A deshi is a student who has devoted themselves to full-time study and training – a sort of apprentice or intern. An uchi-deshi might live at the dojo for months or years, keeping things clean, helping their teacher, and assisting with anything that needs to be done. There’s a close, long-term mentoring relationship implied in the term, with special training opportunities, like private training sessions, and being the primary uke (the attacking partner) when your teacher is demonstrating techniques for the class.
Our dojo doesn’t have an uchi-deshi program, and in any case I have a home, husband, critters, and business to tend to. Alas. If I could clone myself, one of me would be a deshi. It’s one of only two things on my bucket list.* I don’t know how I’ll manage it, but I’m keeping it on the list.
Meanwhile, I try to support the dojo by helping out here and there. I wash the windows, take out trash, handle check-in for seminars, etc. People have asked if I’m a deshi, “student,” or uchi-deshi, “inside student.” Sadly, I am not. The term I have settled on instead, with the help of some friends who speak Japanese, is tetsudai. Tetsudai means, roughly, “helper,” or “assistant.”
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that calls to me about being an uchi-deshi. It breaks my heart a little (maybe more than a little) that I can’t see a way to actually do it. But I began to realize that many aspects of the experience are available to me now. I can participate in every class. Nobody needs permission to do that. I can take on chores to help out around the dojo. I can train with friends, mentor newer students. I can work to be the best uke I can be, and the best ukes get to take more ukemi.
I also discovered a way of listening that’s really interesting to play with. It almost feels creepy or delusional, but is tremendously valuable when I can get into the right mindset. I may not have private sessions with Sensei and other teachers, but I can listen as though they were speaking directly and personally to me. If you put that kind of focused attention on what your teacher is saying during class, as if you were the only one there, it changes something. It’s less passive. It’s listening like it matters. (And it does.) There’s something very budo/zanshin about it. Try it. It’s always available.
Facing a Shut Gate – On not being in a position to take advantage of an opportunity.
Ten Ways to Help Out at the Dojo – How to make yourself useful and support your school.
*The other thing on my bucket list is to try fresh cow’s milk. Like, from a cow. Not pasteurized, homogenized, cooked, bottled… Just fresh milk. I’ve managed to live over half a century on this planet, and it seems like I should know what real, unadulterated cow’s milk tastes like. If you keep a milk cow, or have a friend who does, drop me note sometime.
And about bucket lists… I follow Dike Drummond’s advice about determining what should be on your bucket list. , adapted from the book Five Wishes, by Gay Hendricks. Not every cool thing you kinda wish you could do someday, but just those things that, if you were on your death bed looking back at what you’ve experienced in your life, “even thinking about not doing it breaks your heart … then that is a bucket list item.”