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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > November, 2005 - Clarity and Self-Delusion in One's Training

Clarity and Self-Delusion in One's Training by George S. Ledyard


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I remember reading a description of Aikido by Rev. Kensho Furuya in which he described the art as a tree. The majority of the students were the leaves; they came and then fell away but were collectively crucial to the survival of the tree itself. Then there was the trunk represented by the core long-time students. They are the bulk of what makes Aikido vibrant. They are there, year in and year out. They are the primary support for any dojo, both financially and energetically. They train as much as they can or as much as they are willing. Aikido is important to them but for most it is not the primary focus of their lives. For any tree to survive for the long run, it must have roots that go deep. The roots represent those students who strive for "mastery" of the art, who wish to go as deep in their training as they can, for whom Aikido is one of the most important things in their lives.

Are you a leaf, part of the trunk, or are you striving to go deep and become part of the root system? Why do you need to decide? Because one needs to be absolutely clear that the decisions one makes about one's training determine this outcome and yet often, people simply drift into a pattern that is at odds with how they see themselves. Of course no one wants to be a "slacker" but it's very common to see a dojo in which the standard of training is not very high with senior students who imagine themselves to be quite something in the scheme of things. On order to maintain this illusion the people at this dojo tend not to train elsewhere, see other teachers, or be very welcoming to folks from outside. In those rare circumstances in which they are presented with alternative ways of doing things, they are apt to respond "That's ok but it's not what we do...."

One can even see this within one's own dojo... this desire to be important, to have position. My dojo opened in 1989. I had a core group of new students who trained very seriously and were getting ready to take their Shodan exams. As they came along in their training the original senior students who had helped me open the dojo moved on to start their own schools pretty much leaving these up and coming boys as the big kahunas in the dojo. Then I acquired two new students. One was one of Imaizumi Sensei's students who had moved to the area to work for Microsoft. The other, while not ranked in Aikido, had done Judo and Karate since he was a child and was also Japanese trained. It was immediately clear that these guys were setting a new standard for the dojo. They trained harder, more intensely, more frequently and they didn't have to be asked to take responsibilities around the dojo.

The reaction of the existing seniors was interesting to watch. Within a fairly short period of time, three out of four of the core group of up and coming aspirants had stopped training regularly. They didn't quit, nor did they overtly remove themselves from the test preparation track, they simply disappeared. It was eminently clear to me that the arrival of students at the dojo who were more serious than they were caused a crisis of confidence and they chose, with one exception, not to deal with it. Eventually, each returned and trained just enough to get his Black Belt but none has returned to training with the commitment level he had originally.

Years ago there was a fellow at another dojo at which I taught regularly. The fellow had been at he school since its inception, had managed to get his Shodan by virtue of the fact that he had been at the dojo so long. But when it really came down to it, he didn't really train. He was always "injured", had a "job related conflict", a "class" that he was taking, always some reason he couldn't make it to class that day. I'd come to do a weekend seminar and he'd show up for the potluck but not be able to make any of the actual classes because of .... His teacher and I, after many years of observing this pattern, started to joke that this fellow had been pretending to do Aikido longer than anyone else we knew.

What was interesting about him was that, if you talked to him, it would have appeared to you that he was a hardcore Aikido fanatic. He would bring up his Aikido training in any conversation he had. He had read every magazine and book (not hard to do in those days), had every video, knew about the politics of all the various Organizations, etc. He "talked the talk" but he never "walked the walk" so to speak.

The "disconnect" between how people see themselves and the reality is fascinating to me. My partner, Genie Rivers, comes out of a western fencing background. She was a national champion in the veteran's division and narrowly missed making the Olympic team at one point. They don't have this problem in fencing quite to this extent because they have competition. It's very difficult to maintain an unrealistic assessment of one's own ability when one can't win any matches.

So what I see in Aikido is often a set of intertwining relationships within the dojo and within organizations which are largely designed to support the illusions of the members. A senior teacher will set himself up as head of a "style" or "organization. He will create a set of senior students who support him in this position. From the standpoint of maintaining himself as the "Big Kahuna" it is not in his interest to encourage his students to get wider exposure to other teachers and alternative viewpoints. A senior teacher actually accepted an invitation to the Aiki Expo, an event which is specifically about sharing and exchange, and told his students not to train with any of the other teachers. I found that to be both arrogant and paranoid at the same time.

The senior students of such a teacher derive their self importance from the relationship which they have with their teacher. It is also in their interest to support this teacher to the exclusion of others because in doing so they enhance their own positions. One can be a lot bigger fish if the pond is smaller so to speak. This allows folks to narrow the focus of their training to just what their own teacher does, no matter how limited that might be. They will, of course, turn around and do the same thing with their own students. They will maintain their own positions by restricting the exposure their students get. Guest instructors will be limited to folks who are part of the intertwining system of mutual support. The students will never see anyone who has a different approach from their teacher.

But even in a dojo in which the teacher's attitude is not consciously this way, the students themselves often try to create this safe haven in which they will feel like they are making genuine progress towards something, often not defined. Ranking serves to give the students something tangible to hang their hats on and it also pegs their status relative to one another in the dojo hierarchy. Nothing upsets this delicate balance of mutual support like having someone come along who hasn't bought into the system. In the case of my own dojo, having a student arrive who, while having no rank whatever in Aikido, was functioning at a very high level within a short period of time. Coupled with the fact that this same student was apt to jump right in when anything needed to be done and the seniors couldn't handle it. He challenged their view of their position in the hierarchy and their self images as "serious" students.

The Aikido community is largely a set of interlocking pyramids. The largest pyramid might have a Founder (a "style"); there may be a number of Shihan (each head of an organization or network of loyalties which form the smaller pyramids within the larger "style"); usually there are many Dojo-cho (each at the top of a small pyramid which is the school). Ostensibly, the teacher at the top of the largest pyramid represents the model to which the folks in the various smaller pyramids aspire. But, in fact, one often sees a "disconnect" between the manner in which people train and the manner their teachers trained in order to reach the skill level they have attained.

I often hear people advise students not to worry about setting goals, not to compare themselves to anyone else, just to train day by day with good commitment and everything will take care of itself. I couldn't disagree more strongly! If one has any aspirations to attain a certain level of skill in an art like Aikido one must make sure that the training one is receiving and the effort one is putting in will lead one eventually to that level of skill. Each point on a pyramid represents a pinnacle of sorts. If one does not aspire to reach that pinnacle, one will almost certainly not do so. If one's aspirations are to reach the pinnacle of one of the smaller pyramids, for instance be as good as the teacher who runs the dojo at which you train, one must look at the kind of training and the amount of effort he or she put into their training and use that as a model. I see many teachers who, perhaps having trained very hard and faced many hardships in their training, now attempt to shelter their students from having to endure what they did. There are, more often than not, no students in these dojos who will become as good as their teachers. If you are a student, you need to be clear in your mind about where in the nested pyramid structure you wish to be. Are you content to merely be a part of the smallest pyramid, the dojo? Is being the senior student of a teacher running a dojo your goal? Or is merely getting a black belt the extent of your aspirations?

If you aspire to reach a higher level, for instance attain what one would describe as Shihan level skill, one had better be very clear about what that entails. If one's model is at the pinnacle of one of the smallest pyramids, but one aspires to reach the skill level of one's teacher's teacher, for instance, one has to become familiar with how that teacher trained, what level of commitment he had, what experiences he acquired through his training. If one models one's training after one's teacher, one will be lucky if he reaches the level of that teacher and it is extremely unlikely one will surpass that teacher's skill level. If one's model is O-Sensei or one of the giants of Aikido who were his direct students, one will not ever reach that level merely by training sincerely day after day without directing the type of training towards that specific goal.

This subject comes up all the time on the internet forums... Someone will write in and say that they wish to do Aikido but there is no one teaching in their area and how can they train on their own. The answer is that you can't. You simply can't train on your own and have what you do be Aikido. If they wish to do Aikido they need to move and find a teacher, period! Conversely, the student who trains at a small dojo under the leadership of a teacher of middling rank and experience but who wishes to reach the level of the great teachers whom he has read about in the books and seen on the videos, will eventually need to move on and seek out a dojo which trains in a way that can produce someone at that level. The exception to this rule would be if one has been lucky enough to find a teacher whose own aspirations are high. That teacher has not stopped progressing himself and will be pulling his serious students along behind him.

Is your teacher a model for you? Doe she or she represent something to aspire to or are they a form of entertainment for you? If you genuinely aspire to master what your teacher is attempting to pass on to you , you need to look at how that teacher reached the level he or she did and train with that in mind. Don't ever think that merely by being on the mat with these people, night after night, basking in their august presence, that you will automatically progress to anything like the level they have reached. To get to their level you must make the same kind of commitment they have, search out the same kind of experience they have had. It's just that simple.

Many people attend class each night and afterwards comment amongst themselves how "amazing" their teacher is. I'm sure many folks remember me saying that the real question is "when are you going to decide to be amazing"? Do you even want to be "amazing"? Its fine if you don't... just be straight about it. Many teachers, recognizing that their "Tree of Aikido" needs to have a good solid trunk tend to reward their students with steady and regular rank promotion simply because they are there consistently supporting their teacher and the dojo. This has lead to the oft remarked situation in which Dan rank doesn't actually have anything to do with actual mastery of technique. Students attain higher Dan rank and start to feel as if they have attained something "real". At that point, anything which calls into question the reality of that "attainment" is a threat both to the self esteem of the student but the essential harmony of the relationships within the dojo. If a student enrolls who doesn't collude in maintaining the illusion that this "senior" is as good as he thinks he is, often the collective weight of the entire social nexus of the dojo will be brought to bear to "retool" this new student to fit into the collective illusions being maintained in that dojo. If this proves impossible, the student will be forced out by constant negative feedback, lack of positive reinforcement, disparagement of the student's previous experience, etc. Once the "trouble maker" is gone, things can return to their normal state of harmonious balance in which the collective illusions of the group are maintained.

This past summer I had the chance to train with one of the great martial arts teachers I have encountered. Kenji Ushiro Sensei was invited by Saotome and Ikeda Sensei to participate in the Rocky Mountain Summer Camp as a guest instructor. It was inspiring to see this man operating at the same high level of skill I am used to from my own teachers while giving us a very different perspective. Despite the fact that our own teachers were clearly impressed with his skill and that he was one of the nicest men you'd ever meet, one of my teacher acquaintances seemed to be looking for something to criticize. I realized that Ushiro Sensei was operating on a level which would require that my acquaintance stretch beyond his comfort level in order to move his technique to this higher level. Rather than face the fact that there is a level of technique above his own and that getting there would require a change in how he trains, it was more comfortable to manufacture some dissatisfaction which lets him off the hook. "I didn't like him because..." was the "out", the justification for not having to hear the message that was threatening. It was absolutely clear to me that this was what was going on yet, I am sure that this person thinks of himself as a serious student of the art, open to new ideas, etc. I think that it is very important to be vigilant in one's practice and constantly look at what one is uncomfortable with. Is this thing I am rejecting really negative or am I making it negative because it makes me uncomfortable?

I think the thing that is most dangerous for us is our tendency to diminish someone else in order to enhance our own perceptions of ourselves. This causes us to miss out on all sorts of learning opportunities. I once asked a friend why she hadn't attended a seminar with a teacher who I feel is operating at the highest level of sophistication. She replied that she didn't really "like" the person in question, that she thought he was strange...

I was stunned as a) if being a bit strange in Aikido was an issue there'd be about two people you'd ever train with. I mean, regular people don't do this stuff, and b) since when do we have to "like" someone in order to learn from them. Once again I realized that, for this person, the social aspect of training was more important than the Aikido itself. She wanted to train with someone who was copasetic with who she is, not someone who would require a shift.

We sabotage our learning in so many ways. One needs to be aware and pay attention to avoid many of these pitfalls. If one is really serious about one's progress then one should take experiences as they present themselves rather than look for ways to shut them out. Being clear about what one's training goals are is crucial to this process. Unless you don't care where you end up in your Aikido training don't expect that merely showing up for class for years on end will produce mastery. You need to have an idea of how good you wish to be and create the training which will produce that result. One's training needs to have direction. One needs a teacher who can and will train one to the level one wishes to attain. One needs to make the kind of commitment to training up to that level which practitioners from earlier generations made to attain that level; less won't make it. It won't happen just because you hope it will, you have to make it happen.


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