“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” is a quote I’ve heard—and subsequently used—numerous times in my martial arts career. Both the origin and context of this quote are somewhat obscure and open to both interpretation and nuance that change over time. When I first heard this quote decades ago, I took it quite literally. I thought of it along the lines of “when you get to a certain level of skill, you need to find the right teacher.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I learn things—particularly motor skills like martial arts—and how much and to what I really pay attention over time. Or maybe I should say it’s more about when I learn new things. It’s interesting how we can be presented repeatedly with the same technical content, but fail to grasp many aspects until some later date. It’s all a matter of where we are at any given time and what we are open to accepting or understanding.

I was prompted to think about this just recently when I was at an international instructor’s seminar for one of the martial arts systems I practice. I have seen my teacher do the same sequences of movements hundreds and thousands of times over the years. Yet, every so often I will catch something “new”—or that appears new or different to me—in his performance. Many times when I’ve experienced this my default reaction was: “Interesting. I wonder why he changed that?”

Over time I’ve realized that, while there are legitimate tweaks and changes that my teacher may decide to make to technical performance within the martial arts system he heads, mostly it’s down to me for not seeing clearly in the first place. Or that at different times, my focus and appreciation were on different aspects of the technique. The “changes” that I see typically reflect the small discrepancies between what I am and ought to be doing.

Which comes back to the title of this post. In these instances, I, the student, was ready for the appearance of my teacher. It just turns out that I was finally seeing something clearly for the first time, despite that it has always been there. Instead of being discouraging, I find this liberating and invigorating. How many other aspects of my life can I take this spirit of newfound vision to?

For me the psychology of these experiences take me back a long way to when I also found myself confused at lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song “My Back Pages” on the album “Another Side of Bob Dylan” released in 1964. I’m thinking here of the refrain that goes “I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.”

Clearly we can’t stop biological aging and literally become younger, yet we can work towards excising restrictive thinking and seek to be ready for our own teachers to appear. Striving to be mentally younger than we used to be is probably worth reflecting on for all of us, and can positively influence many aspects of our lives.

© E. Paul Zehr (2015)

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