So, you've heard the story before, but hang with me while I tell it again.
Guy goes door-to-door selling this concoction. He comes to a house, knocks on the door and waits to see who answers. The resident comes to the door, says "whaddyawant?," and the salesman takes out a can, sprays some of the stuff in the air, and says, "Sir, I'm here today to sell you some shark repellent." Guy says "Shark repellent? Are you crazy? This is the middle of Iowa, there aren't any sharks around here for hundreds of miles!"
Salesman says, "See how well it works?"
I was reminded of this corny old joke recently when I was talking to one of my students about the dojo, aikido as a way of being, and our art's potential for general enhancement of the quality of life.
Despite the fact that this student has been training with me now for over five years, has worked hard and served our dojo well, and has made admirable improvements with his skills in our system's waza, he astounded me by saying that he still hadn't found any real use for aikido in his daily life.
He said he hasn't really figured out how aikido can apply to housekeeping. He's a programmer, and he hasn't been able to connect our physical movements with the intellectual challenges of his career and personal projects. We didn't go much into personal relationships, but I suspect he hasn't been able to apply our aikido there either. Finally, he wasn't sure where he stood on how effective it would be in a physical confrontation either, as that's a proposition that's remained largely untested in his experience.
You have to either really admire him for his persistence in the face of so little reward, or else think he's crazy. Maybe he just likes the activity for it's own immediate pleasure, with no need of expectation beyond the joy of movement and the intimate community of our little dojo family.
For me, though, I was aghast that there was such a failure (mine, his, ours... who knows?) of transmission of something I consider to be absolutely essential if it's to even be considered aikido. As I have often stated, it must be useful, relevant, meaningful, and pragmatic in everyday life. To do it as mere recreation may be enough for some, but it's not what I live for, and it's not the kind of dojo I've been trying to cultivate for the past 17 years.
This student of mine, and as it happens, this friend, is neither dull nor slow. He's a smart and creative individual, and a capable problem solver. As we discussed it further, I asked him if he'd talked with the other programmers in our group about the aiki of coding. I asked him if he'd tried to approach me or any of the other instructors about what they thought in terms of specific aikido living strategies. I reminded him that we have our own email discussion list that's available any time someone wants to seek help or share insights.
Clearly he had not taken advantage of opportunities that have been carefully constructed just for him, and for his fellow students. As frustrating and disappointing as this is for me, I couldn't afford to be angry with him. Fact is, the majority of my students are similar, in different ways and degrees. Very seldom is our discussion list used for actual discussion, rather than just announcements. Very rarely am I approached by my students to brainstorm together on issues that concern them.
And no, I'm no therapist and I don't see myself really as spiritual guru. What I know is aikido. And I know that aikido has an amazing capacity and a rich language and a set of experiences with which we can approach conflicts large and small. I also know that we build communities expressly for the purpose of combining group talents and resources, which in turn can create more capable individuals, which in turn makes for better and richer group dynamics...
So as uncomfortable as it was for me to hear it, I knew he was speaking a truth which is tragically common, and often unspoken, so I needed to listen and be grateful for his candor.
For me, the worth of aikido (priceless) should be stunningly obvious to anyone who's done it for even a little while. In addition to it's exceptional recreational benefits, it's uncanny ability to attract some of the most interesting and worthwhile human beings, aikido provides a direct and concrete way of making sense of the world without relying on superstition or dogma. It gives me a tool kit with which I can make progress in any endeavor, construct a better future for myself and others, and make reasonable repairs whenever I suffer inevitable loss.
Aikido is not the path of salvation. It's not the road to enlightenment. It's not a panacea, and the current state of aikido culture is not exactly utopian. Paradoxically, aikido frees me from the need for any of these things, while offering a simple, pragmatic method for making incremental progress. Aikido is not a cure, and yet daily it helps me get well.
Silence is often the best response when faced with something that leaves you speechless. I sat for a while considering what I'd heard, whether to issue a refutation or rebuttal, whether to count him as a lost soul, or myself as an abject failure as teacher and guide, or whether this was an opportunity to be really inspiring and point him toward the shining horizon.
Instead, I just decided he'll either figure it out for himself, or he won't. If he does figure it out for himself, it almost certainly won't be without consideration of his considerable resources and the talents and experiences of those within easy arm's reach. It's not up to us, to me, to be attractive or compelling or inspiring. It's just up to us to be there should anybody decide it's better working and playing and bouncing ideas around together, rather than just going it alone.
After some period of mental mastication, I had to admit that aikido is a bit peculiar, and that it really can be hard to quantify a clear benefit analysis. In fact, ours is the kind of aikido where we learn to appreciate nothing happening as one potential sign of success. We don't look at a successful throw as a de facto indication of good aikido. Maybe it is, maybe not. It depends on the situation. Maybe not throwing would have been better technique. Sometimes keeping a system in balance is better than kuzushi, but such non-events rarely look heroic.
Aikido won't do your laundry for you, pick up your room, or wash your dishes. It won't fix your relationships, and it won't make you rich. It offers no guaranty of victory in battle. It won't even give you good posture while you do these things, nor fluidity of movement, exceptional balance, agility, or awareness. Neither will it provide you with a good attitude or motivation. In fact, aikido won't really do much of anything for you. Whatever you want, you pretty much have to do for yourself, and when you use aikido to do for yourself, you may find that it is invaluable in becoming more truly yourself, and offering authentic, humble service to those who are ready to accept you.
What I finally said was along these lines: Aikido is preventative medicine. For the most part, you're not likely to test it in combat. You can't always know if your successful negotiation in business or the fight with your lover that you narrowly avoided had anything to do with your application of aikido. You go through your life, you have good days and bad days, and in general, the people around you can't tell that you've got something special.
Like a good insurance policy, you hope never to need it for the big stuff, but it makes your day-to-day life better if, maybe, you don't have to think about it much. Like a really good police force, you won't know how well they work until you need them. And if you never need them, consider them excellent. You want your doctor to be there for you in a health crisis, but if you partner with them regularly, each of you doing your part, you may never see how effective the medicine is, because it's working every single moment in the tiniest of ways, unnoticed and unobtrusive.
This is why it's so hard to tell an honest insurance salesman from a really slimy one. They're both in the business of selling you a product that you never want to see in action, and the hope that nothing will happen.
If I try to sell you aikido, you might reasonably tell me there are no ninjas in your neighborhood. And if I replied, "See how well it works?" you should either laugh or slam the door in my face.
But without the ninjas, how would you know?
My own experience in aikido has taught me to evaluate pretty much every encounter in terms of threat/opportunity. Aikido has given me an infinitely flexible template for how to deal with these opposing concepts in a way that is remarkably coherent and unified. Without aikido, or something a lot like it, I doubt I would have ever noticed I was missing anything. With it, I have a hard time imagining living without it.
I've now got over thirty years of experience in the art. Off the mat, you'd probably never know it. My family and friends are pretty proud of my accomplishments, but not so much that they're lining up outside my dojo door. To them, I'm just a normal guy with a peculiar lifestyle. I worry about making enough money, but so far, I get by, thanks to a vast support network far beyond my own innate resources. Enough people really like me, but with a few exceptional exceptions, not so much to work for me or join "my" cause.
Even with my aikido, and sometimes because of it, I really disappoint people. Sometimes I hurt them without meaning to, and on very rare occasions, just because I wanted to. Sometimes I simply annoy people.
But not so much that they want to pick a fight with me.
See how well it works?
May Day! 2009
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Re: Shark Repellent
I enjoyed that, thanks!
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