The 20 Year Technique by Ross Robertson
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It's widely accepted that aikido is a subtle, difficult art to learn,
requiring many years of study to reach even a basic level of
competency. Mastery of standard forms are hard won, and there is an
endless catalog of variations, combinations, reversals, and
improvisatory skills to acquire. Most systems include at least some
weapons training. There are techniques for dealing with multiple
attackers, techniques for breathing, techniques for awareness. Aikido
has a strong spiritual, or energetic component. And this is to say
nothing of the minutiae of the linguistic, cultural, and historical
challenges for non-Japanese practitioners. Oh yeah... and then for
anyone who's brave enough to open their minds a bit, there's the way
all those guys in the other styles do it.
Indeed, it may seem like a thousand years, many lifetimes would not do
it justice. And not surprisingly, critics of aikido will often point
out that, however laudable our goals, it just takes too long to learn
to be practical. For all our vaunted love of efficiency, we aikido
folk seem to take an almost perverse pride in how hard our art is, how
long it takes to just be vetted as a beginner. You hear it in the tone
of voice of the sempai talking to a new arrival: "That one? Yeah,
don't worry about it. That's a twenty-year technique."
I'm probably as guilty as anybody. Now, early in my 28th year of
aikido, I still feel like a little fish in a huge ocean, or like the
hapless astronaut in 2001 a Space Odyssey, who said, "my god... it's
full of stars!" Let's face it -- aikido is awesome. We wouldn't love
it so much if it weren't. So naturally the process of trying to stuff
so much, well... stuff, into our poor little minds is pretty
Even so, I have to wonder if we shouldn't listen a little closer to
our critics. Have we gotten carried away by our own mystique? Should
it really take twenty years just to learn one technique? Should it
really take five years of regular practice just to count as a sincere
beginner? Should we really be so inordinately proud of the fact that
we're the last ones on block to get it?
As I come nearer to my own three decades in aikido, I have to say I
don't think so. While I remain thoroughly humble (and humbled) about
all that I have yet to learn, I can say with some confidence I know a
thing or two about that "Twenty Year Technique." And I'm here to
declare that I don't think there's any single technique in aikido that
should take more than a few months to become reasonably proficient at.
Most of us have the luxury of doing aikido (much as it pains me to say
it) as a hobby. For some of us, it is more than that -- it's an art
form, it's a way of life. But few of us put our lives on the line on a
regular basis and expect aikido to save our asses. However romantic
the warrior way is to some, realistically aikido is more a pursuit of
a quality of life than it is a matter of harsh survival. This is
fine. Good, even, so long as we keep things in perspective. Even so,
it matters to a lot of us that aikido be sufficiently martial to be
there if we really need it. And, if it is the fundamental philosophy
which guides our lives, then it matters that the central metaphor be
valid. Can you imagine telling a young soldier about to go into
combat, "Look, I've got this really great technique, but it'll take
you twenty years to learn?"
So why in the world would we persist with such an unrealistic and
counterproductive bit of propaganda? I actually think it's
understandable for a variety of reasons. Here are a few, for example:
While several of the above are truly shoddy and unworthy excuses,
others appear more reasonable. But honestly, will our art die if we
suddenly discover that it is both easy and fun? And don't we really
want to communicate a realistic but genuine feeling of confidence to
people who practice in our dojo? Even with only a few weeks of
practice, shouldn't our new students get some tools that work? Does
the belief in this "Twenty Year Technique" really serve any legitimate
- It really is a holographic universe, and if you study any piece of
it, you discover that piece is infinite like the rest of it. You never
get it all. The more you boil it down to the most breathtaking
simplicity, the more bewilderingly complex it is. In this regard,
aikido is like anything else. If you're passionate about it, it is
worthy of a lifetime of study.
- Quick-fix students don't make good students. We tell them stuff
like this to make them go away.
- We are over-protective. Telling our students that they are
incompetent and will be for decades is our way of keeping them out of
trouble, lest they go looking for fights.
- It enhances the mystique of our art. It makes it seem more arcane,
more profound. Those who do persist in such refined and rare pursuits
are worthy of our reverence.
- Economics. If our students become masters in one or two years, they
don't need us anymore.
- Our teachers are incompetent. Or the system, the tradition we've
inherited is inefficient. Or more generously, the art is still so
young that the methodologies of transmission have not caught up to the
stunning beauty of the economy of the art itself.
- It's easier to hurt people than it is to preserve life, and aikido
people are morally superior than even God.
- Sandbagging. My shodan's better than your sandan.
It's almost as if regular, incremental progress doesn't count for
anything until the student has arrived at some transcendental place of
attainment. But look at other disciplines... there are many people who
enjoy playing music but who will never be world-class. The same goes
for sports. Most of us in aikido will never achieve the same kind of
body control as a performer in Cirque du Soleil, no matter how much we
practice. And yet, here we are.
But aikido isn't even about that. Aikido is about finding simpler and
more efficient ways of dealing with situations. We acquire a basic set
of skills, but after that comes the process of refinement. Progress is
now measured not by what we gain, but by what we let go of. We become
increasingly normal, natural. Mastery in aikido is less about
acrobatics, and more about what is not even noticeable.
How long does it take to get good at playing the piano? At playing
tennis? Obviously it depends on the setting. If the goal is to play
Carnegie Hall or Wimbledon, most of us are out of luck. For all of us
who are not gifted but willing to work hard, there are still a few who
are extremely gifted and just as dedicated. Good for them. But for the
rest of us, there's playing in pubs, or with a few friends on the
weekends. In this regard, you can get pretty good in a few long months
or a few short years.
I'll go even further. Aikido is not nearly as demanding as say,
concert piano. I'm not a pianist, but I'd wager there truly are
compositions which are "Twenty Year Pieces." That is, most mere
mortals can't touch them, dedicated musicians will take decades to
master them, and even prodigies will sweat bullets to learn
them. Aikido is not like this. Properly approached, there is nothing
in our repertoire that requires such superhuman motor control.
Nevertheless, aikido remains worthy of a lifetime of study. If we stay
in reasonable health, there is no reason we cannot continue to improve
right up to the day we die. In this regard, we have an advantage over
many other physical disciplines. Without question, I see things now
that I couldn't see years ago. My love, my passion for the art, my
appreciation for its beauty only deepens with continued
exposure. Aikido is joyous and exciting to me, and infinitely useful
But there is positively no reason that a new student should take as
long to learn these things as I have. This is not how the legacy of
culture works. By insisting that any of our skills take decades to
learn, we insult student and teacher alike. I see students today who
have studied only five years who are much more proficient than I was
after fifteen years of study (and I was good even then, and I had very
From the perspective of the art, it is not good enough that we become
good aikidoists. We must also become better teachers, more efficient
in the transmission of our traditions. In order for us to do that, we
may have to do some violence to those traditions. We have to
constantly ask ourselves, how can this be improved? What cherished
beliefs actually stand in the way? What can we dispense with and
lighten our load? What does not serve? When our students ask the same
questions again and again, can we not have better answers? When our
critics attack our art, shouldn't we have a defense which is
effortless, gentle, and effective? Shouldn't we be focusing on turning
out better teachers along with better students?
So now, if a young student were to tell me that they think they'd like
to be an aikido instructor some day, I'd have to give it to them
"That one? Yeah, that's tough. That's about a twenty-month technique."
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