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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > May, 2005 - Moral Stances on Shaky Ground

Moral Stances on Shaky Ground by "The Mirror"


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This column was written by Janet Rosen and Katherine Derbyshire.


Over on Aikido-L recently there was a pretty wide-ranging conversation about human competitiveness and how it manifests in the aikido dojo, where the usually stated ideal is not to be competitive, but cooperative or at least harmonious. The question was asked, "Why is it that Aikido seems to have more than its share of very small minded and insensitive people? Of both genders? Is it the way Aikido is being taught in some dojo? Is it the moral stance of the art?"

Janet posted a reply, Katherine posted a response to the reply, each of us essentially saying, "Yes, part of the problem lies in the moral stance of the art," and so a column was born....

In many dojos, representing the full range of styles and affiliations, newbies are told WE ARE SPECIAL. We are caring. We are nonaggressive. O Sensei was a genius, a wizard, a wonder, he reinvented the martial arts and we are the living legacy.

In any context, telling people that they are an elite sets up a strong potential for an "us vs. them" superiority attitude. Furthermore, being told that one is special tends to lead to less self-examination, rather than more. If simply studying aikido makes you a Good Person, then you don't actually need to do any of the heavy lifting needed for real self improvement. Research and direct experience have demonstrated these cause-and-effect phenomena in other settings, from families to workplaces to nations. Why are we surprised to see them in the aikido dojo?

All too often, despite lip service to harmony, what is actually being taught in the body is the imposition of technique. How many times, in how many dojos, have we heard this from an instructor? "Well, you are supposed to do ikkyo now, and if uke won't cooperate, DO this TO her in order to make it work." Naturally, the student who is trying to "do this to her" meets resistance from her training partner, to which she responds with resistance of her own.

So now we have a culture that tells the newbie he is special for training in this art, but the difference between what is preached and how he is actually learning to move and to interact with a partner creates a profound cognitive dissonance. Why are we surprised when the result is a group of people engaging in competitive struggle rather than cooperative exploration?

The student is learning tension that physically closes her off from her own body, not to mention her partner. In both body and mind, she is engaging in conflict with her partner. Attempting to follow the typical instructions to "relax" and "blend" is often ineffective. As uke, relaxation is likely to be perceived as vulnerability, particularly when one's partner believes that more effective technique requires more muscle. As nage, relaxation is often embodied as limply fading out and disconnecting from one's partner. In both roles, when "relaxation" clearly does not "work," the student reverts to more muscle and more conflict. She is not encouraged to think about, articulate or confront her tension and the negative buttons being pushed in her training. At the same time, the stated philosophy continues to be that everybody is being harmonious here. So this dichotomy is learned as normal.

In a person or a family we would call this passive-aggressive. Why are we surprised to see a passive-aggressive dojo culture?

Meanwhile, it's very easy to get the chicken (aikido principles) and the egg (effective technique) mixed up. Saying "technique that embodies aikido principles is effective" is not the same as saying "technique that is effective embodies aikido principles." The first statement claims that, if you do it right, aikido works. The second makes the much more questionable claim that if your aikido works, you must be doing it right. The distinction between the two is important, but subtle enough to escape scrutiny, especially if one is not inclined to self-examination.

In some dojos, the cultural norms also discourage honest feedback to or challenging of the partner as being unharmonious. Add that to the skewed mix, train for a few years to get some rank, and you end up believing that

  1. your technique always works (because people never challenge you),
  2. because your technique works, you must be doing "good aikido,"
  3. because you are doing "good aikido," then you must be a Good Person.
Then, along comes someone who has trained in other martial arts, or in an aikido dojo that encourages honest feedback. What does the Emperor do when shown that he has no clothes?

This is where things can get ugly, and all too often pretty words about harmony and compassion for one's partner go flying out the window. If you hang around aikido people long enough, you'll hear horror stories about how this or that instructor turns vicious when challenged, how it's safer to just do what is expected.

But aikido is a caring, nonaggressive art. There are no bullies in aikido, right? Right.


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