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Vol 41 No 1, Spring 2019

Life Is a Kodenkan School

By MB Austin

MB Austin

Photo courtesy of MB Austin.

Apparently, I enjoy a long learning curve. Ironic, given my low tolerance is for being bad at…anything. Last year I began Danzan Ryu Jujitsu (DZR) training. Half healing art and half martial art, DZR encompasses techniques similar to those found in judo, Aikido, and karate (but with its own variations and kata), plus a self-defense curriculum and first aid, massage, etc. Wonderful variety; but oh so much to learn.

The first few months were especially humbling for me. Even with experience in other dojos, learning related arts, my brain felt overwhelmed, my body stuck with outdated muscle memory. Everything familiar was slightly different, making a challenge of things I expected to be easy for me. (I’d done hundreds of rolls and falls before—why were these so tough?) And so much was new, from terminology and principles to technique. Some days my mantra was, “Mizu means water.” If nothing else, at least I knew what to do during breaks.

Two aspects of DZR made that steep ramp-up tolerable, even enjoyable. First, the spirit of ohana (extended family, including dear friends and neighbors, cherished community), an aspect of Hawaiian culture embraced by Professor Okazaki when he moved from Japan to Maui and established his school and healing practice. A healthy family wants each member to thrive; and everyone I trained with actively worked toward my success (with compassion, gentle humor, an eye on safety, and constant respect for dojo protocol). Rather than just attending a new type of class, I felt welcomed in to a new community.

Olivia Brown Latham, Danzan Ryu Jujitsu black belt, and Will Northup. Photo courtesy of MB Austin.

Second, DZR is taught in the kodenkan style: senior students help train and teach their junior counterparts. To do so, they must understand the art well enough to share it with others. In many dojos, a black belt instructor demonstrates a technique and then students pair up to try it, switch partners, and repeat, while the instructor circulates and critiques. In my new dojo, the sensei set us up in pairs or small groups to work together on a set of techniques. The more senior students (senpai) then lead that practice, demonstrating, explaining, correcting, and giving encouragement. The sensei never abdicates responsibility for ensuring safety or learning progress; but the junior students benefit from learning the senpai’s perspective and approach; and the senpai learns the depth and limits of their own knowledge, as well as teaching skills. As a new student, this approach made the distance I had to travel to reach competence seem less like a scaling a steep mountain and more like a series of progressively challenging hikes in beautiful foothills.

During this time of adjustment in the dojo, an opportunity opened up in my work life. I work as a Claims Examiner in a Federal agency that awards benefits to ‘Cold War Veterans’ (civilians who worked in DOE’s nuclear-weapon related facilities). Managing a caseload requires juggling dozens of competing deadlines while accurately applying legal guidelines to evidence unique to each case, and communicating clearly and compassionately with the workers we serve. The factual scenarios are so varied and the laws and procedures so complex (and still evolving) that the learning curve never completely flattens out. New CEs begin to feel competent around year two. And until they routinely produce legally solid work, they remain under review by senior staff who sign off on everything they do. In the legal arena, I’m a very fast learner; and I came in with lots of transferrable skills. At year three I found my stride. When asked to give up my caseload and mentor new CEs, I declined. Asked again at year four and a half, I said yes.

Olivia Brown Latham, Danzan Ryu Jujitsu black belt, and Will Northup. Photo courtesy of MB Austin.

Those few months training in a kodenkan school helped me reassess where I was in relation to my peers and what I had to offer to my work community. Did I feel like a black belt? No. But in this arena, I’m a solid brown belt. I know when to seek help from or defer to sensei (our managers)’s judgment. And I still remember enough about being brand new to the job to empathize with our newest colleagues, to appreciate what they need at this stage in a new career area to gain confidence and competence.

Managing my own caseload was like learning an art solely for myself, focused only on my own performance. Being a senior CE is like the senpai role in the dojo. It requires people skills, including patience and compassion, and the ability to shift my training approach to meet my colleagues’ learning styles. What matters now is not how technically proficient I am, although mentoring has upped my game by forcing me to learn and be able to explain both the whys and the hows of our work. Now my goal is to help trainees become independent professionals who practice the art proficiently. My satisfaction is measured by their success.

I think of DZR as having both a brain and a heart. Jujitsu means “gentle science,” and the emphasis on understanding the body’s mechanics reflects the name. Below the surface, the kodenkan style of teaching reveals its heart: service to others. And as my ohana helps me grow I recognize all of their effort and caring. As I progress, it is a pleasure to carry that service forward; and doing so makes me a better student of the art.

Olivia Brown Latham, Danzan Ryu Jujitsu black belt, and Will Northrup. Photo courtesy of MB Austin.

Thinking of training civil servants (who apply laws that affect the health and welfare of workers) as analogous to DZR helps me as a mentor. It particularly reminds me to make sure that new CEs learn both their technical skills and a service mindset. It also removes any hesitation I had about letting them assist each other (with oversight for legal safety). And as I learn from my mentees’ experiences and attitudes, I realize that they are giving back to me.

Life will always bring me new challenges, whenever I get too comfortable. There are health challenges, family crises, relationship changes, career shifts, and unexpected turns of all sort. But in whatever area I’m learning and growing in, I am learning to look around and identify both the black belts and the sanpei available to me. If they are willing to assist me, I won’t turn that gift away. And where I have the experience and skills to do so, I will pay it forward. Because all of life is a kodenkan school.

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