View Full Version : Conformity and the Bicycle Lesson

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R.A. Robertson
05-18-2012, 02:50 PM
When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you hold and guide with a firm but unobtrusive hand. The child knows you are there, and is glad. Only you will know when it is time to let go, and if your judgement is good, the child may not realize right away that they are on their own. When the revelation occurs, the child may crash. But now you and the child both know that you are no longer needed, at least for this particular lesson. You've let go, yet the relationship is ongoing.

Our experience of aikido is similar. Our teachers, if they are good, guide us firmly, unobtrusively, and offer steadfast support. They know when NOT to let go. Our teachers, if they are good, will let go when it is time, even if we risk a crash. When they have let go, we should be wise enough to realize it, and wise enough to know they'll still be there for us.

An artist does not make balance, cannot create it or invent it. It comes inevitably by holding to right posture, and right posture comes from letting go.

If you teach aikido (or as I prefer to think of it, teach people how to discover aikido), you may wonder what to do with those who show up and go through the motions, but never seem to get close to actually doing anything real. It can seem like they'll never be able to hold themselves upright. Some of these people are simply dabblers, and this is harmless enough as long as they are not the majority of your dojo.

Others may be true believers, but this can be worse than having a room full of dabblers. The aiki zealots are the ones who are at risk of being overly infatuated with form, with formality, with ritual and dress and that insidious type of unity known as uniformity.

Regardless, let students come with whatever they have to offer. Some may be dabblers in aikido, but masters in other domains. If we can identify their mastery, we will be enriched by it, and may be able to coax it out in moments of aikido.

As for the true believers, they must not be allowed to perpetuate a forgery of aikido. We would do well to remember that they themselves are usually unaware of the counterfeit. We should seek to guide them toward a more authentic truth.

What about the idea that everyone must discover their own aikido? No one can possibly do the same aikido as another. We all have different bodies, perceptions, emotional constructs, personal histories, and so on. No one will ever do O Sensei's aikido, no one will ever be able to do their own teacher's aikido. No one can ever do my aikido, no matter how gifted a teacher I could be, or how much of a prodigy you may be. That leaves only the possibility that we may discover our own aikido, and spend a lifetime developing it.

Imagine the parent who tries to teach a child to ride a bike this way: the parent sits on the seat and does all the peddling and steering, while the child is pulled behind in a cart. The parent can do much explanation, and if the child listens, can learn a great deal, but it will be theoretical and full of meta-information. At some point, the child has to get in the seat and try to do it all themselves, even while there is an assistive hand and a loving spotter.

In the end, it is the bicycle, the road, and gravity that teaches. In the end, it is the child who teaches the self.

Does this mean that everyone's idea of aikido is equally valid? Categorically not.

Children are prone to unrealistic fantasies, and though this is wonderful for creativity and imaginative play, it has to be part the lessons of balance. A bicycle cannot fly. Rules of the road and of safety must be learned. The exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with your first bike ride has to be balanced with an understanding of conformity. Even if you grow up to become a trick-rider or a stunt cyclist, look closely and you will see how the masters have learned to conform.

To con-form means to "form with." Is this not aikido?

Remember that we teach aikido the same as we do aikido. Sometimes as uke, sometimes as tori, but always in the spirit of aiki.

Uke brings their own form to the equation, and tries via some tactic or other to impose a re-formation upon their target. However, uke must identify the form of tori, and adjust stance and posture and trajectory accordingly. As teachers it is the same. We bring our own understanding of aikido and try to re-form our students. If we do not, we have abdicated all responsibility as mentors or guides or resources. But not all reformations are equal, not all are aiki, not all are effective, and certainly not all are ethical.

Tori also brings their own form to the equation. Tori must recognize the immediate structure of uke and find a way to match the unfolding pattern. It's tori's job to find out how these patterns can fit together and form a larger coherent structure. Tori conforms, and in so doing, uke is con-formed despite all their efforts.

In this way, students must also expect to conform. While we have every right to expect our teachers to respect us and understand the forms that we bring with us, we are here to be challenged and reformed. We've come to the dojo to grow and change, and we've given our money and our trust to someone who we think can help us. If we are to become other than we are, then we should expect to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, and occasionally perhaps even offended.

Regardless, we expect to be made better. We're here to make ourselves better, not just with some increased set of trained-poodle skills, but better as human beings. Is it arrogant to speak of superior human beings? Perhaps, but all the truly better people I've had the privilege to meet are remarkably humble.

In any case, it's about how conformity and freedom work together and for each other.

Conformity without freedom is imprisonment. Freedom without conformity is a hazard to one and all.

A bicycle is made to fit the human form. There are different bikes for different people and purposes. They are made to be adjustable to better accommodate the individual. The rider, in turn, must fit the frame of the cycle. There are better and worse ways to sit on the seat, to grip the handlebars, to peddle, and time the shifting of the gears.

When rider and bicycle and road are one, then true conformity is realized. Freedom feels limitless, and the trails pull you forward.

I remember the first time I let go of the bike and watched my oldest son wobble a few yards down the street, really on his own. There was a terrific ache inside, as if a part of myself was breaking away and going someplace I could not follow.

Of course, when he stopped, he turned around and smiled, and we were connected by a deeply shared secret that everybody knows. Watching him ride, I could feel the layers of all my own experiences. I could feel the wind, hear the drone of the wheels through my bones, and know the weightlessness of machine and man when leaving a jump. I could remember that with a bicycle, sometimes a human can fly, and safely.

I knew that even as he was about to go off and have adventures of his own and follow paths I never could, it still felt as if all my own experiences somehow surrounded him, and would encompass all his future journeys.

I hope he knows it too.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

www.stillpointaikido.com (http://www.stillpointaikido.com)
www.rariora.org/writing/articles (http://www.rariora.org/writing/articles)

Janet Rosen
05-18-2012, 07:04 PM
Nice column, Ross.

06-22-2012, 09:22 AM
Hi Ross. I'm not so convinced about conformity being positive. Questioning is always better than unquestioning so I think we have a responsibility to inform ourselves first.

As well as conform you also used the word reformed. Yes we are here to be challenged but I wonder if we are here to be reformed or if we are here to reform ourselves.

By the way I wrote a couple of blog posts about aikido and bicycles myself. irimi and cycles (http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/moon-in-the-water-19051/irimi-and-cycles-4416/) and aikido against a bicycle part 2 (http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/moon-in-the-water-19051/aikido-against-a-bicycle-part-2-4423/).

I like your story of your son on his bike. Its truth resonates with all of us who are parents.



R.A. Robertson
06-22-2012, 12:20 PM
Thanks, Janet!

Niall, the power of words is often context-dependent. We often think of collaboration as a good thing, necessary for teamwork, necessary for society. And yet in another context, standing accused of being a collaborator is horrible.

This was my point about conformity. People who just want to get along, who will go along with anything, who just want to fit in -- they bring disaster upon themselves and their relationships.

At the same time, in the right context and in the right balance, conformity is good and essential for proper aikido. Look at our everyday experience: if we seek clothing that fits, then it must conform to our bodies. At the same time, we must conform our bodies to the clothes just to put them on. Same with furniture... ergonomic design is about the right fit. It conforms, and we measure its quality accordingly.

We usually like it when our surroundings conform to us. To what extent then should we conform with others, with our environment? By nature I tend to be a bit iconoclast, and I like to think of myself as something of a reformist. But if I look honestly at any rebellious impulses that I harbor, I see that they are actually directed toward finding a better balance, a better fit -- a better con-formity.

As you point out, this requires that we first become in-formed. With greater insight and awareness, we can act more appropriately in the cycle of shaping and being shaped.

Speaking of cycles, I liked your stories. And, I would argue, illustrate the point very well. Under other circumstances, you might have wisely chosen to let the bicyclist pass, even though it would mean altering your own trajectory slightly. You would have conformed. Under the actual circumstance, you wisely chose to assert your form upon another, and the cyclist conformed. And all the while in crowded streets everywhere, people make allowances and small adjustments for each other, reciprocally, conforming and facilitating flow. Ideally, each is served, every individual as well as the overall group dynamic.

06-23-2012, 11:42 AM
Thanks for that explanation Ross.


Susan Dalton
08-02-2012, 04:43 PM
I really like this column, Ross. Thanks.

Conrad Gus
08-02-2012, 05:18 PM
I really like this image of the bike riding lessons. It brings to mind couple of personal anecdotes (with morals!):

When my son was learning to ride his two-wheeler, the first time I let go of him he weebled right into my neighbor's car and did $400 worth of damage. It was really hard not to get mad at him! The brave little guy marched up to their house (with me right behind), told him what had happened and apologized. I, of course, paid for the damage. He wasn't too traumatized (partly due to my ability to not lose it on him, since it really wasn't his fault). He went on to be a pretty awesome bike rider (later that week, if I recall correctly).

Moral: If you make the decision to let go, you are partly responsible for the consequences.

Same son. When he was about 5 years old, he was taking swimming lessons in the shallow "kid" pool at the local YMCA. He was kind of bored with the process, and tried to convince me that he was a competent swimmer and didn't need lessons. I knew he 50% believed his own lie and that it would lead to all kinds of water-safety issues if I didn't disabuse him of his delusion, but he's always been a difficult lad to convince. So I told him if he could swim across the deep end of the big pool, he could quit swimming lessons.

Little dude smirks at me and jumps into the big pool, intending to swim across. About ten feet out he starts going under, with myself and the lifeguard watching from the side. I let him call for help a couple of times and get some water in his mouth (as the lifeguard watched, horrified), then jumped in and pulled him out. He decided to keep going to swimming lessons. He is now a very confident swimmer.

Moral: Sometimes you have to let go even if you know it is not going to turn out well.

I sure love that little guy. Since I'm on the topic, here's another story about him (http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?p=215184#post215184), if anyone is interested.


R.A. Robertson
08-03-2012, 12:10 PM
I really like this column, Ross. Thanks.

HI Susan,

Can you say more?

R.A. Robertson
08-03-2012, 12:14 PM

Great stories. As a father and parent (almost the same, but not exactly), it's so hard to know when to keep your children from harm and when to allow a measure of harm... in both cases so they can learn to engage the world safely, confidently, and aware of critical boundaries.

Our students are not (usually) our children, but there are parallels in how we guide those with lesser experience on a particular path. The trick here is to do so responsibly and without abdication of authority, while not becoming paternalistic.

Thanks for the comments!