Last week in a post about “flow” and the zen concept of mushin, I had a bit of a discussion in the comments with a reader in regards to a seemingly growing trend in executive/work coaching/consulting advice that a person engaging in a type of process should just function at an intuitive level immediately – without putting much effort into training or gaining experience with the process at a fundamental/basic level. The reader offered what I thought was a good analogy:

I actually think Oliver Wendell Holmes framed the same idea rather well with the following:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I believe Holmes’ image captures the same vision of learning that we are discussing. Mastery (simplicity on the far side) can only be achieved by working through the complexity of the system — be it martial arts or law — to eventually grasp the principles which underpin them. Until that point, the practitioner is mired in the complexity of the system: understanding the roles of various principles and how they intersect, which are more fundamental, exceptions etc. Ideally, he eventually understands these principles fully and then the complexities simply fall away.

The “gurus” are telling us to forget the “complexity” of tasks and to let our unconscious take over; it’s the “simple” way of doing things and it is remarkably appealing to those seeking the fast route to achievement. However, those who adhere to this line of thinking mistake the simplicity “on this side of complexity” with that on the other. Theirs is the simplicity that’s not worth one of Holmes’ disparaged figs.
Which actually explains the phenomenon fairly well. However in our discussion, my mind kept coming back to a concept in traditional Japanese system of apprenticeship and learning called Shu Ha Ri, which colors my perception on learning systems – whether they be martial arts, law, cooking, or whatever else I might be practicing. My experience with Shu Ha Ri is almost exclusively within martial arts, so that will be my focus in discussing the concept (historically it has been applied to Go, pottery, theater, art, etc). It’s a bit much to go into in a single post so I’m going to break it up into three posts. Today will focus on Shu, then Ha on Friday, and Ri the following Monday. If I’m up to, I’ll probably also try to discuss the modern (mixed) martial arts approach of “aliveness” as applicable to to learning and compare and contrast the two educational frameworks.


Like most kanji, particularly those that refer to concepts and ideas as opposed to objects or people, Shu does not translate perfectly well into English. Wikipedia (such an authority, I know) has it translated as “protect” or “obey.” That is part of it, but that doesn’t really do it justice.

The Chinese character Shou (Shu) is composed of two parts, House and Law. Hence the house of laws. The character means “to abide by; to defend”. It can also be seen to mean to to “keep, protect, or maintain.” (1)

Generally speaking, Shu is interpreted as an adherence to fundamental basics of a process, without much experimentation or variance. Further, it indicates adherence to a single ryu (school) and sensei (teacher) and not dabbling around (2). As one is a beginning student, there is no point in exploration and experimentation because one is too fundamentally ignorant to even know where to begin. In an effort to bring the new student along as quickly as possible, they are set to repetition and diligent exercise of the basic forms. A student at this stage is on “this side of complexity” in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the reader.

I often feel this is true as I am finishing law school. I’ve spent three years learning the most basic fundamentals of law, strictly adhering to the path set out before me by books, professors, etc. This is the stage of learning in which I find myself and I know this stage will continue into my initial years as an attorney. It’s the first steps into the world of complexity. At this stage, guidance and mentor-ship from senior attorneys is essential. There are myriad false starts and missteps that can be avoided if a young attorney can “apprentice” themselves to a a more senior practitioner. In doing so, the young attorney can be set along “correct” paths to development and understanding – hopefully without making the mistakes themselves. It is better at this stage to follow the guidance and basics of the law and senior attorneys than to try and develop “new” or “innovative” solutions to legal problems as, more than likely, the young attorney does not have a firm grasp of how the complex systems interact.

Do other new attorneys feel this way? Do senior attorneys look at freshly-minted ones and perceive them in this way? I’m not sure, but I’d be interested to hear other’s thoughts.

(1) Iaido, Volume 7 number 2 #54 FEB 1995. Accessible here.

(2) McCarthy, Patrick “The World Within Karate & Kinjo Hiroshi” Journal of Asian Martial Arts. V. 3 No. 2 1994

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