The Art of Winning Blog

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lisa Turner's Black Belt Essay

Levels of Learning: comprehension, synthesis, and how I learned not to care about cool
By Lisa Turner
            I sat down to write my essay, intent on producing a grand thesis, an eloquent

summation of all that I've learned over the past four years. My mind was busy, rich with words and crafty ideas. But when I tried to write, nothing would flow. I was so stuck in thought, I couldn’t get to action.
            It was a fitting metaphor for the best part of my training: realizing that, when it came right down to it, “learning” had less to do with mental constructs, and more to do with dirt time—the sheer amount of days, weeks, months, on the mat. 
            The more I trained, the more my body, rather than my mind, learned the technique. In free response, it became less about thinking and more about perceiving—a curious blend of thought and intuition. When I keep my mind soft but alert, and let my body respond, things go better. (Not surprisingly, this is true off the mat as well.)
            In Bloom's Taxonomy, a system of classifying learning objectives, learning is loosely categorized into six stages: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. I was curious how my ninjutsu training fit into this system. Here’s what I found:
            The first step, in Bloom’s system, is knowledge. This stage is all about memorization and learning terms, facts and procedures. This came in very hand with the Student Creed and the Code of Mindful Action—and, to a certain degree, the initial introduction to each Element. Angles, names of Kata, meaning of the words To Shin Do, the kiai for each Element, even the procedure of bowing in: it was all about memorizing the appropriate series of movements and positioning of the body.
            When I first heard the entire Code during one of my earliest classes, I felt overwhelmed, like I’d never learn all those words. I’m a smart cookie, but memorization is not my strong suit. I was sure I’d be the only person in the history of To Shin Do to be denied a black belt because I couldn’t memorize the code. So when I received my brown belt, and got to say all those words—start to finish, with no mistakes—it was as almost exhilarating an experience as passing the test.
            (As an aside, I noticed something interesting when I took my first black belt class; after years of saying the long, complicated and involved Code, the black belt Transformational Powers synthesize all the concepts in the Code, and become quick, efficient and direct—much like the attacks. Hmmm. Very sneaky. I think there’s a metaphor in here.)
            In Bloom’s construct, after knowledge comes comprehension—an understanding of how, when and why a concept works, and what its primary function is. In my training, this meant understanding core principles, like how to use my frame and skeleton, how to properly position my feet, how to align my body in the appropriate kamae, when to apply a lock, when to run. For me, this also included a layer of physical comprehension: an embodiment of the technique in which I not only “got” it with my mind, but also felt it in my muscles, bones and tendons.
            The next step is application, or actually using a series of movements in the context of attack. I also learned to modulate the intensity of the application, so my response was appropriate to the attack (and, more importantly, to the skill level of the attacker). For me, this was dirt time—the sheer repetition of attack/defend/attack/defend that allowed kata and kamae to move downward from my brain, and sink into the cells of my body. Over time, my mind did less and less, as my flesh and bones actually memorized the technique.
            After application comes analysis. This had many levels for me. In the analysis stage of learning kata, we broke down an attack into different parts, noticing that a slight shift in kamae could change the attacker’s onslaught, or how the correct placement of an knee here, an elbow there, could disrupt the attacker’s skeleton. During free response, especially randori style, I learned to quickly analyze the situation. Over time, I also learned that my clever brain was essentially worthless when a bunch of black belts came charging at me with shiny knives. So my body learned to do what Bloom calls analyze, what Mr. Hayes calls “discern” and what I think of as “intuit” or “move with initiative and courage.”
            Synthesis is next. For me, this is where the magic really happened. Like analyzing a situation, synthesizing involved making rapid choices of response.  At this stage, I put all the parts together—kamae, kiai, disrupting the attacker’s skeleton, and so on—to create a new pattern. This is when my brain started to soften and widen back, and my body really started to take over; I could feel my skeleton and muscles and hara in unity and alignment, operating as a system and not a bunch of disjointed parts. I felt less like a marionette, all wooden angles and joints bouncing chaotically, and more like a fluid, comprehensive energetic being. For the first time, I started to feel like I looked cool. Interestingly enough, I also started to not care so much that I looked cool.
            Evaluate. This is where the blessed, cursed test DVDs came in. For a bunch of years—maybe the first three—I practiced invisibility during my tests and didn’t buy the DVD. Then I realized how much I was missing by not watching myself during free response. Over the last year, I’ve been buying them, studying them, and learning where I can improve; it’s especially helpful to watch them right before a test. This little exercise has also proved to be enlightening in terms of how I react. My humiliation over mistakes made has diminished. I’m less in my head, and more in the enthusiasm of the moment. I like it when I occasionally look  supercool, but it’s not a tragedy when I (frequently) don’t. And I enjoyed the freedom that followed when I admitted out loud that I totally freak out before free response.
            But I guess that’s the point. For me, I’ve learned that it’s not about thinking, it’s about feeling. It’s not about winning the battle or defeating the attacker, but about mastering the inner self. And it’s not about how cool I look, it’s about how authentically I move—both on and off the mat.

To see Lisa test for her Black Belt, please join us for Winter Warrior weekend,-sat,-sun%29/.

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