Shu-ha-ri Revisited: Part II

Shu-ha-ri Revisited: Part II
By Ron Fox

Continued from Part I.

As I read the discussions of the application of shu-ha-ri to software development and, in particular mentoring software development, I was struck by how over and over again the discussion turned to how to manage the transition from phase to phase. That’s a problem I increasingly had with the discussion and it’s my fault since I wrote about that issue in the context of not having a local instructor to help you with that process.

My understanding as it is now is that there is no managed or timed transition. The transition just happens because the student has practised sufficiently and well that their kendo, practice, or software development changes naturally, reflecting the level of attainment they have. What instructors can do, is to recognize where each student is and tailor their presentations to the student’s phase in the shu-ha-ri stages of learning.

Getting back to the problem I was trying to address, of the “lonely student”, the student without continuous contact with a qualified instructor. It is really important to recognise honestly and clearly where you are and what you need to advance. If you think you are in ha or ri but really your level is more like shu, you’re going to waste a lot of time trying to do things you’re not going to have the background. Simple example? Want to do nuki-dō and apply it freely to your keiko.  Well if you can’t make a reasonable imitation of dō in a kihon-uchi setting, it’s probably not going to end well.

If you are in shu, you need to find a model to imitate. This was something I consciously did (still do) as I attempt to add something new to my kendo, or change something bad that’s been pointed out, discovered, or crept in. Locate a good instructor and visit them as often as possible. From them you have to build, as rapidly as possible, a mental picture of each technique you’re trying to learn.

Throughout your own practice you must continually and honestly compare your own actions against your mental model. There won’t be a sensei handy to tell you what you’re doing incorrectly so you need to be your own critic. Take video of your kendo if possible and study the differences between your kendo and the model you constructed. The video does not have to be super high quality. You can see a lot in videos taken from hand-held smart phones.

At each visit to your instructor, study the differences between your model and reality. Refine your model and take that back to your daily practice. As you visit your distant instructor, listen to “everything” he has to say. Don’t assume that corrections he may give to others do not apply to you or will not apply to you later. Examine your own motions for the problems the instructor points out and work to eradicate them if you find them. After practice sit down and write a few notes. Set your goals.

If you cannot find an instructor to visit, attend as many events as possible and look carefully at the kendo of the higher ranked participants. Pick one out and try to build your model from him or her.

Finally, don’t be in a hurry. You will progress at a less rapid rate than you might like, but don’t hurry the process. In a competitive art, do not jump into competition too quickly. Don’t jump into free practice too quickly, spend your time on the basics and the techniques and on making your movements match the model you’ve drawn from your instructor.

As you begin to feel that your basics are established sufficiently that you are entering the ha stages of development, it is important to start to question, to reason, to work hard to understand and reflect on what you’ve been learning and from that process (kufu) to get a clearer understanding of the material.

To me, the important questions to ask have been:

  1. How does this technique work?
  2. Why does this technique work?
  3. How is this technique related to other techniques that I am practising?
  4. What are the necessary preconditions and post-conditions to effectively apply this technique in a combative situation?

It is not enough to simply accept your own answers to these questions. You must test the correctness of your conclusions using whatever means your art has at its disposal. If your art includes the concept of free practice (jigeiko for us kenshi), then you must seek out chances to try your conclusions in free practice with other practitioners. If your art supports competition,  treat them as tests of the theories you are building in addition to tests of your ability to apply your kendo to the stresses of shiai.

When you fail you need to ask yourself honestly, was the failure a failure of understanding or of application? There’s not really a clear boundary between these phases of shu-ha-ri. You may cycle around between them, or live in more than one at a time, or perhaps it’s your understanding of where you are that actually cycles.

In conclusion, shu-ha-ri in a classical interpretation is a linear sequence which leads the student with minimal deviations down a path of learning. The student progresses from imitation, to reasoning to creating.

When applied to the instructor-less student, in shu-ha-ri it is critically important that you have a good understanding for where you are on the shu-ha-ri spectrum. A good instructor will ensure that you are being given, or forced to take, what you are ready to learn. Without one, your own understanding of where you are on the shu-ha-ri spectrum has to determine the depth of your practice.