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The Liberating Power of Doubt
by The Mirror
11-30-2015
The Liberating Power of Doubt

This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2015, all rights reserved.
I don't know how to write this column. The first couple of drafts … bleh. Too preachy, too much false certainty when doubt is the whole point.

I know where I'm going, I think. I want to talk about beginner's mind, and achieving it when one is no longer a beginner. But how to start?

I tried the meta-discussion, about how language obscures as much as it reveals and sometimes seeing something as a big capital letter Concept just adds complexity. That approach stumbled into the weeds pretty quickly.

And I tried listing all of the opportunities that open up if you're willing to say, "I don't know." That was better, but about three paragraphs in I realized I sounded so sanctimonious and preachy I was making myself ill.

I'm a professional writer. I'm supposed to be able to toss off a column like this in my sleep, and here I am surrounded by crumpled paper. (Yes, I'm old school.) At least if I really were a beginner, I'd have an excuse.

That's the problem with beginner's mind, isn't it? That nagging voice that says, "I'm supposed to know this." Even if something is demonstrably not working, even if your practice partners are laughing good-naturedly at each successive failure, the ego still wants to say, "Leave me alone. I've got this."

No, I don't, but it's okay. I don't know how to write this column, but I know how to put one sentence in front of the next and eventually get to something worth revising. I don't know how to execute a particular technique, but maybe if I slide a foot here and rotate my core a little there I can float my partner off his base and get him moving again.

Or maybe he knows what I'm doing wrong? Maybe if I ask what he's feeling?

Now we're getting somewhere. "I'm a little stuck here. How does the right side feel different from the left?" "I'm not sure why this isn't working. What does it feel like to you?"

Or even, "Sensei, I'm getting stuck and I'm not sure why."

This asking questions bit is pretty magical, really. It even works if you're teaching the class. "What would everyone like to work on this evening?" "I don't know what happens if you do that, let's try it and see." "I'm not sure what that guest instructor meant, either. Let's look at it together."

As a writer, I never have to show anyone my early drafts. On the other hand, editors can't offer suggestions if they don't see what I'm trying to do. For martial artists, though, our mistakes are out there for our partners and teachers to see. They can probably see things we can't, if we're willing to listen.

It's an iterative process, a successive approximation. We all start, as beginners, by just trying to learn the geometry of each technique. Over the years, the approximation becomes more and more refined, closer and closer to the ideal. Yet the ideal is always changing, too. Our partners become more skilled. Our goals become more subtle. Our understanding of what our teachers are doing becomes more complete. We become more able to appreciate a change in angle here, a release of tension there. "I don't know" is the magic phrase that opens up more layers, more nuances.

I still don't know how to write this column, but I think this draft is one that I'm willing to share. If I keep practicing, keep making adjustments, maybe I'll have a better version further down the road.
"The Mirror" is written by a roster of women who describe themselves as a disparate bunch of scientists, healers, artists, teachers, and, yes, writers. Over ten years into this collaboration we find we are a bunch of middle-aged yudansha from various parts of the world and styles of aikido. What we share is a lively curiosity about and love for both life and budo, and an inveterate tendency to write about our explorations.
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Old 11-30-2015, 09:53 PM   #2
Janet Rosen
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

This is the best thing I've ever read about "beginner's mind" and I enjoyed every word too!

Janet Rosen
http://www.zanshinart.com
"peace will enter when hate is gone"--percy mayfield
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Old 12-01-2015, 01:10 PM   #3
Susan Dalton
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Great column, Katherine!
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Old 12-02-2015, 10:36 AM   #4
Scott Harrington
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Ratio of 16 words per "I" - how many doubts per waza? Perhaps, Just do it.

Trust the technique.

Scott Harrington
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Old 12-03-2015, 09:04 AM   #5
Janet Rosen
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Quote:
Scott Harrington wrote: View Post
Ratio of 16 words per "I" - how many doubts per waza? Perhaps, Just do it.

Trust the technique.

Scott Harrington
Personally, I find examining the process more valuable as a learning tool than trusting the technique but YMMV.

Janet Rosen
http://www.zanshinart.com
"peace will enter when hate is gone"--percy mayfield
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Old 12-04-2015, 12:39 AM   #6
kewms
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Quote:
Scott Harrington wrote: View Post
Ratio of 16 words per "I" - how many doubts per waza? Perhaps, Just do it.

Trust the technique.
And when the technique proves itself untrustworthy?

"Just do it" is a great slogan. It even has some validity: don't overthink, be in the moment. Sure, I get that.

But it's a terrible teaching tool. "Just do it" is a great way to still be doing "it" the same way in five months or five years.

Katherine
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Old 12-04-2015, 01:31 AM   #7
Carsten Möllering
 
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Quote:
Katherine Derbyshire wrote: View Post
Quote:
Scott Harrington wrote: View Post
Trust the technique.
And when the technique proves itself untrustworthy?
Are you talking about THE technique the or about YOUR technique?

It is my experience that if THE technique proves itself untrustworthy it is time to change your teacher.

For me it would be a completely new way of thinking not be quided by thrusting THE technique, because I think - and think to have experienced - this confidence and comittment is the very only learning tool we have.
I think, keiko is all about getting nearer to THE technique step by step. Never really getting it, but coming nearer and nearer ...
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Old 12-04-2015, 10:48 AM   #8
kewms
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

I don't think any of us ever achieves the Platonic Ideal technique. I can only evaluate the technique that I am capable of executing in the moment.

Which, in my experience, can diverge quite significantly from the Platonic Ideal.

Katherine
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Old 12-05-2015, 08:29 AM   #9
Susan Dalton
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

I think, too, as we put in more years of practice and our techniques evolve, our eyes change. I remember watching a 4th kyu's test, thinking he was amazing, and being quite certain I could never do what he was doing. If I saw that same test today, no doubt I would see it very differently.
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Old 12-05-2015, 08:43 AM   #10
Susan Dalton
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Another point--as we get more secure in our practice, we are more willing to exhibit doubt. As a new shodan, I wasn't sure I knew what I was doing when I occasionally taught. A visiting student coming in and doubting my way of doing a technique discombobulated me. Oh no--I was letting down my teacher, my style, myself!! I wouldn't react that way now. Too, there are respectful ways and disrespectful ways to discuss doubt, especially if the doubt is not in one's own technique but in someone else's.
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Old 12-15-2015, 05:43 PM   #11
R.A. Robertson
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Re: The Liberating Power of Doubt

Writing about aikido -- meaningfully -- is harder even than doing aikido. I know, as my failures are more numerous than my successes. And these failures are public.

Writing about failure is hard too.

Congratulations, however, on a public success, and a very nice demonstration of beginner's mind.

Demonstrating through writing, beyond mere exposition, may be the hardest.
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