Self importance is what happens when you forget how to bow. When bowing, you must lower yourself. Coming into the dojo, stepping onto and off the mat, you make yourself low. Bow to the kamiza, bow to your instructor, bow to your partner.
Bow to the inevitable.
Bow at moments of transition. Acknowledge the boundaries. Bow to the crisis that is training. Bow to the opportunity.
True humility comes from an inner security, a comfort with the certainty that there are forces more powerful than you. The acceptance that there is knowledge that exceeds your own, skills that you do not yet and may never possess. Ideas that are bigger than you, older than you, and that will outlast you.
In my lineage we were taught to bow as equals. Instructors should bow at the same level as students. We rehearsed, practiced, learned, and affirmed our humility right alongside the head of our system. This was very generous of him, but still we did as we were told -- not because of his title, but because he guided us well, because he knew more than we did. We did so, because he was truly better than us. To do otherwise would have been foolish.
Bow then, and ease your foolishness. Have you forgotten how to be grateful? Bow then to remember, and be forgiven. Is not gratitude what opens you up, what sparks your desire? Is not gratitude both the hunger and the satisfaction? Simple gratitude -- how wonderful, how pleasant!
A genuine bow, given sincerely, will bring you into greater accord with your training and your environment. Bend the posture which you have worked so hard to perfect. Lower your head and expose your vulnerability, presenting both your crown and the nape of your neck. Take your eyes off the horizon and cast your gaze upon the lowly earth.
How can this be? Why is such a fatal gesture so powerful? Why is it that this is an essential part of our training, the thing that completes our art? The answer comes only when you're willing to bow.
It is but a passing moment. The bow is not complete until you have stood back up, your eyes once again on the endless horizon, rich with freedom and possibility. Giving up, and gaining -- these consummate one another.
You may choose never to bow. Or you may only ever perform empty ritualistic bows. It's your life. After all, no one can ever know better than you what's best for you. You are a sovereign individual, ready to take what knowledge, skill, and wisdom is given (or sold, or leased), but you chart your own course. All wise instructors know this, which is why they also bow.
Any time you may choose to go your own way. If going your own way deprives those who have cared for you and sustained you, then it's obvious that you are more important than them. But if going your own way brings you closer to the ways of those you respect, admire, and cherish, then go, go go!
Sometimes we are forced to bow. Grief and despair can crumple us like paper and bring us to our knees. At such times, it is good if we have practiced a similar gesture and have good associations with it. Other times we are forced to bow when overcome with the sheer majesty of something unfathomably beautiful, right, and good.
Bowing punctuates our practice. It is the curly brackets that contains the coded technique.
At the same time, it is the practice.
Domo arigato gozaimashita.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
I have known people (myself included, sad to say) who could turn humility into a competition, so I particularly like your line about a "genuine bow, given sincerely." I guess, though, it's OK if we put it into our bodies first and then it finds its way into our hearts. I enjoyed this column, Ross.
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