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Training in white pyjamas


I’ve been a martial artist since I was seven… well, seven and a half really -I blagged my way in early as you had to be 8 years or older to join the karate club that I started with.  I remember my first lesson like it was yesterday – everyone lined up in height order and I was the last in the line.  Our Sensei (instructor) came down the line asking everyone why they were there and why they thought they could be a ‘Karateka’.

When he finally got to me he must have seen the terror on my face and took pity.  “What age are you?” I’d been prepped to say “I’m eight” but I was never good at lying so I stuttered “I’m 7… and, and a half...”  He laughed heartily and said “Ok, you can stay and train if you’re willing to try really hard.”

For six years I attended classes weekly without fail and progressed up the ranks steadily.  Each class lasted for two hours or so and had the same format.   It was pretty tough going, but my parents were always supportive and strict when required… I NEVER missed a class.  I achieved coveted junior black belt status (Shodan Ho) at the age of 13 – an extreme rarity in the early 80s.  My success was not because I was especially talented, but was due to perseverance and tenacity and that’s a lesson that’s carried me far in life – it’s not the most talented that prevail, but those with the grit and determination to complete the journey.

Martial arts are still generally taught now as they were in the seventies, by rote learning.  Stage one is being shown something that’s new, a technique or skill that you don’t know. It’s explained to you in staged steps and you’re shown what you need to do.  You try to replicate the skill or technique and are coached and corrected until you get it right.  Then it’s repeat, repeat and repeat until it becomes automatic.

This approach to learning translates beyond martial arts to all facets of life.

The “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” theory was developed at the Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. Wikipedia describes the approach as follows:

The Four Stages

1.     Unconscious Incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2.     Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3.     Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4.     Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

My Sensei didn’t know anything about Burch’s model, but knew instinctively the process of learning and was able to provide the necessary support and guidance at each stage.  He was able to give some insights into a further, fifth stage that far surpass any teaching I have subsequently encountered. 

Most commentators refer to “reflective ability, or ‘conscious competence of unconscious competence’, as being the fifth stage, while others use the fifth stage to indicate complacency”

But that makes little sense to me.  What resonates with me more is the concept of Satori as the 5th step - Satori refers to a flash of sudden awareness, or individual enlightenment, and is considered a "first step" or embarkation toward nirvana.  Ok, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a ‘hippy dude’ with a tripped out mentality… I’m a pretty grounded cynic, so here’s my take on it – knowledge of oneself (your strengths and your development needs) is the root of self mastery.  This is not a new way of thinking, but traces its roots to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy.  Plato employs the maxim 'Know Thyself' extensively by having the character of Socrates use it to motivate his dialogues.  Sun Tzu (c. 6th century BC) was a Chinese General, military strategist and author of The Art of War, an immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. He is reported to have said;

“…if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

Life’s an ever ending journey towards self-mastery.  You don’t need to study martial arts, philosophy or religion to get this, all you have to do is to look at the ‘balance of your life’ and see where you need to focus your attention.  Ask yourself the following questions:

1.       Am I happy with me?

2.       Am I happy with those around me (family, friends and work)?

3.       Am I happy with what I do in my personal, family and professional time?

4.       Am I happy with how others see me?

5.       Am I happy with the legacy I will leave to those who are most dear to me on my death-bed?

If your answer to any of these is NO, then I would urge you to strive for Satori – find your flash of sudden awareness that will help you to achieve the ‘next level’ on our personal journey towards self mastery!

Best wishes on your journey – it’s a spiral staircase and I’m sure we’ll see each other along the way.

Oh - BTW, here's some thoughts on taking that 1st step on your journey:



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