Thoughts on a life spent in the martial arts. With commentary based on observations both in the dojo and outside the dojo in the theme park we call "life", the comments are intended to be pointed to illustrate how Budo can be lived. While beginning students may find much of this useful in guiding their journey as they begin to discover "The Way" of Aikido much of the intent here is to offer provocative ideas to seasoned players that will cause one to "Think" about the obvious and the not-so-obvious. Aikido is supposed to be "Lived" and not treated like a vacation where you occasionally wander across the mat like a tourist before going home.
A monk lives a life of single focus. The Buddha’s purpose in founding orders of monks and nuns was to provide an environment in which spiritual development and discover of “self” or “not-self” would be made easier by not being part of the outside world with all the distractions that entails.
The outside or lay community would provide the monks with their basic needs including food and clothing and any expenses that they might incur in their study which could last years if not an entire lifetime. In this way the disciplined, simplistic and orderly lifestyle was and still is conducive to meditation and finding inner peace on the way to kensho and satori and learning to enjoy the fact that all life is suffering. Isolating and targeting that goal (or “non-goal”) was therefore easier since all of their existence was centered on that idea.
This is the source of the old Zen phrase, “One Bowl, One Robe”, representing the only physical and non-spiritual needs of the full-time monk. I would expand that to include, “One Bowl, One Robe, One Bieru” in order to also take into account a little after-hours activity or some of that apres’ temple I’ve read so much about .
For those of us not into chanting about the glories of suffering and robe-wearing, having to make our own way in the world, make a living, and support the family gets in the way, intrudes as it were, on our having a long-term goal, a prime reason for not being able to train in martial arts like we might desire; thus the rationale behind the common saying, “Life gets in the way of what I really want to do”.
Compare that single focus in high school or university (that of education only and then whatever fun we want to find) to having a full time job and working towards career advancement, family, and then attempting to train consistently in martial arts. One reason for finding it difficult making it to the mat is a lack of the fiery energy you had in your youth where you felt you could literally do it all and still have enough fire left inside to go to the beach and drink that entire case of bieru’s by yourself, and then get up the next day and do it all over again. As we get older so many thing intrude on our consciousness and time that we wear ourselves out trying the make all the targets on our agendas and calendars thus leaving little of what is “us” for the mat. Then, a lack of energy caused by too many irons in the fire creates a lack of physical activity which in turn causes weight gain, a lack of “wind” and we tire easily, and a corresponding lack of energy.
Another issue is that of begin out of school, having a job and for quite possibly the first time in our lives, some money in our pocket. Thinking about that two week vacation to the California wine country or taking the kids to Disney suddenly looks so much more attractive than a week at a gasshuku working day and night while skinning your knees, sleeping dormitory style on a bad bed, getting cracking in the head, being choked out, and then going home exhausted.
The solution for all these “reasons” for not training is becoming more efficient in how we organize ourselves. When I first moved to Houston, I had a job where I had extensive travel and worked downtown. When I was in town I made as many classes as I could by packing a protein drink and an energy bar in my briefcase. I didn’t go home after work and before the dojo that night. I worked late to get ahead on assignments at the office and free up time, and then went straight to the dojo after consuming the snack at the office. I knew myself well enough to know with certainty that if I went home first, had a meal and then sat down for five minutes that I wouldn’t get back up and would miss keiko and then use the excuse of, "Well, I'll just go tomorrow night".
The other organizational strategy that I used was to write my training times in my calendar in red which told me to not violate those “business appointments” unless something more critical came up (such as a family emergency, illness, or some other issue). I ignored invitations to Happy Hour or dinner out because those social events are always best done on non-work nights anyway. I always wrote in important family times (birthdays, anniversaries, holiday events) and of course planned around job issues. With some consistent practice at this balancing act, it became easy after a while and stressing out over any one area gradually disappeared since I was meeting the needs of all three.
I was always reasonable in this and split time between work, dojo, and family but always made time for all three. Anyone who thinks that you have to become a monk and live a life of “One Bowl, One Robe, One Bieru” is wrong. You can live a life of “One Job, One Gi, One Martini” quite well and have time for family too. All it takes is a broader focus and some organizational skills.
When I started this blog years ago I promised to write about interesting, or intriguing, or strange things in Budo; things that hopefully make the reader cant their head to one side like a Pug and say, Huh?” Things that make you stop and think for a second is my intent so here is today’s momentary descent into, “The Budo-verse”.
Back in the gym after two or three years of broken promises to myself and just pure outright laziness. Promised my Head Hatamoto that we’d “do stuff” at the ‘doj and throw each other around so must get back into fighting trim. Not all that easy at age 65 but it’s still there. Just have to reach for it and do the work.
Worked out, had a “healthy breakfast” at the whole food shop inside the gym. Pretty convenient and they had plenty of black coffee to boot with a go-cup. My health club isn’t quite as nice as the old-world “Gentlemen’s Clubs” in London; you know, the ones where you do your workout, and then go to the lockers as your man-servant hands you a gin and tonic to cut the edge off those 1,000 sit-ups, and then you perambulate to the steam room as you waddle naked across the locker room, and the shower attendant hands you your fresh, hot, monogrammed towel and the green bar of English pine soap, while you admire your pumped, buffed, and waxed nakedness in the mirror.
No. Not quite that nice but maybe one day …………..
So on the way into the office, the skies turned black with this weather front coming through with massive rain and spectacular lightening shows. Satellite radio went into a “fem-ale” mode with song after song (by Toni Braxton, Anita Baker, Norah Jones, Tina Turner ……. Old School kind of tunes) so it was a smooth drive in with ‘tunes, nice weather, hot coffee, and good traffic for a change. Stress-less, not stress-free but close so the mind drifted into thinking about conversations I had heard around me that morning at the gym about people always wanting something from you and pushy salesmen (apparently this is a week for carnival barkers) and I remembered several occasions at the dojo where someone, ostensibly looking at training, actually wanted something other than Budo. They wanted things but used “visiting the dojo” as the wedge to get into the door and to try to put me at ease for the “close”.
I sometimes think that the world outside the Budo-bubble or the Bushi-verse looks at a dojo as a means of recruitment for whatever they are hawking, selling, thinking, doing, or hallucinating about. And sometime they can be pushy so a Sensei, who has the best interests of his deshi at heart (and who is concerned about the viability of the dojo as being a “way place of learning” and not just another pit stop on the road to mediocrity) has to be direct, sometimes to the point of rudeness and everyone once in a great while, threatening to do some serious bodily harm if they can’t figure out that they are simply not wanted.
Bwahahaha. I’ve been an insurance broker and agent for about 20 years now and got my start as a professional telemarketer after I left commercial banking. Even when I was in banking before going into insurance full-time back in ’97, the big corporate banking centers I worked at actually put us through classes in how to sell and close, to how profile the prospect, and how to gauge, evaluate and control different personality types either as a loan officer, a risk management officer or as a problem loan & liquidation officer (I was all three at times).
I’m the last person in the world you want to try to manipulate for a sale of anything and everyone once in a while, I’ll just screw with them, just because ………………. “Sure, I’m interested. Tell me more. Tell me more. But what if …… tell me more ………. But would you want your mother to do that?” ….. but, who developed this and did they make any money?” ….. Have fun with it and interrupt their sales script, which throws them off. Then you get to watch them try to recover so you hit them again.
So …………….. the occasions that popped into my mind during the drive in that were the most unusual and that had the best set-up as in the carnival barker coming in, talking martial arts and then slowly and gently trying to slip the ‘shiv in were …………..
Fellow sends an email asking if he can visit and the email says that he lives and trains in another martial art here in Houston; but that a good friend of his, an Aikido Sensei from Europe is in town and wants to visit several dojo to see what Aikido in the US and Texas is like. So I say sure, come in Saturday. They both come in, sit and visit, ask questions about Tomiki Aikido and I explain how Tomiki set it up, how the curriculum works and mention that Tomiki Ryu has strong self-defense focus and a heavy flavor of Kodokan Judo with how we work the off-balance on the attacker and enter for the technique. This was all information that I already knew the European Sensei didn’t know as he had never seen Tomiki Ryu before.
So during the conversation, the fellow that had sent the original email made mention (after I had to ask several times) finally ‘fessed up that he did another martial art that consisted of punching and kicking and some throws of various types and that he had students and was building a dojo here in Houston. My thought was …. hmmm but I said nothing. Then he asked if he could train. I said no, that I don’t take visitors and that only active students could get on the mat, not visitors, not people who weren’t already Aikido Players, and esp. not visitors from other styles who would be there only that class period. His response was, “Oh, a cynic”. Strange I thought, but knew immediately that he wanted to try his art against Aikido; something I had no interest in. Last time someone talked that game I told them that I’d ask one of the police officers in the class to come over and convince them of the error of their ways. Then as a test, I turned to the Aikido Sensei from Europe and asked him a simple question; to wit, can you see the Daito Ryu, self-defense, Judo influences. He got a sorta’ funny look on his face and said, “YES. I can really see the Judo influence”. I couldn’t tell if he was surprised at the techniques or what.
So, while they were both pretty courteous and not rude and not outright challenging, I interpreted it as checking out the competition by using the European as the excuse. Then, the very next day, I received an email from the visitor that he had emailed my senior Hatamoto to visit his dojo; an effort at recruitment as I interpreted it. So the entire email, visit, conversation was, bottom line, an effort at recruitment as I had several people who had experience in what he was teaching and he must have thought that he could interest them in visiting/joining his school. No biggie to me. I only want deshi that are interested in our program anyway.
The strangest attempt at recruitment however was the night a stranger walked in unbidden with no advance notice. He had a strange aura about him and seemed a little distant but curious. We talked and he said that he did some martial arts informally (my first thought was “Oh Gawd. Another guy working out with his brother-in-law in the garage by reading books and watching You Tube”). It turned out that he was claiming to be one of the few individuals in the country who knew “Viking Martial Arts”.
Bwahaha. Hokay then. Thor’s Hammer Ryu. This must be a joke. Nope. Not a joke. So after prodding him as to what he was looking for he stated that he wanted to learn Aikido and grappling to improve his Thor Ryu. Then I made the error of asking him what he did for a living.
And for the first time I about fell off my stool. He ran a sex-club where everyone traded spouses and they had bondage rooms where the audience watched and had martini’s and bacon wrapped shrimp as someone was tied up and …… er …… ah ….. “abused substantially” as the cameras rolled. So after sagely remaining silent for a minute or two, I just had to ask. “So. Thor. How do you find clients? customers? mattress divers? WTH do you call them?” He didn’t think that was very funny but interesting enough, his expression never really changed so that told me that he’d done this before. His response was, “We have to be discreet. We just offer that we do this and then allow people to approach us and join. We love to have visitors to the club to see what we offer”.
Didn’t take too long to figure out that I was being invited over and by extension, the entire dojo. Well I thought, nothing like trying to join a martial arts dojo with 50 or 60 people who are physically active and in good shape so-as to have a fresh batch of recruits because he was overweight and didn’t look to me like much of catch for a discerning female with life choices available to her.
So he left and the next morning I went on line and looked up his sex club. Sure enough. There it was, less than a couple miles away from the dojo in the back of an unmarked strip center and Google Earth showed blacked out windows with no sign, only the suite number. His photo was there on the website along with a bunch of other people and the site had photos of the “mattress room” (wall to wall), the bar (lots of interestingly clothed & unclothed bartenders in the photo, "Ah ... say there partner .... what are you stirring my drink with?"), the bondage room (no people in this one but the ladder, handcuffs and pole in the middle of the room with chains were included). And, lo’ and behold, a group photo of people at the beach at Galveston, wearing Viking clothes and horned (horny?) helmets and carrying wooden shields and swords at what was noted as being a “Viking Wedding”.
So, if you run a dojo, then keep some things in mind.
At some point, at some time, and one day, you very likely will find yourself dealing with these people. Keep in mind that these are the extreme examples. Door to door protein or internet ISP salesmen are a dime a dozen. These were the ones that were good at what they do. They are the ones that you have to watch for. Don’t let them in no matter how badly you need new deshi. Lying down with snakes never has a good result and if you feel guilty somehow about saying no, then remember the story about the frog and the scorpion. Otherwise, you may lookup and find deshi quitting the dojo because they came to learn martial arts from you, not be recruited by Thor the Viking Sex ‘Perv.
I made a mistake a while back. When changing our dojo advertising with "The Big Guy" (no names but think Alex and bells) their rep' talked me into including a listing of ourselves as a store selling martial arts supplies (in addition to gym, self-defense, Aikido, etc). They said it would produce more hits during a web search. Well, it has (I think) but we don't sell to the public yet. We may eventually but for now it's only to our deshi since we have little intention at this moment in time of going “Bricks – n – Sticks” with a store.
So on a pretty regular basis now, I get a call from someone looking for that perfect birthday gift, that conversation piece to put on the mantle, that perfect tool to carry in the trunk for road rage, that thing to keep by the door to threaten the neighbor who has that dog that keeps pooping in your yard, and that special tool for stumbling zombies.
“Do you sell numb-chucks?” No and it’s Nunchaku’s, not Numb Chucks. WTH. Did Chuck go “numb” all of sudden? I mean, is he ok or does need an aspirin and some Ben Gay?
“Do you carry gym clothes?” WTH again. We’re a dojo, not 24 Fitness and I’m really not interested in gym-rats or spandex.
“I need some advice on what to buy my husband for Christmas.” Lady. Please. Go on-line and do a web search for “Most Popular Christmas Gifts for overweight Pretend Budo-Guys”. Maybe you can find him a nice potted plant.
“Do you carry combat ready swords?” Bubba. If it can cut paper and if you can cut the cheese then you are both ready for combat.
Gawd. Pleeezzze stop. Make it go awaaaaaay.
So yesterday I get this call. Nice guy. Pleasant voice. Sincere attitude. Doesn’t know his butt from a hot rock about martial arts but he caught me in a good mood so lets try to earn some Budo-verse brownie points and help him out.
Him: “I’m looking for a hakama.”
Ok. That’s a good start. I don’t sell them but I know who does.
Me: “Go on-line, look up this web address in Japan. They will custom fit it, great price, perfectly sized and fit for you, take about 30 days. The last one I bought from them lasted about 10 years so they give quality hakama.”
Him: “Well that’s too long. I need it next week for the demonstration.”
Me: “Ok. What demonstration.”
Him: “It’s a karate demonstration with swords and she has to wear a hakama.”
Me: "Ummmmmmm ….. annnnnnd how old is she?"
Him: “She’s eight.”
It was about at this moment I almost spit out my coffee as I realized that the Budo-verse had suckered me into a conversation with someone who didn’t know the difference and couldn’t be educated. Must be a kami or two out there somewhere I’d upset a little. Will definitely have to do some extra ukemi this week for penance.
I was already into it though and didn’t want to be rude so I finally gave him a couple of web addresses that might be able to do an ICBM overnight launch with drone delivery direct to the front porch so his child could “style” in front of the judges.
First off, karate guys do not wear hakama for obvious “how do I keep from getting tangled up in the legs” kind of reasons. And for the record, I loathe those guys who wear their obi over the hakama. WTF. That’s not only declassee but downright gauche; but you see it all the time in these tournament parties with all the “flashing steel” and jumping through flaming hoops.
Karate guys don’t use katana real or otherwise unless they branch out into a totally different art form (which is ok) but karate per se just doesn’t have katana work in it. Karate = “empty hand” not “sword fighter”.
Children have no business swinging a blade around, dull or otherwise. It’s fake. It has no relationship to reality. Every single move is fake. Injury is entirely possible and hitting something with that $9.99 wall-hanger and having it break with pieces flying around can, has and does happen.
But Daddy wanted his little girl to look good.
I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls of people wanting me to teach their child, as young as five in some cases self-defense or prep them for tournaments. No, not a mistype. “Please – Teach – My - Five - Year – Old – Self – Defense”.
OMG & Jeeesus. Talk about helicopter parents hovering their Huey Gun Ship overhead, picking off trigger events while playing Flight of the Valkyries on the iPhone.
NO has become my instant response and then I raise their ire by telling them that at that age they are a child who has barely been house-broken out of diapers and their total exposure to martial arts of any kind should be limited to watching Samurai Jack on Toonami on Cartoon Network. It shouldn’t be swinging around metal and screaming while thinking that they are doing something real.
The disappointing thing about the entire conversation was my remembering how, over the years, I’ve had to deal with adults (not necessarily millennial's although they’re in the news a lot these days) whose view of martial arts and Budo is barely a gnat’s eyelash above that of the proud father with the eight year old. He didn’t know but had obviously been taken in by Sensei Carnival Barker, on the midway hawking snake oil as having value.
The most recent was before last Christmas when a guy in his apparent mid-20’s starting discussing “techniques” he had seen in what I finally figured out was a video game. I threw him out quick and I’ll be darned if he didn’t come back and actually whine to be accepted.
I was in shock. When was the last time someone rejected for reason (an adult no less) start to whine?
I long ago promised that I would preserve the arts as I was taught and not go for the nearest Yen that someone dropped on the floor like a 2-bit prostitute diving to the floor for that quarter someone dropped. Keeping to reality and the more traditional ways of viewing martial arts and life in general (they’re the same aren’t they, or they should be) changed my life entirely. Saved me actually, and saved many others I know from a life of following the same insane dead-end path of immature behavior that I was on as a teen-ager and as a worthless scotch-drinking frat-rat in college. They enabled me to do what a recent but now deceased rock and roll singer was quoted as saying before his death. Growing old is a privilege because it allows us to become who we were meant to be.
I would add my own spin to that. “Ningen Keisi, Bun Bu Ryo Dou” (a tatoo I wear on my back). Becoming a complete human being by living a life in balance allows us to grow in a mature fashion and become the person that we were meant to be all along. We just had to find him.
We can’t do that if we become overly sensitive and discard the Old School Ways that have been proven and tested.
Do we have to become like Mushashi? No. Admittedly, times do change so in general, some things must also have small changes here and there in order to remain relevant. What disturbs me though is fake martial arts taught to children who don’t know. They could have been a great Bushi, but that fake start could and very likely will turn them so far from the path that they’ll never find it.
That becomes my job and the job of any good Sensei out there. You have to pass my screening in which I look for maturity, sincerity and an empty cup but once you do and we (and other Sensei out there) accept you as a deshi (no longer a monjin) you too can become the person you were meant to be.
After I had the conversation with the dad on the phone I went home that night after keiko and poured some sake to think. Then I dug around and found my copy of the most recent translation of Hagakure. By some stoke of serendipity, the movie Ghost Dog was playing that night so I sipped, read, looked up the passages Ghost Dog quoted, and watched and felt a little sorrow for the loss of Old School ways, slowly being replaced by fakery.
Sometimes I miss my Sensei. He was beyond difficult (who am I kidding, he was an ass) but he knew what he was doing and was always sincere about producing real Bushi. I hope that someday my deshi miss me the same way. I can only hope that I can rise to the expectations and be a little old-fashioned on occasion.
Once you get your black belt it’s easy to lose focus, to slack off and take a brief vacation from the intense training that you did to prepare for your demo. In a word, “Don’t”. In another word, “DON’T!”. Part of Humility is the ability to understand and deal with the idea that you don’t everything (yet), likely never will know everything, and worst of all, don’t really know what you don’t know.
The basic difference between Shodan and Nidan is minimal and the time in grade (assuming that you get to class and train) is also minimal. The longest periods between promotions can fool you because the break-points in learning (and internalization) are not where you think them to be.
The first longest period is from first-night beginner to Shodan. This is simply due to the necessity to take someone with likely no athletic or martial arts experience and have them internalize the fundamental operating principles of the art form. Moving off the line of attack, blending and flowing, learning attack and defense timing (Sen-no-Sen, Sen-Sen-no-Sen, Ato-no-Sen), kuzushi, ukemi, musubi, the basic waza of striking, throwing and joint locking, etc., etc., all mean a long road to internalize and make functional the base essence (the core) of the ryu. When you hear old players in koryu forms discuss how the actual structure of the ryu changes the deshi, then this is a part of that “re-structuring” of the person. The deshi “becomes” the ryu.
Shodan to Nidan is, in a very real sense nothing more than setting into concrete your intuitive understanding and ability to use the fundamental principles and waza of your art form. Shodan means you “got it” and Nidan means you “really got it”.
(Keep in mind here that I never intend to denigrate the achievement, only to set that achievement into its proper context within the larger picture which is IMO necessary to maintain the focus needed to move forward).
Nidan to Sandan has another long period although not as long as beginner to Shodan. This is due to Sandan being a jump-point in understanding. In our ryu Sandan is where the deep understanding of flowing, merging and of taking control of the attacker the first instant when they cross ma-ai and begin the attack sequence (and then not letting them regain control until waza termination) begins to be acquired and internalized.
Sandan marks a demarcation as-it-were; the next really big progressive step in making a high-level Aikido player. The timing from Sandan to Yondan therefore, much like Shodan to Nidan is also fairly brief as Yondan is more material to learn and internalize but that material is essentially the same as that learned for Sandan; except “more of the same” with added sophistication applied. Yondan then “firms up” the jump-point; a critical necessity since beginning with the journey to Godan, really advanced material is looked at.
So the first gap is beginner to Shodan. Shodan to Nidan is fairly close then the next big gap is Nidan to Sandan. Sandan to Yondan is fairly close due to the similarity in the work required so the next big gap is Yondan to Godan with Godan to Rokudan being fairly close. Then the next big (I should say “BIG” gap is Rokudan to Nanadan.
I think you see the picture. The long and the short of it is to not lose focus, EVER! And, humility is a part of that. Arrogance retards learning because that arrogance, that failure to understand that you don’t know what you don’t know yet becomes a barrier, a closed door that is difficult to pass. The phrase, “empty tea cup” does not apply solely and only to the beginner sitting in the rain on the front porch.
The gaps between major progressions is really quite minimal so once you make Shodan just go for the Nidan and quit worrying about it. Once you make Nidan just go to Sandan because you know that once you get to Sandan then Yondan is just around the corner.
Pretty soon you quit worrying about “just around the corner” and you just “become” Aikido.
“Attention K-Mart Shoppers, the Stud-Muffin has entered the room, please look for the blue light for your personalized shikishi”.
Sorry. You ain’t none of those and neither am I, and I’m the Sensei with almost 50 years behind me with black belts in 3 different martial arts forms and senior teacher status in 2 of those.
Making Yudansha (graded dan) which starts at Shodan is, if isolated and taken strictly on its’ own, a great, repeat, great accomplishment and puts the wearer of the coveted black belt in a rarefied part of the atmosphere; but I’m a “Big Picture” kind-of-guy and in the greater scheme of things it is just another step on the way to a higher plane of existence.
I keep statistics and in the 19-odd years I’ve run my own dojo I have logged about 1,000 people who have either kept me on the phone for 30 minutes of discussion, come to visit the dojo, tried out a free class but never came back, actually signed up but never paid anything, signed up and paid money but didn’t last the first 60 days, or who signed up, lasted long enough to get a promotion or two and then quit.
1,000 people out of which I have a total of less than 20 or so active black belts and a dozen or so who would live at the dojo, if I let them. So if one considers that the real education doesn’t start until Shodan (the term after all means 1st step) then the percentage of people who actually start the trip to Yoda-hood (and then stay with it long enough to really accomplish something with the accrued skill sets) is about 2/10th’s of 1%. In case you slept through your high school algebra class, that’s not real high even if we’re generous by using the commonly cited statistics form various MA magazines (of all dojo and all MA styles) of about 5%.
So why can’t you consider yourself a stud-muffin (or studlette-muffin in the case of the ladies) if you are part of that <5% who has enough self-discipline and desire to commit to and stay with a long term study like Aikido?
Humility is why, plain and simple. Remember that Budo is all about self-improvement, about taking our natural potential and maximizing all that we can be (with the expenditure of enough hard work paid for with blood, sweat and tears), improving mind-body-spirit and by unifying them, our becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of the original parts.
Take a look at one word, “Spirit”. It has little to do with the mind (that’s all about intellect) and it has little to do with body (that’s all about the physical). The spirit and its’ improvement in making us a better person, is all about really old fashion things; ethics, humility, self-discipline, morality, honesty, not doing things in excess, the golden rule (do unto others…..), and all the complicated topics Aristotle writes on in Nicomachean Ethics which states in simplest terms that in order to in order to become "good", one should not simply study what virtue is; one must actually be virtuous in one’s daily activities at all times, whether those activities are comprised of issues of reputation (how one acts in public) or character (how one acts when you think that nobody’s looking).
Notice that nowhere in there are any terms like arrogance, abuse of others, taking advantage of others, demanding worship, ordering a junior student to give your left foot a tongue bath, or emotional cannibalism.
This is especially true of the halo effect that sometimes happens when we make black belt; we get a halo, or a small handful of lower level student body (kyu ranks) we just came from puts a halo on our head whether we want it there or not. In other words we become overly impressed with ourselves (we believe our own press clippings) or the kohai begin to look up to us like a child looking at their father or a teeny-bopper looking up to the latest rock-star hero (or we imagine that they do, thus making us a legend in our own mind).
Humility, humility, humility is the only thing that keeps the new black belt from going ballistically egomaniacal (or as the pundit said, “drinking our own bath water”).
Making “First Step” to someone like me who has 50 years on the mat is nothing other than a sign that now I can really start to teach you some neat stuff. It doesn’t mean that you are anything more than a beginner or that you are more than one small step removed from the kyu/colored belt that you used to be.
So, in order to keep that ego in check and enlarge your usable quotients of humility (and humanity) remember three things;
First, Shodan translates as “first step” so in reality, you are still a beginner with much to learn and you are a very long way from understanding all there is about Aikido and martial arts in general,
Second, since you are just a beginner, a newly minted black belt, then you don’t know what you don’t know. In and of itself that should be enough to keep that ego in check and approach every class with an empty tea cup.
Lastly, the black belt means that someone helped you climb the ladder to get you there so you have to return the favor in the same positive fashion as the people who helped you. Failure to do so means that few black belts above you in rank will likely want to waste any more personal time on a walking ego-trip.
Humility will get you much in life and make you many friends. It’s one of the more important qualities we all look for in friends, spouses, ukes and the Sensei.
We are what we eat, or so they say. Given that we’re not speaking of food here it would be more appropriate to say, “We are what we think” or, “How we think is how we act, and what we become.”
This should be of little to no surprise to anyone so I want you to think about it for a second.
How many times during your life have you known people who, for some unknown reason, had the ability to attract everyone to them? You liked being around them all the time. Being around them made you feel like you were a battery and just got plugged into the charger and now you were glowing with a full 9 volts; maybe 12 depending on whether you are running a flash light or a station wagon.
Funny thing is, these individuals probably weren’t voted “Most Popular” or “Most Likely to Succeed” since those are political accomplishments and generally have little to do with success in life. These individuals were just ordinary people who might play sports, maybe did drama or debate (or not), who might have been the person at the water cooler at the office that everyone asked advice of or enjoyed sharing coffee with.
The thing that made them different is that they had a truly positive attitude and a big smile about 95% of the time (all of us deserve that 5% of just having a bad day on occasion because the planets are out of alignment). That consistently positive attitude made it easy to be around them and better yet, they glowed with positive “vibes” to such a point that if you felt bad or down in the mouth then they always had a supporting statement or gesture for you that helped just a little bit.
Now think about your life outside the dojo. Think about each and every person that is a burden to associate with; that has a negative attitude most of the time; that enjoys, that loves, that revels in discussing politics or complaining about their boss or neighbor or co-worker; or just likes to get in some kind of hairy discussion about ANYTHING because they get to express themselves and voice opinions. For them, the act of engaging in the discussion and drawing other people in validates (in their mind) their existence as a human being and if confronted with that accusation/reality they simply deny it.
That’s the really obvious version of the negative personality. Now how about the not so obvious?
The not so (obvious) is what I described to my Sensei many years ago (probably about 25 years back) as an “emotional vampire”. I coined the term when Sensei and I were discussing up and coming high Dan promotions (4th to 6th Dan and up) and one specific person’s name popped up. The discussion pertained to why no one liked that person even though they were very competent and a highly skilled technician. I told Sensei that I considered them to be an emotional vampire because their self-esteem was so poor that they needed other people to both validate them and to support them emotionally every time they had their weekly drama. They were someone who so severely drained your energy by requiring your support and your continual positive comments (needed to outweigh their negative outlook) that when you finally parted company with them you just felt tired and drained (“Hey! Is it Happy Hour yet? Is the sun over the yardarm? NURSE!).
I was impressed that Sensei was impressed. It had never occurred to him to consider the issue in that aspect and we both agreed that it was pretty accurate. I had just come off-the-cuff with that description and he took it into a couple of full discussions both off and on the mat. He had just then formed the opinion that these “emotional vampires” negatively impacted his entire teaching effort and began to discipline deshi (or expel) those who couldn’t maintain a positive line of thought and behavior.
I really need to acknowledge here that all of us on occasion will come to train and have just had a really bad day and that’s ok. Even as Sensei I’ve done that on occasion too because after all; Sensei, Mrs. Sensei, the Hatamoto, all the Yudansha and each and every player on the mat are all human and sometimes the daily struggles and life’s vicissitudes just get to us every once in a while. And that’s just part of life.
The personality that I am referring to here as being the issue is the one that exudes negative vibes EACH AND EVERY TIME THEY WALK INTO THE DOJO. They just bleed negativity, and neediness, and their shoes slosh with self-pity with every step taken as the need drips off them.
So the bottom line is this.
I, as Sensei, could really care less about anyone’s family life, business problems, or personal issues as it is likely not my business (unless you care to share and unless we have a close personal relationship outside the dojo and off the mat). All of us, myself and Mrs. Sensei (my other half) included, have issues that we deal with everyday and that we never bring into the dojo or onto the mat with us. Doing a “dump” so-to-speak is completely unfair to everyone in the dojo who comes only train and not to be my or your emotional counselor. We are, after all, here to teach martial arts and not be your support group.
As Sensei however, I do care about the impact on the mat and on the other players that an “obvious” or a “not-so-obvious” negative person can have on everyone around them.
So, I’ll give everyone the self-same advice that my father and my Sensei both gave me way too long ago (time flies, one day you’re a cocky teenager and the next you’ve lost your hair and what’s left is turning grey). My father was right and funny thing is; so was Sensei. So please consider this:
“Go into each and every moment of your life with a positive attitude, positive outlook, and a positive & optimistic view of the future. If you at least try to think, be and act positive all the time, even when you are in the throes of deep depression, you will eventually find that the positive begins to outweigh the negative. Acting positive will, over time, actually produce a positive person. You will create your own positivism and it will push away the negative vibes. You are what you think you are and what you want to be.”
And once you get this positive way of life (“do” if you like) down pat, the dojo will become (for you) the way in which you create it. During periods of my life when I was the most depressed, overworked, underpaid and under loved, the dojo literally became my only sanctuary because I knew that the second I walked into the door, that I would have my hair blown back by all the positive vibes coming off the mat and the smiles of people who were happy to see me and who wanted to train. Funny thing is, more of the time than what I want to admit, I didn’t even know their last name. We were just friends and training partners and that was all that mattered.
The positive attitude enabled me to learn faster and to actually enjoy class much, much more than I ever had before. I looked up one day and was 7th Dan and still can’t remember how I got here. It just happened in the midst of everything.
Let the dojo become that one place in your life where the positives throw down, pin, and then choke out the negatives.
Or to paraphrase Forest Gump, “Positive is as positive does”.
My family has more than a little Irish blood mixed in with all the rest so anything Irish has always held interest (esp. green beer on St. Paddy's Day). But with that said, no .... we don't paint ourselves blue or wear kilts but the rest of it, the Celtic part of it that's out there in the mix, remains.
Some of the most spiritual music I've ever heard anywhere is Celtic. I consider it more spiritual than Buddhists beating their board and doing chants, or a vocal group at High Latin Mass, or even drunken Trappist Monks chanting in Latin. None of it beats a Celtic woman singing like a siren drawing the ships in. It just sounds ethereal like it would be the only music playing over the iPod earbuds stuck in Keanu Reeves ears when he steps out of the sphere in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" ....... that kind of ethereal.
The Celts speak of a concept that I've heard of in only one other place. The concept is known to the Celts as "Thin Places. The only other culture I've heard that in was in reference to Mexican Shamens and Curanderos that describes "Veiled or Thin Places"; so either Mexican Shamens are really Celts who took a wrong turn at Stonehenge on the way to the solstice or the concept has gotten around a bit in those cultures that are closer to true mysticism (and by true I mean true and not that watered down New Agey-ism Gaia tripe).
A Thin Place is somewhere; a room, a building or cave, a structure (it can basically be just about anything/place) where the barrier (the veil) between the normal and the supranormal, the mundane and the magical is so thin that under the right set of circumstances the two "sides" of the barrier cross and the veil lifts and for a brief moment the mundane and the magical are one and the same giving you the viewer a glimpse of something beyond, something better, something more meaningful, a mystical moment as it were.
Metaphorically speaking, it could be considered a place where, by leaving our normal daily routines outside the threshold or door to the "Thin Place", our minds can relax enough for us to "hear" the voices inside, "feel" the emotions, "sense" the environment, and for that brief moment, transcend the normal 9 to 5/pay the bills/drive in traffic world and reach for somewhere higher .... a place that we normally cannot even see or imagine due to the clutter that we more normally carry with us and that burdens us and numbs our senses. A place where Ueshiba described could be such a place or where the elves took Bilbo and Frodo after the ring sage ended ........... where do you want it to be? ....... and what description would you use?
The ability to reach for that place is what transforms us in the long term since once having had that glimmer of just where it is, we cannot drop the idea nor forget the moment and keep finding ways to go back again and again to the "Thin Place" in an effort to recreate the moment. That effort at "recreation" is what, over time, transforms us and allows us to grow and stretch and become a Shamen or a Celtic singer in our own right.
Such is the dojo. This is the reason that we leave our shoes in the rack and leave our ego in our shoes and bow to the Shinza as we enter. We want to make a distinct "break" with the outside so that we can begin that transition into the "Thin Place" and mazimize our chance at being able to cross over, even if only for a moment.
For me in the dojo, it's that place where every waza flows and my mind is so calm but alive and focused that it actually saddens me to have to put street clothes back on to make the drive home. Sometimes I teach class and don't even know that I've been there (on the other side of the veil in the "Thin Place") until class is over and someone walks up to ask me how I levitated my uke during the lesson while not breaking the stream of verbal lessons, like I was one person with a fully bifurcated mind (two people in one body) with one focused only on talking and one only on throwing, and each of the two perfectly focused into the moment (of communication and of waza).
The dojo is a "Thin Place". The next time you cross the threshold honor that; and if you get that glimmer, then come back and honor it again.
I think I'll have to refocus my drive this new year and spend some time on the other side. Even tho' I'm Celt somewhere back there I'd never really thought of the dojo in this light. I guess that this Christmas/New Year's season was better than I realized. I guess I actually had the chance to truly relax and realize that "Thin Places" aren't just myth.