Below is a reworked but messier draft…
Theory can give a thing a semblance of order and structure. It simplifies. The pieces in the theory can then be more thoroughly identified and become bite-sized and comprehensible. The pieces make sense relative to each other i.e. they’re internally coherent. The organization and the simplicity enable the student to examine and understand more deeply. In short, a theory can be a tool that helps look at the thing in question.
- It can be like a map that helps you go into new territory, although it may not account for everything you encounter and it may even be inaccurate (e.g., outdated) in some ways.
- It can be like a sporty car tire that helps you go faster and have more control, although it may make for a bumpier ride, restrict what surfaces you can go on, and wear out faster than a regular tire.
- It can be like a hammer that pounds in nails, although it is not meant to drive screws or cut wood.
Theory and Value. (“Value” could be thought of here as synonymous with “criteria” and “priority”.) By the very act of simplifying, a theory omits some details and includes others. By such discriminating and emphasizing, the aspects of a situation, and accordingly of courses of action, that are pointed out to a person using a theory will vary. The more accepting a person is of a theory, the more they will accept its emphases. The more one accepts, or takes in, certain things as being important or not important, that person is internalizing a sense of value.
At first glance, this could be taken as possibly occurring in a cold, unfeeling way. If I’m gradually internalizing a particular sense of distance, for example, not only am I paying attention to distance, I’m also gaining a sense of what distance is more comfortable, what is too close. The emotional content is often too easily dismissed. When someone hits their target, there is a probably a feeling, like “Yes!” rather than a Terminator-like distant awareness that a target was hit. When someone is about to hit their target, there is also probably a feeling, an urge, also. Although through self-mastery and mastery of skills, we strive to reduce the degree to which our feelings stand in our way, without any urges or motivation we will not excel or hone ourselves, but stay in a state or level where no particular “specialness” (e.g., concentrating, being curious, etc.) is necessary. (Of course a relevant paradox here is that at the highest levels of self-mastery one can be “usual” (‘heijoushin’) yet act in very refined ways. Yet the recognized process is that one eventually, gradually, ultimately attains a “usual” state, which is to say one is not that way from the beginning nor forces his way there too early.)
There is a dynamic, not static and unchanging, relationship between progress (i.e., increasing one’s capacity to realize the theory) and an individual’s grasp of a theory. As they both improve, they affect each other. In the beginning, when a person is putting a theory into action, they may be very limited in the range of situations they’re able to realize the theory. Depending on whether or how much a person can act freely in a situation, their valuation of all the aspects of the situation will surely vary accordingly. That person will perceive, notice, appreciate, dismiss, fear, avoid, embrace, wait, become harried, become defensive, etc. about the situation and its aspects depending on how he can (or feels he can) act relative to that situation. If a person perceives a possible situation to be hopeless or pointless, or pleasurable and safe, that perception is based on that person’s current sense of value. If you perceive someone as rageful and not listening, you may look down on them, stay away from them, not care or want to comfort them, perceive no conversation as being possible, etc. Regardless of whether you identify your values as respectful, caring, curious, compassionate, etc. if you perceive the situation as impossible for you to act on those values, then in reality (i.e., the effect, the consequences, etc.) it is virtually the same as if you did not have those values. And whether or how much you can act on your values depends on how you have developed your capacity to act until that point. And your capacity to act is closely related to how you see and assess situations, and how you form your expectations of situations.
Also, a theory as compared with a tool can define what “good/poor use” is. If we get a hammer and everything starts to look like a nail, then we use the hammer to fix things, say a stuck doorknob, and we may not mind leaving dents and dings in things. And we assess situations as changeable, doable, “can’t be helped just live with it”, “everything’s fine and if you’re bothered or hurt then it’s you’re problem”, etc. depending on the way we see the world as we conceptualize it – and conceptualizing the world and how we can be or act in it is what a theory influences us in doing. If we have a hammer and encounter something like a pillow or sponge, then we may perceive that there’s no job to be done at all because we’ve “developed” to the point of judging jobs that really really don’t fit a hammer as not doable.
Critiquing a theory. Just as there can be presumed no theory that fits reality without any adjustment, assimilation, or ‘filling in the gaps’, there is no one reason why a theory doesn’t “work”. One individual may struggle to progress as a particular theory prescribes “progress”, but ultimately progress in another direction. Another may struggle to progress in general. Is the tool very difficult to learn how to use? Both of the above may be “reading” the theory accurately or faithfully. Yet others may find themselves going in similar directions due to prematurely, inaccurately, or shallowly interpreting or assimilating the theory. Does the tool, say a hammer, influence you to identify and neglect jobs, say seeing everything as nails or not nails? So there are any number of reasons as there are individuals for the implementation of a theory to go awry.
Another thought is that a theory may fit poorly with reality. While this may be the case, there is often another (mis)judgment often made: that a theory doesn’t fit reality when in fact it is very deep or complex and the depth and understanding required by the individual is accordingly extreme. Many people give up on aikido and conceive a personal interpretation of its implementation after a premature assimilation. Many people form pseudo-religious beliefs based on a premature grasp of actual religion or even actual science. When there are a great many people around who are examples of the theory “not working”, we may assess that the theory is bad. But in fact it may just be a case of seeing a very widespread, common tendency among humans to do that same thing – in this case, to prematurely assimilate a theory and possibly use it for something other than what it was originally meant.
To take religion as an example, there are many functions and manifestations. One is to use it for a way to create and maintain a certain order or social organization. Another is to, as an individual, find meaning and efficiency in one’s life; by finding “peace” and “purpose/meaning” a person doesn’t expend excessive amounts of their energy and time on this earth worrying, fighting needless battles, etc. Certainly these aren’t the only functions but with even just these two examples we can see potential overlap. An individual may find meaning in creating social order and harmony through religion, for instance. However, another individual may find meaning or peace in creating a social order by oppressing or controlling others; if we see many examples of this, we may judge that religion in general is at fault or is a risky tool for humankind to use because it can be misused.
We may see a specific theory or religion as having ‘too many’ failed or bad examples and judge it not to ‘work’. We may also see a specific religion and find its orientation very much a ‘stretch’, foreign or bizarre, and thereby not be interested in what it puts into order and helps to navigate, let alone how well or poorly it navigates it.
There is possibly an American take on this, at this point. We in this culture tend to desire rationality and order. A tool is either good or bad. If it’s not, then it’s completely relative. It seems to be difficult for people in this culture to see it as ‘good in most cases’. Hence most people’s views on theories such as aikido or religion tend to be very personalized or very generalized. That is, we have a conception of “this is how I and my group implement it” and, often times simultaneously, “these (ways a, b, c, etc.) are how others implement it” as opposed to “this is how people generally implement it and here is how my group and I specifically do so, but in general we are all doing the same thing.” This latter approach seems to be held by many to some degree but it begins to fall apart at a relatively shallow level. For instance, we may say, “People doing aikido generally are seeking some sort of peace and thriving, but the way those people over there do it is either a very different understanding of peace and thriving or at the least I can’t see myself implementing the theory as they do.”
Objections to learning/acting from theory as opposed to practical experience seem to be a mix of several components:
- “Does the theory try to …” This wording reflects a confusion around personifying the theory, and also mixing up the originator, or original intention, of the theory and the proponents/users of the theory. Does the map try to account for every rock in a forest, every bench in a city? Does the sporty tire try to drive on all surfaces? The question is better phrased, “Is it meant to do such and such?”
- There can be a distinction between what the theory describes and what it prescribes. Does having a map mean you’ll get to where you want to go? That there are no cars, construction sites, or pot holes to watch out for?
- Related is the matter of, how much do we expect the user to adapt his behavior so that the theory is useful? And how much do we expect him to think on his own, to be able to fill in the blanks? If one street name described on a map is changed from when the map was made, is the rest of the map thrown out of whack? And how much would we expect to be reasonable for someone reading the map to be thrown off? If a sporty tire was designed to fit well-paved, smooth roads, would we assign responsibility to the person who chose to buy it or the people who maintain the roads, if the local roads were not well-paved? If someone who’s never seen a hammer or nail before receives a hammer and pot of stew that needed stirring …
- Another related matter is, what if the user uses the theory poorly or for some other purpose than originally intended? Do we blame how much of a “gap” the theory left for the user to have to figure out? Do we assess how much effort the user made in figuring out how the theory should and could be used before they made their own interpretation? Do we go and find out what the originator of the theory intended the use to be? How much effort do we make to put ourselves in the originator’s shoes? If we see many people using the theory in one way, particularly poorly, do we rely on their apparent assimilation and use, or do we find out for ourselves? If we see others riding around with sporty tires and putting up with heavy vibration, do we accept that that’s what we should put up with also?
A theory that doesn’t stir up objections probably does not deal with something that is complex or has many exceptions, and is clear earlier about what its scope is. Unfortunately, human beings exhibit a yearning for simplifying complex or inexplicable matters, and therefore give much attention and feeling (e.g., hope, skepticism, suspicion, longing) to such theories.
A person who prefers not to learn or act from theory, and instead prefers practical experience, probably does not like the task of filling in the blanks (“reading the manual” before taking action), figuring out what the originator of the theory was thinking, or relying on a “manual” or “troubleshooting guide” instead of figuring it out on his own. Such a person may also know that putting a theory into action requires some kind of figuring out anyway, so why waste time on potentially irrelevant details and levels of detail.
– that is, does the tool actually do the job well? and does it do the job it is presumed to do? Another objection is how the tool can influence which jobs the user perceives. If I have a hammer, maybe I only look around for nails, maybe everything starts to look like nails. If I have a car with off-road tires, maybe I’m looking more often at dirt paths and overlooking paved roads. So I might start doing some jobs poorly because I try to use a tool that isn’t the best fit. Accordingly I may gradually see less and less how it isn’t a best fit – that in fact it works just fine. I reckon that most of the time the blame gets cast on the theory or the very idea of learning from theory. Other times the blame goes to the teacher of the theory. Fewer times, blame may be associated with the student and his/her ability to figure out how the rubber meets the road.
The proponents of a theory, both teachers and enthusiastic students, will at some point prescribe how the rubber should meet the road. By prescribing, not describing, the person gains an expectation that the world will happen according to the theory and not the other way around. If the expectation is strong or stubborn, it reflects an attitude by which the person does not want to be disappointed, contradicted, etc. – in any case, this is a tangent about how the expectation is held by the individual. The expectation itself is a reflection of the proponent’s grasp of the nature of the road, what can be expected to happen when they meet, etc. This entails emphasizing and dismissing different aspects as important or not (e.g. does it matter if the tire makes noise against the road, does the tire need to be on specific rims, etc.). “How the rubber meets the road” is also related to presumptions regarding the theory. Is the theory meant to encompass all cars and surfaces? Does a proponent of the theory presume it to do so? Does the person presume the theory to be a formula or recipe that will somehow fit all of the possible variations of circumstances? Or that the circumstances are not so complex or variable that the theory couldn’t account for them?
This is problematic when the proponents are seeing the situation very inaccurately/skewed and rubber wouldn’t meet the road well in reality. So the theory might be very much in an imaginary world, out of touch with reality, regardless of how internally coherent it is. It is also problematic when the rubber meets the road in reality only if the rest of reality would fit with the theory (i.e., the theory is extremely limited to specific situations in reality). With respect to theories involving people, it is indicative when the proponents of the theory, in order for the theory to be valid, need to have a lot of “bad guys” and people who “don’t get it”, and excuses in general. And it’s not that having excuses and exceptions is nonsensical or delusional, or invalidate the theory. In the case of tires, we could say that road noise actually doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an off-road tire. In the case of people, there may actually be people who are exceptions, such as people under the influence of drugs, people hearing and reacting to sounds that aren’t there, etc.
In my own experience, I try to notice when my learning of a theory starts to demand changes in my sensibilities and values. One of the main, common changes demanded is regarding the situations that fit the theory. For example, I may learn counseling skills, which usually are in the form of talk therapy. However, the things that I learn, such as giving voice to one’s experiences and feelings, may not work with people who do not describe their own internal experiences well, whether due to lack of vocabulary or lack of awareness, or both. So does the counseling I know only work with aware and educated people? Does counseling work with only certain people? And if I wanted to counsel unaware and uneducated people with my current capacities, would I have to give them vocabulary lessons and awareness training first? And if they didn’t want to do those lessons and training, would I dismiss them or tell them that their problem is lack of motivation as evidenced by not wanting to take my lessons and training? In the end, if I made these demands (because my theory doesn’t meet the proverbial road) I wouldn’t put my theory to use unless reality, or the “outside world”, fit the client. What would “counseling” mean to me, then?
In the context of aikido, the rubber can meet the road in several ways. One way is the cliche topic of “does it work in a fight?”. Would I demand that my opponent attack only in specific, “aikido-type” ways? And if they didn’t accommodate me, I wouldn’t put my “aikido skills” to use but instead hit them or run away? What would my grasp of “aikido skills” be, then?
Instead of dismissing the theory, I might revisit my grasp of the theory, as well as how the theory has been presented to me by my teachers. The best example is when my teachers demonstrate to me what is clearly the theory meeting the proverbial road. Depending on how they perceive what they are doing, they might say it’s the theory at work or that it’s just how they do it. In other words, depending on how the teacher frames it to me, the student, I might see them teaching me via theory or the practical application.
In cases where it’s framed as the theory, there might very well be (to the student anyway) a big gap between what the theory is saying, apparently, and how it functions in reality. How to bridge this gap? I think it depends on both the skill of the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning. Both of these are related to a sense of value. Specifically, more than what to emphasize or dismiss regarding the rubber meeting the road, but how to develop oneself as someone able to meet the road. That is, whether I meet the road or not, how, as the student, am I developing myself?
If I am a student counselor, then I may learn talk therapy as well as art therapy so that I can work with various clients. What if I never learn of dance or movement-based therapy? If at some point I learn the principle that by learning talk therapy and art therapy, I am learning about various ways clients might express themselves, then the idea of movement-based therapy might not be another “add-on” to learn. Likewise, if I learn the principle that aikido is about how to move oneself and touch another person (that happens to be taught via certain forms), then if circumstances don’t allow me to move according to a form, my body may still have a sense of how to move skillfully, and if circumstances restrict me to touching a person in specific ways different from the forms I learned, then perhaps I will still have a sense of how to touch them.
Both learning from theory and from practical experience may address only how the rubber meets the road, how to expect the road to be, how the rubber should be, etc. However, the common point that makes either or both of these approaches work well could be the consideration given to how the student and teacher are continuously developing themselves to be the “tire”, and how to be regardless of whether they will meet the “road”. As well having and developing awareness regarding what one is valuing as important or dismissing as unimportant is crucial.