seems appropriate, may or may not relate to one another, and need not be restricted to those we can describe. Sets are organized hierarchically, and understood to be components of the resulting whole.

Component testing should be specific, addressing only its elements; all circumstances potentially relevant to the component's elements should be modeled, irrelevant circumstances excluded. When there is confidence in the test's execution, misfits are noted as reflecting on the organized whole. Does each component stand on its own? Does the whole minimize misfits?

The process is then repeated, breaking down the context again but differently because of lessons learned, and building a different organized whole. Testing again, evaluating again. Progress is made as the organized whole, a formal picture from which to work, moves nearer to matching the actual world.

How quickly we progress is a function of our ability to recognize patterns, an ability unavailable without a willingness to adjust opinion. Application of a favorite solution to a problem differs critically from problem solving.


[1] Any text that appears in italics is a quote from Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. This column is, more than anything else, a book report. The ideas are not mine, but rather my understanding of Alexander and my aikido practice.

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