View Full Version : Article: The Triangular Base of Training: Wisdom, Humility, and Self-doubt by "The Grindstone"

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02-21-2006, 12:19 PM
Discuss the article, "The Triangular Base of Training: Wisdom, Humility, and Self-doubt" by "The Grindstone" here.

Article URL: http://www.aikiweb.com/columns/thegrindstone/2006_02.html

John Brockington
02-22-2006, 01:11 PM
Sensei Valadez
Thank you very much for writing this article, which so thoroughly elucidates the issue of self-evaluation in training and, really, in living. This is a matter which I feel is very much neglected in our society, which tends to place more emphasis on self-esteem than on self-evaluation, and in which the wants of the individual now supercede what is best for the individual and the larger group. In fact, I truly feel this is one of the biggest problems we all face. Unfortunately, the resistance to self-criticism has become institutionalized, and the individual is now beyond all criticism. This is evident in our educational system, businesses, and friendships, so why should we bother to criticize ourselves? People used to make "mistakes", but now we have "miscommunications." Accountability to others is no longer required, so why should we be accountable to ourselves? To compound the problem, the process of self-doubt or self-evaluation that you discuss is often painful and time consuming, not easy for anyone really, and certainly not a favorite activity in a culture where pain is anathema and the concept of taking a long time to do anything is regarded with suspicion or derision. I think this is seen in aikido as well, with some individuals expecting an extraordinary level of ability or accomplishment without being willing to invest the twenty years to get there. I really do not have much hope for this all to change, given these obstacles. But then, it's not for me to change anyone other than myself. Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts which have helped me with my thoughts.


02-22-2006, 05:16 PM

Thanks so much for this great reply. However, please call me "Dave." :-)

With your permission, I would like to share what you have written here with my students. Would you mind if I copy it and paste it in an email with your name attached to it, etc.?

I'm out the door now - so I'll have to write more later - just wanted to say "thanks" here and to also ask your permission to share your keen insight with others I care about. It's that I think you said more than I said - that you said what should also be said. Please let me know if it would be okay to do so.

Take care,

John Brockington
02-23-2006, 10:14 AM
Please feel free to use anything I wrote in any context that you choose. I hope my response doesn't come across as too judgemental, but your article quite clearly expressed some things I have been thinking and worrying about for some time, and I wanted to let you know that.


02-24-2006, 01:31 PM

No, not at all - your response came across as deeply reflective. I'm sorry, but I am off for the weekend - I'll have to write more when I return.

Take care, thanks for the permission,

02-24-2006, 07:26 PM
I was startled by this article and the response to it, because I feel--and I don't mean this as a criticism--that I live in an internal world totally different from the author's.

For most of my life the biggest barrier that prevents me from acting wisely has not been too much self-certainty and immunity to doubt, but too much self-doubt and vulnerability to outside pressure. I meet many women, and some men, who seem to be in the same situation.

As a result my immediate reaction to the essay was pain and anger: yet another person adding ammunition to the lifelong internal assault by guilt and feelings of inadequacy. I don't think this is the author's fault, in that the people who act as he describes--too self-assured, never considering whether they are doing the right thing--do exist and do need to be addressed. But perhaps there is some way to mark that the message, while general, is not meant to be universal?

The specific example of being asked by one's sensei to train longer hours particularly struck me. In my life, as in the lives of many Americans, there is continual outside pressure to do more of many different activities--train longer hours, spend more time on my career, contribute more to community activities, become more involved with politics, spend more time cultivating my spirituality, take better care of my house, yard, local parks, relationships.... Yes, each and every outside request/demand can be met by careful soul-searching about whether this is in fact possible or desirable. But it seems quite easy to let one's life be driven, and eventually destroyed, by outside demands if they are not balanced by some inward judgement about what is really important and, equally, what is really possible. The sum total of requests coming at me for my time certainly exceeds 24 hours in each day, probably by a factor of ten. Someone must make hard choices about which demands are to be honored and which are to be rejected.

Certainly my sensei has some claim to be the one making such decisions. Equally, so does my spiritual leader, my employer, and my spouse. But I am the only one in position to know how much each of them is asking and whether, in toto, it exceeds what I have to give. So, unless I am to abandon all but one such master, I need to be able to make those decisions *myself*. And, unless I am to live in misery, I have to make decisions with which I can be at peace.

At this point my interior accuser is already saying, "Look, you're just making excuses--you're just lazy--you could do it if you worked harder and gave up some of the time you selfishly spend on yourself--other people work so much harder than you" etc. etc. But that kind of interior accuser is not useful self-doubt, it's a demon--it can never be satiated, because no matter what you do there are always people eager to tell you that you ought to be doing more, and the accuser picks up their words and turns them into interior torments.

I guess what I am coming down to is that I think any advice to cultivate self-doubt and listen to the challenges of others needs to be balanced, for sanity and happiness, with advice to cultivate interior wisdom and the ability to make one's own decisions and be content with them. The condition of being utterly without self-criticism is ugly, to be sure, but the other extreme of being constantly racked by it and unable to find peace is also ugly. And I emphatically do not believe that aikido society, or American society in general, is all one and none of the other.

Mary Kaye

02-28-2006, 07:50 PM
Hi Mary,

I would have to say that I agree with you – that may surprise you since your reply sort of presents itself as a contrasting point of view to the article. I feel there was one section in particular where I addressed the issues you raised, and, like you, I think one would be doing themselves a great disservice to not take heed of what was said there. In that section, I wrote:

“On the other hand, when we are trapped by our ego, and when we hear of all we can be doing, or of others that are doing more than us but that are saying that they are not doing enough, etc., we bounce back and forth between despair and being over-zealous. This works as follows: A teacher tells us we can always do more, and then we feel like we are not doing enough and that we will never be able to do enough -- and then we quit. Alternately, a teacher tells us we can always do more, and then we feel like we are not doing enough, and then we go on to sacrifice the whole of our lives, abandoning the more mature states of harmony and integration for the supposed sake of doing more. Then we quit when the effects of lacking harmony and integration come and hit us in the face.”

For me there are two spectrums at work here – two ways of relating to our training. First, there is the one where we bounce back and forth between despair and over-zealousness. On this spectrum, we wrongly believe that our solution is to find the happy middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. We use our suffering and our capacity for suffering as calibration tools to determine whether we are taking on too much or whether we can take on more, etc. We wrongly believe that when we find this happy middle – that utopia between despair and over-zealousness - we will have learned how to gain the virtues of harmony and integration. We wrongly believe that the middle of any two things is balance and that such balance has to be considered harmony a priori. In our ignorance, we go on to believe that this false harmony is our chance for integration. In fact, none of this is true. People who bounce back and forth between despair and over-zealousness are people that train mostly out of convenience – not out of true discipline. When the convenience wears out, all people that train bouncing back and forth between despair and over-zealousness quit.

In my opinion, we should try to understand that the virtues of harmony and integration are not located in the middle between despair and over-zealousness. Harmony and integration are of their own spectrum entirely – we are talking about a completely different arena for how to relate to our training when we are talking about harmony and integration. Harmony and integration are not the middle of despair and over-zealousness. They are not of the same nature, not of the same essence, not of the same state of being. This is because despair and over-zealousness are of the ego, of a lack of humility and of a lack of self-doubt – all things that are antithetical to harmony and integration. Despair and over-zealousness is our fear, our pride, and our ignorance making us take stabs in the dark. Despair and over-zealousness are reactionary states of being – they are not mature states of the spirit. Such reactionary states of being can never lead to anything but suffering – even if they “succeed” initially or here or there at some level superficial level. On this, I would say you are very correct in pointing out such pitfalls.

However, I would have to say that we part in our positions when, if I am reading you correctly, you suggest that the capacity for self-doubt is, first, somewhat damaging to the Self, and, second, is identical with what is normally thought of as a lack of confidence, a severe case of timidity, low self-esteem, and/or low self-worth, etc. Equally then, I cannot agree with a position that sees the solution to such things as being, “Don’t go doubting yourself if you know what’s good for you.” (my paraphrase)

On the first point, one can read that I noted that what one doubts with self-doubt is not the Self but the ego. Self-doubt is aimed at those parts of us that are the most habitual, the most reactionary (e.g. despair/over-zealousness), because it is those aspects of ourselves which we are the most unaware of precisely because these are the aspects we put most beyond question. On the second point, I think there is a world of difference between what a spiritual practitioner does with self-doubt, humility, self-reflection, self-criticism, and what, for example, little Johnny is doing in the seventh-grade when his pimply face makes him not want to ask anyone to dance – staying by the wall, in the dark, feeling unworthy, etc. The difference here is a matter of ego-attachment (or lack thereof in the case of the spiritual practitioner). In fact, from a spiritual point of view (i.e. from the point of view of many of the world’s spiritual traditions), there is no difference between what little Johnny is doing and what, as another example, sport-jock Biff does when he beats up little Johnny to feel better about himself. Both behaviors are plagued by ego attachment, and thus by fear, pride, and ignorance. Both behaviors are reactionary. Both behaviors prevent one from gaining harmony and integration – this time between oneself and one’s environment. Both reactions then are solved not by trying not to doubt oneself but rather by gaining some distance from one’s ego-based reactions – distance that comes to us through humility, which comes to us through practices like self-doubt, self-criticism, self-reflection, etc. I think this is easy to understand – all these connections - when we are dealing with the case of Biff, but as subtle as the case of Johnny may be, it is not solved by telling him to stop doubting himself and/to get a spine. Getting a spine in this case would only be more reaction. Rather, what may really serve Johnny well is to ask him to reflect further, to doubt, to be critical of his notion that his reaction to his appearance is “natural,” “inevitable,” “the only one he can have,” “reasonable,” etc. In a spiritual tradition, what Johnny is being asked to doubt is his notion that he has little self-worth and that he belongs in a dark corner at the dance, etc. He is not being asked to have others think for him - he's already doing that! So that he can think for himself, so that he can have his own mind, one not so plagued by habit and reaction, Johnny is being asked to see that if he allows himself to be taken in completely by his own disguise, that he cannot help but to be wrong about who he really is.

I’d also like to say here that John has spoken most eloquently on other matters that I also think are relative here – namely our culture’s great efforts to do away with the practice of self-doubt for our own “good.”


Amelia Smith
03-01-2006, 07:09 AM
My feelings about the article were similar to Mary Kaye's reaction. I felt that it was not written for people like me, that it presupposes a strong ego and a certain amount of self-confidence.

While I agree with David's position that self doubt in the spiritual sense is not equal to insecurity, and that a weak ego is still an ego, I still think there's something missing here. To me, some sense of self or ego is necessary to function in the world, and the spiritual goal is not so much destruction of that ego as non-attachment to that outer self. In order to attain that non-attachment, you need to be starting from a reasonably healthy ego. False self-confidence and over-zealous self-flaggelation are both products of insecurity, and self-doubt is not necessarily the first and only perscription for letting go of ego-attachment.

Am I making any sense here? What I'm trying to say is that for a lot of us, especially women, becoming more self-confident is a better step towards letting go of ego attachment than indulging in "self-doubt" which re-enforces that ego's predisposition towards self-criticism, thereby making the ego more firmly entrenched. I don't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual practice -- that's why the world's great religions have depth and complexity, they have grown to be able to take in and address the needs of different kinds of people at different life stages.

But I digress.


03-01-2006, 08:55 AM
To me, some sense of self or ego is necessary to function in the world, and the spiritual goal is not so much destruction of that ego as non-attachment to that outer self.

What I'm trying to say is that for a lot of us, especially women, becoming more self-confident is a better step towards letting go of ego attachment than indulging in "self-doubt"

I'd agree with this for everyone (not just for women). I think getting rid of ego is also getting rid of false modesty. No-one knows everything (or even anything!) If we have no ego, we should be able to recognise that we may be wrong and also to recognise that others may be equally wrong. Thus it is more of a 'whole human family' attitude rather than them deffering to us, or us deffering to them. Being without an ego I believe is very different from sacrificing aspects of yourself to please or help others, or of doing everything for yourself. There is a happy 'medium' that a psychologically healthy mind can reach, but really it is not a medium, it is just seperate and unrelated to the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness.

Most of us want to love and to feel loved, that's pretty natural to me. When the balance is upset in either way it is not good for us (we become bitter, or we become nasty). Not sure if this really conflicts with the original thesis though.

03-01-2006, 10:35 AM
... the spiritual goal is not so much destruction of that ego as non-attachment to that outer self.

This is what the article suggests quite clearly. If there is a difference between what I have said and what you are saying the difference is that you'd like to call that "inner self" (what I called the "Self") the "ego." Either way, it is that attachment to the "outer self" (which I have summarized as our fears, our prides, our ignorance) that is the issue here - an issue solved by things like self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-reflection.

With so many “non-reinterpretations” of the article, again, I think John's points are very relevant here. We as a culture just do not like or trust these ancient tools of self-cultivation. The thing to do then is not to find away around such tools but to first seriously ask, "Are we avoiding these tools because of how deep-seated our ego-attachment (using my term) has become or have we really come to prove that they are useless, not necessary, damaging, etc.?"

Let us face it, there is indeed an underlying issue at work here. It is like when George wrote his piece - the one linked at the top of the article - and all sorts of folks wanted to write in and ask (in one form or another), "Well, I am not doing what you have described as ‘real Aikido,’ I am only doing this, but is not my Aikido still real?” In other words, folks are reacting to the piece and they are reacting to it because they are being taken out of their “comfort zone.” Here, we want to say true humility is possible, and that one can gain a distance from his/her ego attachment, etc., but we also want to say that we can do these things just like we are - with all of our ego (outer self) attachments and with our fears toward things like self-doubt, etc. Something has to click here or we are not even going to get enough distance from our outer self to realize we are asking to see our status quo behavior as spiritual behavior.

We want Johnny to be able to ask, “Well, can’t I just develop a strong sense of ego, such that I just come to ignore how I think others are thinking of me – a ‘I just don’t give a crap about what you say Biff’ kind of attitude – and have that be a spiritual cultivation of the Self?” Things do not work like this, which is why any mentor is going to say, “In seeking to adopt that attitude you are only feigning non-attachment – your false apathy is reactionary. In seeking to not give a crap about what Biff says, you are giving a crap about what Biff says. You are still attached to your outer self – your pride as it is concerned with how you compare superficially with others, your fear as it is concerned with your pride to come out higher in such comparisons, and your ignorance as it is concerned with believing your pride and fear to be of wisdom.”

I think it is easy to just go with our culture's tendencies (as John has described), to go with our fears, and suggest that we NEED such attachments and such fears, that we will cease to exist without such things, etc. From that point of view, we come to mix things with our common sense (e.g. Not one shoe fits all.), and eventually we no longer realize that we are still acting in reaction to our fears and/or via our ego ("outer self") attachments. At that point, we easily make statements whose sole purpose is to make room for our own status-quo - to find a way of having us be "legitimate" though we are clearly acting contrarily to the whole. For example, I think we have to understand the above statement about religions in this manner - because, in fact, one would be very hard-pressed to find any spiritual tradition that claims that distance from one's attachments to one's outer self does not begin with self-doubt (in all cases). I think the only kind of tradition that might say such a thing is going to be some of the newer one's, the one's that our born of reaction to our own culture's fears, the one's of or influenced by the New Age movement (for example).

Self-doubt requires a inner kind of confidence. This is true. This is why humility brings it own kind of power to our lives. Humility, true humility, is like true pacifism – in that it can only be employed from a position of strength. It is true that the spiritual tool of self-doubt is quite different from timidity, etc. We all can understand this, I feel. However, then, let us not jump from the position that us timid folks, people not capable of developing the kind of strength that supports true humility, we who are lacking in inner confidence, can gain such spiritual virtues before we solve such frailty issues. Let us not say, “Because you have a frail sense of self, you can gain distance from your attachments to your outer self by developing a stronger sense of that outer self.”

The work of cultivating humility is the work of cultivating humility, and thus such timidity issues are not a “move straight to humility” card we play at the end of a game. Rather, such issues become part of the entire process of cultivating humility. In reconciling those issues, in my opinion, one is not going to want to build up an even greater sense of ego, because one is then only setting out to do more work in the end – a work they may then not be able to finish as the outer self becomes more and more repulsed by tools like self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-reflection. Rather, one should realize that the tool of self-doubt is already working when it brings to light the fears that one is attached to – when one feels that in their timidity to doubt the outer self is to lose all hope.