Ego – def. a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
Saying someone has a large ego or a super-ego is generally meant as an insult yet arguably we need some ego in order to keep functioning in daily life. Lack of self-esteem can be a larger issue than an over-inflated ego even if the former is easier to deal with in other people.
Last night in Kenjutsu the subject of egotistical people (those who are excessively conceited or absorbed in themselves) came up during training. I hastily add that no one in that dojo has ever struck me as egotistical but that doesn’t mean I haven’t encountered a few egocentrics both in and out the dojo. Of all the places I dislike egotistical people the dojo has to be the main one.
Studying and training in a martial art is a path of continuous learning. It’s impossible to know everything on a martial art. On a simple level every person you train with will be different in their attacks and react in different ways to what you do to them, both mentally and physically. At an intermediate level your own body changes as you get older and techniques you could once do have to be adapted to allow for the ageing processes. Japanese martial arts and Zen Buddhism refer to the importance of Shosen, lacking preconceptions when training, thus maintain a beginners mind no matter how advanced your training is. Sounds easy, but often our egos get in our way.
A few years back I was at a weapons seminar with a fantastic instructor who showed us some techniques with variations I hadn’t seen before. After a while he called a halt and called out two people. Pointing at an older man he barked, “how long have you been training?”
“Over 30 years,” came the reply.
“And what about you?” asked the instructor to a younger girl.
She looked up at the clock. “I started for the first time 40 minutes ago,” she said quietly.
“Yet she, ” continued the instructor, “is the only person doing what I asked.”
Ego, and to a certain degree habit, had got in our way. Our minds decided they knew better than our eyes. We had attended that seminar to learn new things not to repeat stuff we thought we knew.
Sadly you occasionally see inflated ego in those that teach. The one thing that makes me grit my teeth are instructors who wont admit they have made a mistake. I’m not expecting a full apology, just a quiet, “I’ll do that again.” Yet I have encountered teachers who try and pretend their mistake is a genuine technique even when it blatantly is anything but that. My favourite instructors are the ones that make mistakes, and better still those that take the mistakes and use to demonstrate how easy it is to fall into a incorrect technique trap. It proves to me those instructors are human and I can relate them to far more than the ones who never appear to cock-up.
I don’t think Shosen is easy to develop. There’s a fine balance between being open to new ideas and being so overly critical of yourself that nothing is ever gained. I had a wonderful example in Aikido training a few weeks back. I was training with someone who was just having one of those blank moments (we all get them). I patiently went through the technique and at some point he queried what was being done. It would have been easy to have dismiss this confused almost-beginner to my admittedly-not-very-long four years Aikido practice, but something made me listen. Instead we went slowly through it and together produced a working technique. We both learnt something that day and probably both gained more respect for each other.
I guess we all have to watch our egos. However, I am going to have one very self-centred moment and say this. Within six days I passed my 4th kyu Aikido grading and my 5th kyu Iaido grading. I just needed to put that on the blog somewhere!
Meanwhile, be you an instructor or student please leave the ego at the dojo door.