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No Mistakes for the Ninja

It was many years ago now. I was training with the 34th generation Ninja Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi and An-shu Stephen K. Hayes. I was in awe. The grandmaster had just demonstrated a brilliant reversal technique, and with a flippant laugh said, “no mistakes for the ninja.” My young, beginner’s mind interpreted that as a promise that this training would make us all failsafe. If we paid attention and trained diligently we could look forward to a day when the idea of making a mistake would be a distant memory.

It was many years later that I finally understood the lesson. The idea of being flawless must stay where it belongs, in works of fiction and fantasy. Grasping desperately to the illusion of flawless superiority can wreak havoc on your training and your life. Let’s talk about training first.

Everybody wants to “get it right.” This is well and good, and natural. However this dualistic approach, right or wrong, results in narrow, limited vision (lack of clarity) and unnecessary tension. Both of these are detrimental to skillful movement. In the often split-second timing of a real self-defense situation allowing your mind to focus on a perceived mistake can be disastrous. This can leave your mind momentarily stuck in the past and therefore not connected to the unfolding current moment. This blinds you to efficient and effective options that may be readily available in the moment. Of course you must cultivate the “eyes” to be able to “see” these options. This is accomplished through repeated exposure to proper techniques and principles.

Unnecessary tension is apparent when you try to force a technique. This is a product of fear; fear of getting it “wrong,” and fear of being defeated. Further, tension robs you of much of your ability to feel what is going on. This feeling, often referred to as sensitivity awareness, is a big part of cultivating the ability to perceive, or having the eyes to “see,” effective options as I mentioned above.

So, what to do? In a nutshell, we must discipline ourselves when training to avoid “doing techniques at my partner” in favor of this sense of “moving with” my attacker. This requires awareness, focus, and a bit of ego control. All of these require diligence and effort. Assuming a working knowledge of good technique and principles, it is this “moving with” the attacker that allows the seamless transformation from what in one moment looks like failure to surprising victory. That is exactly what I witnessed, and so naively misinterpreted, so many years ago.

From a much broader perspective, in life, holding on to mistakes can be more insidiously damaging. This topic is important and vast. Here is a quick scan. Letting go of mistakes in life can be difficult for at least three reasons. 1) Our brains are literally hardwired to focus on the negative. 2) We are conditioned to hold on to feelings of guilt and failure. 3) Generally, people are more than happy to remind you of past missteps. If you look closely you will realize this is so because it either makes them feel better about themselves, or they use your feelings of guilt and failure to manipulate you or manipulate others against you. Big subject, like I said.

Though it can feel “illegal” to let go of feelings of guilt and failure, it may help to remember that they do not serve you in any way. Learn to leave the past in the past and strive to forge ahead with lessons learned.

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