Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
I want to share with you one of the most important lessons I've ever learned from a book. That book is Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyam. It looks like this:
Don’t let its understated cover and diminutive size fool you. Zen in the Martial Arts is full of simple yet arresting insights. You’re likely to find a copy in any dojo which respects contemplation. In Chapter 1, you'll find this quote from Ed Parker, the founder of American Kempo:
"I am not going to show you my art. I am going to share it with you. If I show it to you it becomes an exhibition, and in time it will be pushed so far into the back of your mind it will be lost. But by sharing it with you, you will not only retain it forever but I, too, will improve." (Hyam, 1979/1982, p. 4)
When I really thought about it, this simple passage blew me away. I have been teaching martial arts since I was 17 years old, and I would always begin the instruction of a technique by saying, 'Now I'm going to show you a move – an awesome move which I think you'll really enjoy mastering!' or something similarly positive and motivational. But invariably, I would say ‘show’. In a decade of teaching, I doubt I ever once said ‘share’ instead.
What the Ed Parker quote revealed to me was an unexamined assumption I held, which went hand-in-hand with an attitude of unintended consequence. By showing my students, I was putting myself above them.
I don't believe that hierarchy is necessarily always a bad thing. In many ways, it's a healthy and integral part of the martial arts. There is a certain pride that comes from helping those who have not yet come so far as you, and a certain inspiration from acknowledging and revering those who have made it further. And it's important to understand and respect a difference in skill when you're a white belt practicing opposite a black belt (or vice versa).
But is hierarchy always necessary? Or better? Certainly not. All those years in front of my students I had been missing an opportunity. Instead of being a part of something with them, I was distancing myself. Because of this, how many students stepped onto the mat with whom I failed to connect? And for what...
I hope to I never make that mistake again.
The next time you introduce an activity, instead of using the word ‘show’ use the word share. See if it changes your mindset. See if it changes your behavior. See if it changes your students.