No one has all the answers.
I’ve spent years keeping all of my thoughts to myself when it comes to capoeira. Of course, it’s good to think before you speak, but this was different: What if I say the “wrong” thing? What if I sound stupid, or worse—what if I make my teacher and school sound stupid? This was never a problem for me in my personal life, yet there I was as an “Instrutor” in our art, afraid of the possibility of losing face. Better to stay quiet and let the reputation of my seniors do the talking, or else I might put a hole in the ship… right?
For the past six months or so, I’ve given myself the opportunity to connect with my mestre, Mestre Ombrinho, in a way that I hadn’t during the previous 12+ years of my training. Funnily enough, I was afraid of his disapproval, too. I feared that I would definitely ask a question that I should already have known the answer to; or that I would do something at a roda that would prove I was unworthy of my cord; or that it would seem like I didn’t care about learning if I wasn’t hovering around him, listening intently to every hidden tidbit of ancient wisdom woven into each individual word he spoke. This fear was the result of black-and-white thinking becoming the core of my regular practice: right and wrong, always and never, us and them. It’s the kind of direction that paralyzes you, like being stuck in the woods, refusing to move because a paved path and arrow sign aren’t immediately in sight. But if you don’t take that path—and only that path!—you’ll be lost forever.
During my earlier, infrequent trips to New York City to train with Mestre Ombrinho, I had seen other students ask him very specific questions, looking for that definitive “right” and “wrong” answer. But, curiously, those weren’t the answers they’d get. Instead, Mestre would list some examples from his knowledge. He might tell a story or two, or even praise mestres of other schools and styles. Finally, he would conclude with “the answer”: something along the lines of what has or hasn’t worked for him, what he has or hasn’t seen from Mestre Nô, or what he does and doesn’t usually prefer.
This is what it means to lead by example, but I wouldn’t understand it until a while later. Examples are examples; they are not infallible mathematical theorems, nor are they memorized sequences of chess moves which—if executed perfectly—will always lead to success. They are simply examples: we learn from them gradually, piecing them together for our entire lives in order to deepen our understanding. Without examples, our understanding is hollow.
Your mestre is a guide.
(S)he is not there to dictate your actions. (S)he cannot solve all of your problems. A mestre is not there to serve as your babysitter, nor is a mestre there to reign as your new commander or royalty. Instead, a mestre is there to share: To continue the legacy of their own mestre, and the mestres before them; To give capoeira back into their communities, as they’ve had the opportunity to find it for themselves; To allow us to find the benefits of the art for ourselves, as we honor those who created it.
A mestre simply nudges us toward progress, leading us in the “right” direction by walking far ahead on the path. An example. We choose our mestres and teachers—they do not corner us in the woods and drag us forward, toward our goals or theirs. After all, what could we have really learned if they did?
When I finally went to NYC with the intention of strengthening my relationship with Mestre Ombrinho, I went with my eyes and ears open. For the first time, what I saw was a person, instead of a distant authority that I had better not disappoint. This person wasn’t afraid to take suggestions from his students and empower them (not command them) to follow up on the idea. He was calm and thoughtful if someone gave him some negative feedback. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t know everything about capoeira, or the world, or that he might have made a mistake. So why was I afraid all this time?
Recently, Mestre Ombrinho asked that I fully assume the local teaching responsibilities for Ithaca Capoeira Angola Quintal. In the past, I might have been tempted to give answers when I wasn’t knowledgeable, or aim for perfection instead of progress from the local students, or avoid acknowledging a really great rasteira because it would make me look unskilled… but all of those temptations would have come from that old fear. Instead, I can now lead confidently as a student and human being. I encourage all of the local students to talk often with our mestre, and feel comfortable doing so. We’re all learning together—and so are the greatest mestres. My role is as simple as following the “nudges” from my own; if I’m doing an alright job, our members will appreciate it and we’ll all make progress. Leading by example, by following the example of a person who is following an example. Mindful Capoeira. Thank you for reading.