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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > December, 2005 - Teaching Aikido as Michi - A Path Up the Mountain

Teaching Aikido as Michi - A Path Up the Mountain by George S. Ledyard

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I am in the air, flying to Washington, DC via Chicago for an instructor's seminar conducted by Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, my teacher. I was home for only a day before my departure having spent the weekend in Canada teaching a seminar there. I'll be doing some teaching on this trip as well and I find myself, as I often do these days, thinking about what to teach, how to teach it, how to convey something deeper and more meaningful beyond just technical instruction. This isn't always easy because there are so many different things which people want out of their Aikido practice. Some have few expectations at all, seeming very happy with the art which has some interesting ideas associated with it and affords a chance to get some exercise with a group of like minded folks. Others are striving for some sort of elusive capability of self defense, against whom, is often unclear... Another group of "seekers" is looking for something to give some meaning to their lives. The ideals of Aikido appeal and its physical practice affords an opportunity to interact with their fellow human beings in a very intimate way. I think this is especially true for men, who often have trouble with other forms of intimacy in their relationships.

Whatever their reasons, students on the "Path" of Aikido seem to be quite aware that there was this person, we call him O-Sensei, who seemed to have embodied everything which attracted them to the art of Aikido in the first place. He was an "Enlightened" teacher of great spiritual depth and insight, a master of the martial arts with few peers in his generation. O-Sensei created this art and training directly under his guidance represents a sort of "Garden of Eden" in the Aikido story. His deshi had access to as much of his teaching as they could possibly absorb, martial, spiritual, it was all there for the taking. Each took what his capacity allowed and what his own nature dictated. None claims to have gotten the whole package although a very few tried to duplicate O-Sensei's process as best they could.

O-Sensei's death represents the casting out of the deshi from the "Garden" so to speak. No longer was there anywhere for them to go to get the "whole package" of the highest understanding of the martial interaction coupled with the deepest level of understanding of our Nature and its relation to the Universe. Aikido almost immediately splintered, Cain slew Abel as the deshi began fighting with each other... Many different interpretations of Aikido emerged. Not a few bearing very little resemblance to what the Founder had been doing when he was alive.

The people I encounter in my Aikido travels, whom I meet in my on-line interactions, etc., the ones who are serious anyway, seem to be engaged in some sort of attempt to "return to the Garden" so to speak. They know the myths, the writings of the Founder, mostly as presented by others. The stories of the Founder, often second, third or forth hand, representing an oral tradition of passing on the mythology associated with the creator of the art serve to inspire new people to begin their Aikido sojourn and practitioners to persevere in their training.

With the spread of Aikido throughout the world and the globalization of world culture in general its possible to find oneself as an American in class learning Aikido from a Frenchman (this happened at Rocky Mountain Summer Camp in Colorado), or to encounter a teacher of Aikido who is an African American teaching the Japanese art of Aikido in Turkey (a friend I met at the Aiki Expo). There are interpretations of what Aikido is or should be which have so little in common with each other that they don't even seem to be the same art Yet the majority look to the Founder as the source of inspiration or at least the man who originally taught the person they look to as the founder of their particular style of Aikido.

With our expulsion from the "Garden", with the demise of an increasing number of teachers who even remember what the "Garden" was like, students of the art are increasingly left to their own devices to define the practice. Aikido practice has become, for some, largely a metaphor for social interaction in a violent world. For others it is a fascinating dance, highly energetic, in which the music comes from within the two partners and combines to create the melody to which they move. Some get to the place in their practice at which they really do start to "see" some of the spiritual principles outlined by the Founder while others focus on developing their martial skill, looking for new ways to train, to introduce elements from other martial practices to make their Aikido more effective.

The thing to realize is that for O-Sensei, Aikido was all of these. Very few teachers of the art have even come close to reaching the kind of broad insight which he attained. O-Sensei operated on all of these levels simultaneously. His followers and succeeding generations have managed only portions of varying depth and width. This has made the pursuit of Aikido a very difficult task because each student is forced to define what he or she thinks Aikido is and pursues their training accordingly. If course if one starts by looking for something in particular, one is apt only to find what one was looking for and not what else might be there hidden in the practice. So it would be best if one could find a teacher who seemed to offer the greatest depth and breadth in the teachings but this is not how people generally find their teacher... usually it is the closest dojo listed in the yellow pages.

One of the analogies describing Aikido, or any other Michi (Do, Path or Way) is that it is like a path up a mountain. In the case of Aikido there are many paths, some of which stop far short of the pinnacle but which offer incredible scenic vistas nevertheless. Our teachers are on the path we have chosen, up ahead of us, sometimes far ahead, and often only a ways up the path beyond us. O-Sensei made it to the top, in fact he blazed a trail himself. Most of his journey up the mountain was made when the majority of his deshi weren't there to observe him; he was already at the top calling back to them when they started at the bottom. These students all agree that they are on the path far down the mountain from their teacher. Most of us are even farther down the mountain, so far in fact that we actually can't see the path which our own teachers have taken to get to where they are.

Everyone who has hiked or climbed has had the experience of looking up the mountain and seeing what they thought was the summit or their goal for the day's climb and feeling like it was "not far now" only to realize as they crested a ridge that the path twisted and turned and perhaps some obstacle existed like a gorge over which some difficult crossing must be made and what they had seemed was actually still quite far off. Some hikers actually turn back at this point or decide to camp where they are. Others, somewhat humbled by their new realization of the distance but exercising their will to keep progressing up the mountain keep trudging up the path, often losing sight of the destination for long periods.

I think that this is where modern Aikido finds itself. Literally tens of thousands of practitioners are engaged in this practice, more than train in the Aikido homeland of Japan. There is a generation of senior teachers with thirty to forty years of experience who were never on the mat with Aikido's Founder. Of these, not all have managed to stay on the Path towards the "pinnacle" but instead have stopped at one scenic outlook or another to encourage students coming along behind them. Others have kept on climbing, leading the way for those coming along behind.

The problem, as I see it, is that there really is a metaphorical "gorge" over which the Path crosses. This gorge represents the transition from the merely physical to the energetic, from the external aspects of the art (the jujutsu, so to speak) towards the internal (the Aiki, where the external and the internal come together). This "obstacle" exists for students interested in the martial development of their practice just as much for students interested in the spiritual aspects of their pursuit. In fact, it is impossible to separate the two concerns at a certain point in ones development and keep progressing up the mountain.

Our teachers, now far up on the metaphorical mountain, crossed this gorge long ago. They are up ahead calling back to us, encouraging us, showing how they are negotiating the Path themselves. But we didn't get to see how they got over that gorge and they haven't waited to show us. Some of us are just arriving at the gorge and many more at still at the portion of the Path where they haven't seen that there is a gorge. In fact they may be following a teacher who has not himself crossed this obstacle.

I feel that for Aikido to continue to offer great depth and avoid simply becoming overly broad and shallow, some of the teachers who are just now in their practice finding their paths across the divide must now put attention, not simply on their own journey up the mountain but on explaining how they got across the "gorge" to the trail beyond. On a somewhat limited scale I do believe this is happening. But the small numbers of teachers who are in a position to do this compared to the much larger number of students and even teachers who haven't yet made the crossing makes it imperative for the teachers who have this knowledge to pass it on in some organized fashion rather than do what their own teachers may have done, simply leading the way but relying on the commitment and ability of their students to follow along.

Given how few these teachers are, it is also imperative that the students of the art, especially those that have the responsibility for instructing others, must take a path of the mountain which will put them in the way of these teachers. The good news is that there are now more opportunities for this to happen than ever before. Stan Pranin, after spending much of his adult life in Japan chronicling the development of Aikido and its parent arts, has hosted three Aiki Expos, bringing many of the great teachers of both Aikido and arts which utilize the same principles of aiki together to share their insights. The many practitioners of Aikido around the country sponsor seminars with teachers from their own traditions and these seminars are more often than not, open to any student who wishes to make the effort. There literally hundreds of Aikido videos available and thousands of pages written about the art.

Yet with tens of thousands of people doing Aikido in the States, only a relatively few hundred have actually attended any of the Expos. A top teacher can visit a dojo every year for many years and no one from the other dojos in the area will bother to attend (especially is this teacher isn't Japanese). I ask my own students how many read Aikido Journal (subscription required) and only a couple raise their hands. A few more read the discussions on the internet forums which are freely available but not close to a majority.

As I have commented elsewhere, it is a problem for the transmission of an art, when there seems to be doubt about what the art even is and what exactly represents the highest level of skill. Many practitioners have simply assumed that their teachers represent the pinnacle of what can be attained, affording the Founder some super human attainment not reachable by the rest of us mere mortals. They ignore any ideas from outside their own small "box" so as to not be challenged beyond their comfort zone.

I am writing this article mainly for the instructors of our art. Ordinary students train for themselves and can make whatever decisions they wish about how hard to train, how widely they wished to seek for ideas, etc. But an instructor has taken on a responsibility for teaching others. An instructor has taken on the role of becoming an integral part of the transmission of the art. If he or she is happy with a mediocre understanding of the art, then they will pass on a mediocre understanding of the art. If an instructor models an attitude of being closed to new challenges, never puts himself in a position of not knowing what is going on, then that is what will be passed to his students. If an instructor becomes complacent and takes the attitude that he will never actually get what is going on (a false version of beginner's mind which merely offers an excuse not to succeed) then that will be passed on to his students.

One of the deadliest phrases one can hear in Aikido is "Well, that's ok, but it's not what I / we do..." This is almost always said, not by someone who understands some different approach or has mastered the principles broadly and is now focusing on his personal path, but by someone who doesn't wish to make the effort to expand the bounds of the "box" he has created defining his art. It is a way to make ones world comfortable. If that is what is modeled for the students, by their instructor, then that is what they learn. The instructor is a "Guide" on the mountain. He must not only be familiar with the Path he is on but the alternative Paths if he is a real "Guide".

Teaching is a huge responsibility. People come to you and give you their time, their money, their trust. It is up to them what they get from you but is up to you to develop yourself to your own capacity so that, in that rare instance in which the students demands excellence, you can step up to the plate and deliver. An instructor must put himself on a Path to encounter those teachers who are headed up the mountain. If one finds an instructor who has stopped at a scenic overlook, look and appreciate the view, then keep on and find the next teacher up the trail who can show you the way.

At some point you will come to the "gorge", it's actually a different place for each student, and you must decide whether to cross it. If you do, you have to find a guide who can show you how to get across. Different teachers have taken varying Paths across and are headed up the mountain again. Find one of them and show them you are hungry, be so serious that they can't ignore your search for the answers as they pursue their own. Make them want to help you, don't sit around expecting them to.

Much of the feedback I got concerning my last article was from people who had only the most modest aspirations for their training. They wanted to feel that they were valued and that their commitment was worth while. I tried to point out that I wasn't advocating a particular level of commitment to anyone but was simply stating that people should be clear, at any point in time, what their commitment is and not delude themselves that it is different than it really is. But when we talk about people who have taken on the responsibility of instructing others, one has crossed a line. Once one takes on this responsibility one has an obligation to offer the best instruction he possibly can and to provide the best model he or she possibly can for their students.

If an instructor is aware of gaps in his knowledge which effect his ability to teach what he is required to teach, like an incomplete understanding of the weapons forms required for testing in ones organization, one shouldn't rest until that gap is filled. Continuing to teach something, year after year, which one doesn't understand, at least on a fundamental level, is a form of misrepresentation. I know, before I get floods of replies saying that people are honest with their students about their own lack of understanding about various technical issues, I want to say that this only cuts the mustard if they see you actively and vigorously attempting to rectify the situation. If the same students hear the same excuses, year after year, what are you modeling for them? Are your students raising the bar when they test or is the bar being lowered for them?

I remember Saotome Sensei saying to me, "If a student does poorly on a test, it is your fault, not theirs." If you take on the job of instructing others, it is your responsibility to keep on training yourself. It is your responsibility to deliver the goods to the best of your ability. That includes setting up clear expectations of them. And if you have any expectations of progress for your students, then you need to model that progress for them yourself. Are you climbing the mountain? Or are you some sort of tour guide, taking folks around the mountain but not climbing oneself? Are you following a guide who can take you up the mountain or are you following along behind someone whose own climb has ceased and can't guide you further?

All of these ideas I am outlining are those I am attempting to follow myself... I am painfully aware of how far I fall short of my own ideals. There always seems to be some new area to study, some new teacher to check out, some new approach to try with my students, some new personal struggle which needs to be surmounted. My own limitations cause me to bypass opportunities or postpone pursuit of some new are of knowledge. I can't use the excuse that I am "doing my best" because there is never a time when you couldn't have done at least something better than you have. The only thing I can honestly say is that I am modeling a form of progress for my students; they at least know I am not standing still and I expect them to do the same. I am on one of those Paths up the mountain and they need to keep climbing if they want to stay with me. That is my duty to them as someone who has accepted this role. If I get to the point where I can't don't want to keep doing this myself, where it isn't one of the absolute coolest things I could ever think of doing, I'll stop teaching.

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