In my last post (two years ago), I wrote about a martial arts test – called the sakki test by the nerds I train with. Translated, it means something like intent to kill. But, don’t read too much into that. Here’s what it means:
You sit. Someone stands behind you with a training sword – usually a split bamboo sword like kendo people use. They cut. You don’t get hit. That’s the test.
It looks like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKZ3RFarqzk
I took this test, and I passed. But before that, I took it and failed. Several times. So, yeah, that’s what this post is about.
There were 8 or so of us on this trip to Japan, but only 2 of us sitting for the test, me and Bryan. First opportunity we had, Bryan went first. He told me afterward that he expected to get hit, to shrug it off, to go back to training – the test happens midway through a class – and to laugh it off over drinks that night.
I don’t know if that was the truth, or modesty, or what, but I knew he was going to pass before he even sat down. And he did. He could have passed it in a lawn chair holding his dog on his lap. There isn’t much to say about it, or any successful test really. He just got out of the way.
Noguchi sensei was doing the tests that night. Real nice guy. I sat, and he cut, and he stopped short of hitting me. The sword touched my hair a little. And then I moved. But that’s not good enough.
I suppose he meant it as a kindness, but looking back I wish he had just followed through. It’s called the sakki test after all – I’m supposed to sense his intention to kill me, and avoid that. At least, that’s how people who believe in voodoo describe it. I wonder though, if his intention wasn’t so nice, would it have gone differently? Probably not, but I’ll never get to know for sure.
So anyway. The usual pattern is that you get two chances to take the test per class. The second chance is with someone who is a little more junior, someone collecting experience in giving the test so they can do it better. For this I got Dean Rostohar. He too is a nice guy, but he’s also badass combat veteran of the Croatian special forces with a prosthetic foot. He hit me with a stick.
And then nothing. Class resumed.
That was my first day in Japan. After class we ate and drank. The next day we did it all again. That’s how these trips go – just a loop of eating, training, drinking. Occasional breaks for sightseeing, touristy shit, maybe a shrine. But we trained every day.
That doesn’t mean there were opportunities to take the test every day. There are a lot of teachers and a lot of classes. The head of the Bujinkan family, Hatsumi sensei, has been teaching officially since 1970, and when I went in 2018, he was still teaching 3 classes a week. The other days we spent visiting a select few of his students, who also have been teaching for an unfathomable number of decades.
The test – everybody gives the same advice about the test: Don’t think about it. Don’t make it into a thing. Just let it happen naturally. Et cetera.
I was really really good at this advice. Didn’t think about the test again at all until our next class with the big man. Had a great time there – the kind of experience you know, even as it is happening, will never happen again. I would go back, of course, but it’ll be different.
Class happened. And it broke in the usual as it usually does for Hatsumi sensei to do his art thing. He does painting and calligraphy for whoever is there. Whatever you want, just tell him, he’ll whip something up for you. I got a piece of calligraphy. Then, immediately after art time is test time.
This time it was Ishizuka sensei giving the test – possibly Hatsumi sensei’s most senior student? I’m not sure. If not, he’s close.
I had done what I was supposed to do. I had not thought about the test. I had not made it a thing. I sat, calm, relaxed. Closed my eyes. Breathed. And then, opened my eyes again, saw the 80+ other students in the room – friends and strangers. He cut, I got hit. Wasn’t a thing.
Then for good measure Dean came over and hit me with a stick again, and we were back on the training / eating / drinking wheel.
Some day later we went to Nagato sensei’s class. Nagato sensei is my teacher’s teacher. He was once described to me like this: “Thor.” Stories about him tend to include the shapes and colors of bruises. In one of his classes he said to us “Today we practice with pain.” He mostly speaks Japanese, but this he made the extra effort to say in English.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we were on the train. And on the way, I asked my teacher – Jim – if we could ask Nagato sensei for advice for me for the test. He said something to the effect of Nuh uh. Which I did not expect.
We got to class. Class went the usual way. And then we took a break in the middle. Nagato sensei doesn’t do the art thing. He has a question and answer session while we all sit and drink tea, or Pocari Sweat or whatever. During this, he stared right at me and asked if anyone has any questions.
I politely declined. Mostly didn’t want to contradict Jim. But then he kept doing it, and after 3 or 4 tries to not ask, it kind of became clear what was going on. Jim had talked to him off to the side.
So I asked for his advice. And he told me: “Get hit.”
This isn’t as weird a thing to say as it may sound. It’s kind of normal actually. Allowing yourself to get hit once in a while helps you to know what an attack is going to feel like, so you can dial in just to the edge between getting hit and not.
But I had already taken the test twice, so I didn’t think that applied here. Out of frustration, I responded with a little more sass than was appropriate. Told him I had already done that twice and it didn’t work. He was quite patient, actually, and gave a more in depth explanation.
That explanation was just like everyone else had said before him. There was no Nagato magic, no secret ingredient – there was just, relax, and when you feel something, move.
That night, we went out reveling. Like every other night of the trip. Everyone was in great spirits the whole time. That night, though I was sort of the exception.
I went along – I drank my share of beer, sake, and whiskey. I ate more than my share of karaage chicken and fried spaghetti (???). I told my share of jokes. But the whole time I was distracted.
When we were all back at the hotel, I had some time to do some thinking. I thought about my years of training, my years of school, my years as a tutor – In all that time, I could not possibly count how often someone told me what was going on in my mind, and they were wrong.
People just aren’t that good at knowing what other people are thinking, or how they think. A lot of teaching is trying to recreate for others what worked for you. This occurred to me that night – All the advice everyone was giving me was what worked for them. It hadn’t worked for me so far, and I saw no reason to think it would work any better if I tried it again.
So I stopped trying to follow the advice. I thought about it all night, and all the next day. I made it a thing.
I had read recently about a psychological experiment: Participants are shown a math problem very briefly, too quick for the conscious mind to answer it, and then asked for their solution. Everyone says the same thing. Didn’t see it. Went by too fast.
But then the experimenters press. They instruct the participants to try to answer anyway, to give their best guess. And of course, they follow the instructions.
Then they are asked to rate their confidence in those answers, and the answers are like you expect. They reported no confidence at all. It’s just a guess. Only answered because they were forced to.
What happens, though, is that their answers are right. Not always, but consistently more often than chance would allow. What this result seems to demonstrate is that a lot of what happens in the mind happens at the subconscious level, even things we normally believe to be conscious activities.
My test, the sakki test – maybe it was the same sort of thing. Your conscious mind is too slow to react, but the subconscious works much faster. You just have to learn to let it be in control. And maybe the way you do that – it’s not magic, it’s not the force, maybe it’s just giving it your best guess.
So that became my plan. Sit down. Relax. Don’t wait for some feeling to come over me, because that feeling may not come. Just guess. Trust that the years I’ve spent having sticks swung at me were for something. That’s it.
Wasn’t much. Didn’t know if it was any good, but I had a plan.
Next class – we trained, we broke in the middle for dojo art. I planned to use this time instead to focus and relax, the first of which I was doing a decent job of. The dojo is a crowded and noisy place so I didn’t expect any one would notice.
Jim noticed. Seemed to think this idea was bullshit. Told me to get in line and get my art. Which I did, but I hadn’t brought anything for him to art on, so one of the guys in our group – Mike, if you know him – gave me this little plank of wood he had been carrying around.
I took it, and I got in line. My turn came and I had no idea what to ask for. I set the plank down; I’m sure I said something, but I can’t recall it now.
Hatsumi sensei looked at me. And, he would have known why I was there, would have recognized me from testing the last two times, would have seen me nervous and agitated. He drew me a smiley face.
It’s funny: somebody can tell you to relax but you can’t actually do it. Not directly. You can choose to do something physical – do breathing exercises, get a massage, finish your whiskey. Or, just smile. And laugh.
I looked at the smiley face. I laughed. He laughed. It was the one genuine moment the two of us shared. Even though neither of us spoke. Without saying anything, he told me just what I needed to hear.
Hey man. Cheer up.
Right after that was test time. Nagato sensei was testing. I may have neglected to mention, at Nagato sensei’s class where he gave me the advice, he also told us that he would be there to give me the test personally. He also threw me around at his class so we could establish a little familiarity between us.
The line of people to be tested formed, and I got at the very back of it. Nagato sensei was having none of this – He called me up from the back of the line to test first.
I sat there, saw the room of people watching – not for me to fail, for me to pass. Everybody roots for you in silence. That’s what it’s like.
Nagato sensei rests the sword on my head, and he says, “Get hit.”
I now had two things in my mind:
- What the fuck does that mean?
- We’ve got a plan. Stick to the plan.
I waited a random amount of time, and I rolled. I stood up, turned around, looked at Nagato sensei. He and Hatsumi sensei were having some conversation in Japanese. I don’t know what they said, but they seemed to be discussing whether or not to give me another chance.
This went on for maybe 20 seconds, but you know the kind of 20 seconds I mean – the long kind.
And then Hatsumi sensei threw up a hand and announced “Okay!”
Somehow that was it. Wasn’t even a thing.
What did we learn? Did I crack the code, find the secret ingredient?
Not really, no. Just like what worked for others didn’t work for me, what worked for me might not work for anyone else.
I think I went into the test with a misconception. I thought it was, like most tests, a demonstration of what you know. Too late to learn anything new on the spot. You can only show what you’ve brought with you.
I didn’t demonstrate shit, except possibly an above-average tolerance for getting whacked with sticks. But that’s okay because this test wasn’t about that. It’s just another lesson.
The lesson, I think, is one you need at some point regardless of what thing you’re studying: how to do the thing your own way.
I don’t mean that you can just make up whatever way you want. I mean that you have to take ownership of your own learning. Realize that no teacher can understand a thing for you.
This is a hard lesson to teach. As a teacher, there is no instruction you can give your student to have them not depend on your instruction. All you can do is cultivate the conditions where the student is most likely to have this epiphany on their own.
It’s possible all lessons are learned this way.
Let’s go back to the test, when I was sitting on the floor with Nagato sensei standing over me. He says, “Get hit.” That’s his instruction.
In that moment I could have done one of two things. First, I could do it Nagato sensei’s way, as I was instructed to do, and get hit. Second, I could do literally anything else. The second way isn’t guaranteed to succeed, but the first way is guaranteed to fail.
If I were smarter, I might have seen this lesson earlier. On the train, when Jim shut down my idea of asking Nagato sensei for advice. It was clear what his intuition told him was the right way to handle the situation.
But that’s not what we did. We did it my way. I wanted to ask Nagato sensei for advice. We asked Nagato sensei for advice.
This may have been Jim trying to demonstrate that his way is not the only way, and that he trusted me enough to do it my way instead. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was his intention. But the lesson was there all the same.
Ah, well. Got there eventually.
Or. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m just making shit up, and I just got lucky. If a time comes when you sit for the sakki test, maybe you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.
And maybe that’s the point.