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
Study of method by itself is always barren.... 
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
But perfecting the shaping process is not my objective. A serviceable
form, successful in application -- solving the problem is where I want
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
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
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
Rigid tradition and immediate action may seem contradictory. But
it is the very contrast between these two which makes the process
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
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
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
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
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.
 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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