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.
Got to the office this morning and was greeted by two serendipitous items.
The first was a song being played on the web-stream that we link to at the office (www.radioparadise.com) titled 'Coffee Monkey' with such lines as "I can't get enough of that coffee in my bowels", and "I like it black, black, black".
The site has a discussion board where listeners can post comments or pictures and someone posted a picture of a poster that said, "Coffee - is the planet shaking or is it just me?"
The second item was a newsletter that came in the mail. In my profession outside the dojo I receive more paper across my desk than I can tell you but this one had one of those 'Comments & Daily Thoughts' sections that caught my eye and while reading it and listening to 'Coffee Monkey' I realized that the two fit together so here's the idea this morning.
When life is running you hard like a buck running a doe after the first freeze of winter, don't let it "shake your planet", or "shake you".
Step back and take 10 deep breaths Zen-style whether it be at the office, at the dojo, or most especially at home with the family, and then consider this for a moment before stepping off into it;
"Count Your Words Carefully"
The 6 most important words: "I admit that I was wrong."
The 5 most important words: "You did a great job."
The 4 most important words: "What do you think?"
The 3 most important words: "May I help?"
The 2 most important words: "Thank you."
The 1 most important word: "We."
The least important word: "I"
(Source: A Short Course In Human Relations, by F. C. Minaker)
It just struck me as an exceedingly positive way in which to approach our relations with friends, family and co-workers, and of course Aikido players; another form of humility on the mat, as-it-were. Now I may have to go buy the book and read what else he has to say.
I was a brand new black belt (wow, that was a long time ago,
my how time flies) and while walking thru’ the grocery store a woman hit a
slick spot and fell. I sat there looking
at her and clearly remember thinking to myself, “So, you fell down why? And,
you’re not jumping up, why?”, until I realized that she didn’t know ukemi so I
tried to help.
The lesson here for all of us is that beginners are (not in
this order); confused, sometimes frustrated, impatient to be able to do what
all the “big kids” (black belts) can do, occasionally angry at themselves for
not learning faster, disappointed and any of a number of negative emotions all
of which center around not being an Aikido “master” (not that any of us are
masters of the art form anyway).
A beginner, just like that woman so many years ago, does not
know how to fall correctly nor can they easily remember a sequence of
waza. In a very real sense, they can barely
tie their obi correctly.
It is all too easy to forget that at one time we knew very
little about Aikido and now that we have our black belt, Aikido is beginning to
become second nature and without realizing it we begin to project our newfound
ability onto others who couldn’t do what an Aikido player can do even if their
life depended on it. So when we work
with beginners we attempt to explain the specifics of whatever waza we are
having them do and without thinking fall into the pattern that I found myself
in at the grocery store of, “Well, I can do it! Why is it taking you so long to figure it out?”
This is an improper way to teach beginners as all it does is
serve to discourage them and lead them to believe that they are incompentent
players, unable to learn to most basic fundamentals of the art form.
The fact of the matter is they are NOT incompetent in the
least, they are simply as yet untrained and unskilled in the specifics of the art form and need only your
steady guidance (and patience) in showing them and allowing them to learn and
If you are Shodan or Nidan for example, I could blow you out
of your fundoichi by simply starting to teach you Koshiki-no-Kata, a warp-drive
advanced kata from Kito Ryu Jujutsu that contains all of the essence of both
Aikido and Kodokan Judo which is why Kano and Ueshiba and Tomiki all studied it
in depth as they formulated their teaching pedagogies.
I wouldn’t do that to anyone but it serves as the example of
an advanced player being impatient with a lower level player and trying to
force feed information to them and them expressing displeasure either by direct
word or by forceful motion with our hands or worse yet, by subtleties of body
language that they clue into and them when they ask, “What? Am I doing it wrong?” we reply, “Oh no, it’s
They can pick up on that lie.
So the goal here is to have patience AND to be sincere in
our efforts to give them positive support in the same fashion as someone gave
us, way back when we were unskilled but desperate to learn.
Giri is a Japanese term that can be translated into
functionally correct English but that really has no equivalent in English if
one refers to the emotion behind it.
Giri roughly means “obligation” but to the Japanese, it
means “life-long commitment” as in repaying something that was done for you or
to help you. This “life-long commitment”
is not a one-timer’; that is, it’s not like the “markers” that Americans use to
denote a favor you did for someone and now you’re calling in that marker and
once they do a favor for you it’s done and now you’re even.
Nope. Being assigned
or your accepting a “giri” means that you were given something so important, so
life-changing, or so life-saving that you pay back forever because that obligation
becomes critical to who you are. You
must pay it back or you lose all honor and besmirch your character.
To Japanese, this failure can become a form of being socially
ostracized; to an American who understands the concept, this failure becomes an
internal albatross that you wear around your neck and that wears on your
insides until you make good. Either way,
you have to engage in payback. You have
to give back what you were gifted.
In martial arts this “payback” is the “giri” or obligation
to teach beginners and for that matter, anyone who is Kohai or lower in kyu or grade
to you. Someone likely spent a lot of
personal time that they could have used for their training but instead, they
devoted time to teaching you. You in
turn have now accepted the giri so you must teach others the way in which you
were taught. To not pass on the
knowledge and to refuse or hesitate to teach the beginners is a form of
arrogance and egocentrism that has no place in Budo or any dojo that teaches do
or “the way”.
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!”.
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 are not where you think them to
The first longest period is from first-night beginner to
Shodan. This is simply due to the
necessity to take someone with conceivably 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, the basic
waza of striking, throwing and joint locking, etc., etc., all mean a long road
to internalize and make functional the base essence of 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 and by doing so give a better understanding of the global concept.)
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.
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!
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, attention, the Stud-Muffin has entered the
Sorry. You ain’t none
of those and neither am I; and I’m the Sensei with almost 40 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, is a great, repeat, great accomplishment
and puts the wearer of the coveted black belt in a rarified 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 10-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
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 is
about 2/10th’s of 1%. In case
you slept through your high school algebra class, that’s not real high.
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 <1% 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 our personal potential (with the expenditure of enough effort, 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
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 feet 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 the lower level student body
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.
Humility, humility, humility is the only thing that keeps
the new black belt from going ballistically egomanical (or as the pundit said,
“drinking our own bath water”).
Making “First Step” to someone like me who has 40 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 some 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 grade will 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 of character that we all look for in friends, spouses, ukes and Sensei'.