Learning how to learn

1. Introduction

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2. Learning how to learn

The more I absorbed the teaching of my Aikdio sensei Koichi Tohei, the more I realized I needed to adopt a different style of learning.

Tohei sensei is charismatic and spontaneous when he teaches and sometimes he would get a bit frustrated watching students attempting to write down his every word. Once he playfully said to a student, “Perhaps you should read my book before coming to class again, then you won’t need to take so many notes!” And guess what? The student actually wrote down those words!

“The reason for coming to class,” Tohei sensei would say, “Is not to take notes. The reason for coming to class is to learn how to trust the intelligence of your body. In Aikido you have the opportunity to learn with your body, while your thinking mind acts as a passive observer. Notice what happens at such times. Do you fall into a pit of internal dialogue and hesitancy, or do you perform with confidence?”

“If you want to begin a process of transformation, you’ll need to push past the barriers of your thinking mind. You’ll need to have a sudden, and perhaps unexpected experience, and then allow your learning to gestate over time. An understanding of what you learn with your sudden experience can only come later. Much later. So you better become comfortable with not knowing, and not understanding, while remaining confident you are indeed learning.”

“You see,” he would sometimes say, “People rely too much on their rational mind, and don’t believe they’re learning unless they immediately comprehend what they’ve learned. I think you foreigners use the term â??He’s in his head’ to show that a person does not fully comprehend what’s happening.”

“You, for instance,” Tohei sensei said while motioning towards one student, “You’ve been in Japan for a few months now, and you’ve learned the words for “good morning”, The problem is you don’t bow when you speak these words, so the meaning of your greeting is not received by others. I think this is because you were so busy writing down the words you didn’t even notice the bowing. You were too busy being in your head. No matter what the topic, if you don’t learn with your body as well as with your thinking mind, your learning will have little value.”

“Many of you ask me over and over again to further explain what I’ve just said. I on the other hand believe that additional explanations tend to lead toward additional confusion. You want to learn first with your head, and practice only after you’ve understood. This is exactly backwards to the learning process I’m suggesting. You need to trust that your body is indeed intelligent, and that you are indeed learning, even though your rational mind has yet to make sense out of what you’re doing. All of the talking and note taking you want to do winds up confusing you and makes your learning process more difficult than it needs to be.

“Learn with your body and then practice over and over again. Through practice you’ll refine and come to understand what you’ve learned. Your Aikido practice is like what happens when writing a book. The author writes a first draft of a chapter, and then edits it nine times or more. That is one cycle of writing. In the dojo, you learn something new and then practice it ninety-nine times. This is one cycle of learning.”

“There’s a time for putting down your notes, and for most of you I’d say that time is right now. If you truly want to improve your ability to learn, you’ll need to think less, and do more.”

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