Shugyo and choices

This post was originally published in the personal blog of Chief Instructor Corey Guilbault who also serves as a professional marketing strategist.

Shugyo – a term frequently heard in Aikido circles – is generally defined as austerity or intensity in training. However, this does not necessarily mean simply training more or harder. (How then could an 80-year-old martial artist be the embodiment of shugyo as they so often are?)

Another term – musha-shugyo – dates back to Japan’s feudal era. Musha-shugyo is a pilgrimage whereby a serious disciple of the martial arts embarks on a journey across the countryside to visit other schools principally for one of two reasons:

One, to prove the superiority of their own lineage, school and skills or

Two, to improve their own skills by experiencing other schools and approaches.

It is here that a useful interpretation of shugyo might be extracted. The first agenda above I might typify as an articulation of the Western Ego. The second agenda I would typify as of Eastern Ego. I have written about Western Ego vs. Eastern Ego before. As I see it, few of us today are 100% of either. Mostly we are a dynamically shifting blend of the two. As young children, white belts in martial arts or junior executives we see the size of the world before us and eagerly absorb as much knowledge as we can.

As we get older and more experienced we begin to believe we know something. With that knowledge often comes a sense of entitlement and a nagging desire to protect our hard-earned status and knowledge.

I have observed this watching my older daughter boss my younger one around. I have seen this in my dojo where relatively new students with a little training suddenly begin ‘teaching’ in class when working with anyone junior to them. And I have seen this in office parks where VPs push the repercussions of their own failings down the pyramid so that  some junior is coming in on the weekend to make up for lost time. Worse still I have heard these things glorified as ‘paying dues’, ‘good training’ or ‘good experience’. They can be, but not when offered or forced upon the junior as a means of taking advantage of status.

I have argued before that experience is a requisite for expertise. However, earned expertise brings with it temptations. These temptations are well-known to anyone who has become even a little ‘good’ at something. There is the temptation to boast. There is the temptation to compete with people you know you can beat. There is temptation to shut out new ideas and different approaches. I have felt and acted on all of these temptations at points in my life. Try as I might, it is very hard to resist them.

Shugyo is a means to do so. Shugyo, to me, is a mindfulness to make choices that counteract complacency and homeostasis. In this sense it is ongoing training inside the office, the dojo, or anywhere.

In Aikido these are some of the choices to be mindfully considered:

  • Do I clean the toilet in the dojo or wait for someone else to do it?
  • Do I partner with people smaller and easier to throw or find someone bigger and more challenging?
  • Do I attend beginners class to refine my basics or to ‘help’ the junior students (meaning show them what I know)?
  • Do I train day in and day out, consistently, or heavy up right before rank exams?

Among executives these choices might also be considered as shugyo:

  • Do I hire and encourage people who will tell me what I want to hear or instead people who will give me their honest assessment even if it potentially offends me? (And can I choose not to be offended in such case?)
  • Do I do research simply to validate my beliefs and assumptions or instead do I sincerely endeavor to discover something I did not know?
  • Though I ask for them, do I really want out of the box ideas? The kind that challenge my expertise and perhaps are better than my own ideas?
  • Do I empower people working with me to make decisions even if they might make different decisions than I would?
  • When someone is arguing a point, am I listening with an open mind or just waiting my turn to counter their opinion with my own?

I come up against all of these questions again and again in my life. At times I behave the way I would hope I do. At others, I do not. This is the process of shugyo and why it is ongoing.

Of course, the pendulum swings the other way too. Equally dangerous to the tunnel vision of me-centric Western Ego is falling into a rut of romanticized ‘selflessness’ that becomes an insular bubble.

The Aikido student who hides behind the phrase ‘I don’t care about rank’ in order to avoid the challenge and stress of testing is akin to the executive who never forms an opinion of her own, never takes a stance, and never sticks his neck out by challenging group-think or offering a contrarian perspective. It is easy to hide behind ‘putting others first’ and in doing so to miss numerous opportunities to develop one’s self.

Shugyo is ultimately about choosing to act on the more challenging option – whatever that option is. It is about looking inwardly at our own tendencies to protect our status quo and place in the scheme of things and then making a decision to go against those impulses. In this way, shugyo is a thousand decisions made every day and it changes as we change. This is intense and exhausting training indeed.

As the year winds down I find myself reflecting on my own tendencies as both an Aikido practitioner and teacher and as a businessman. Though often dismissed, the quintessential ‘New Year’s Resolution’ can be useful when taken as an opportunity to earnestly consider how to improve ones self in the coming year. I am evaluating what shugyo will mean to me in 2010. It is an interesting exercise.

I will wrap this up with one of my favorite maxims. It comes from a translation of the Book Of Five Rings and I find it is appropriate in almost everything I do:

“Too much is the same as not enough.”

In relationships. In diet.  In exercise. In learning. In playing. In resting. In working. In everything. Something I like to dwell on as I look out at the blank slate of 2010 with high hopes for a great new year.