Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Three levels of learning - Shu Ha Ri

I've been working on my PhD for almost 4 years now and I have to say I feel half of this time was wasted. I should have already finished at least a year ago. I had the technical skills, I had the knowledge into research methods but I just couldn't get ahead in my work. I kept thinking about why things were not working, how should I 'fix' myself. Someone said that a PhD is not a real PhD unless you waste at least one year going nowhere. Needles to say, this didn't really make me feel much better.

Now I think I'm getting towards understanding why things happened the way they did. I identified many reasons, but now there is only one I'd like to write about: simply talking, I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready mentally to enter the next level. I got stuck in a level and couldn't advance. I was running in circles which they referred to as 'viscious'.

I've recently read about the concept of Shu Ha Ri which made me understand what happened and that it wasn't just me who goes through various stages of learning. Shu, Ha and Ri are three levels of learning and it's relatively easy to get stuck at the lower levels. Shu is the first which is followed by Ha and Ri. Shu is the basic level of learning, the Ha is built on Shu and Ri is built on Shu and Ha. It is also described as three contenctric circles Shu being in the middle and Ha and Ri being the outer circles.

Shu is the first level (often translated as "to protect" or "to obey"). At this level, you blindly follow what your teacher/book/instructor/master tells you. You do not need to understand why the things you learn work, just do whatever you are told. In life, this is when you are a child and you do, feel and think like your parents. You just copy. In the learning process of becoming a good professional, you follow everything your teacher or book says, for example, copy the program code from the book, use it because it works and try to understand how it works. In Aikido, this is when you do what your sensei tells you. You don't question his knowledge, you don't really understand why and how kotegaeshi works, you simply embrace the knowledge and skills your instructor offers you. Most of us are at this level as aikidoka. According to Chiba sensei, you are at this level for at least three to five years of training, or san (3rd) dan (which usually takes more than 3-5 years to achieve ;)).

Ha is the second level ("detach", "digress") where you begin begin to understand how and why something works and you begin to experiment with the limits of knowledge and skills you get from your teacher. I think this is the level of adolescence. You accept whatever your parents tell you but feel that there can be something more, something else that might be a bit closer to your personality. You are not exactly them, you can think on your own, too. In programming, you begin modifying the code from the book, add some code bits, change some parts, compare the efficiency of various algorithms that return the same output (e.g. sorting algorithms). In aikido, this might be when the techniques your master showed you are all clear, they work but you can experiment a bit to learn on your own and find small movements in techniques that work better than others.
I think there is risk for us here to get off the Path. In our running world people want everything immediately. We want to be masters very quickly and start experimenting with various techniques although we are not even close to understanding any of them. One example comes to my mind from when we were only 6th kyu. We thought we knew how to roll. Going to the beach with more senior students between two trainings in a summer camp, I still remember the place clearly, someone with 1st or 2nd kyu (they were almost gods to us) told us that even with their 1st or 2nd kyu they were far from knowing how to roll properly. That was a shocking sentence for me. It made me realize that I was still at the very beginning of my aikido Path though I had no idea what was yet to come, how long the Path was (I still don't have any idea). Then, I learned where my 'place' was, and there are still occasions that teach me that I'm still at level one (Shu). But at least I'm a bit closer to the Ha level :).

The third level is a level of dreams, freedom (Ri - "leave", "separate"). You don't need the instructions of your teacher any more, you are an adult, and as adult, responsible person. You are responsible for yourself, possibly for your own family, career, students, etc. You don't care how and why a small program works, you just do it and it will work naturally. I can't even imagine what this level is like for an aikidoka but probably this is the level (from 6th dan, according to Chiba sensei) when you don't care what technique you are doing, you just flow in the air, connect with the universe, you don't even need to see the circles in the movement, you understand, see and control the whole Martial Matrix around you.
I'll let you know when I will be able to (day)dream about this stage. I guess it's still a long way ahead. Until that, I keep running the techniqes in my head (when not in training) and notice that I can't even imagine a relaxed circular movement and find that my muscles are contracting in concentration and desperation to create a vision of relaxed me.

Fortunately, I think I'm close to breaking free in at least one field, my professional studies. I don't ask anymore for my supervisors' own idea about what my next reseach step should be because it's me who knows that (though small, specific) area the best. I know what's best for my research and professional me and although it might be different from my supervisors' ideas, they are happy to see that I (can) do what I want. Now I understand that a PhD is not a piece of scientific work but a state of mind.

The next step is to further expand on my own, maybe start something else from the Shu stage. My main goal is to get to the Ri level in every aspect of my life. Maybe that would be a stage some very wise men and women call enlightment?

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