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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > March, 2006 - The 20 Year Technique
by Ross Robertson

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 humbling.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. Quick-fix students don't make good students. We tell them stuff like this to make them go away.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Economics. If our students become masters in one or two years, they don't need us anymore.

  6. 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.

  7. It's easier to hurt people than it is to preserve life, and aikido people are morally superior than even God.

  8. Sandbagging. My shodan's better than your sandan.

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 agenda?

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 as well.

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 good teachers).

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 straight:

"That one? Yeah, that's tough. That's about a twenty-month technique."

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