George S. Ledyard wrote:
But on some level I am trying to spark the same discussion... What is a "quality" practice? What is "quality" Aikido? What is a "quality" teacher? Each person has to come up with his own answer, and unlike in Zen when your answer isn't on target, there is no whack with a stick or ringing of a bell to tell you that you're missing the mark. Only your own continuous work will give you the "right" answer and that answer will not be anyone else's answer, just your own.
David Valadez wrote:
I think that this kind of self-reflection is exactly what the article is trying to address. ... Commitment is a kind of act of faith -- it is a holding true in the face of come what may. Commitment ... adapting to the unknown as it makes itself manifest, to things as they change, and most importantly to remain steadfast in light of our own impulses, emotions, desires, etc., that may often drive us to no longer remain steadfast.
Both George Ledyard and David Valadez make excellent observations about subjectivity, clarity and commitment to good practice. But admitted that commitment is inherently personal, it still begs a serious question. If the essence of good practice is so highly personal, what is it that makes Aikido so broadly interesting across so many cultures?
There is an objective aspect of present-day world culture that distinguishes it from earlier ages, and also distinguishes Aikido from earlier martial arts.
This "quality" has been described as "post-modern" (A phrase I despise, but for which no ready substitute exists.) The structural sense of this pattern has been summed up in an utterly different context in the phrase "personal is political," implying the loss or continually diminishing significance of fomerly observed boundary conditions. This cultural fact is fundamentally disturbing to anyone who has relied or attempts to rely too strongly upon those formerly agreed social boundaries for their comfort and security.
This suggests an approach to the issues raised here.
Koryu, (and Ledyard Sensei may feel free to unleash his shinai on my head to correct anything I should overstate), relied upon a two stage method of transmitting knowledge, 1) kata or forms, the specific set-piece techniques that contained the schematic of the arts fundamentals, and 2) the principles that describe how tactical movements, offensive and defensive, fit together dynamically, often innacurately described as "secret techniques."
Many martial arts have followed the implication of the first part, and made a limited set of techniques into sport for fitness and physical improvement, or as minimally practical self-protection in certain defined circumstances.
Aikidoka who have trained for any significant length of time have a good sense that aikido does not fit either of these descriptions. Aikido is about doing something else.
Aikido is an art that is primarily about the second part of the old koryu teaching program, which by its nature is undefined, and open-ended. Aikido is, as far as I can determine, nearly unique in its emphasis in this regard. It is this focus that distinguishes it from many earlier arts. This attention to the "process" elements of conflict makes aikido particularly suited to the post-modern mind, for any culture in today's world, which I believe explains its broad appeal and success.
There are a number of personal repsonses to this aspect of present day culture, not all of them good. The same thing underlies the very real concern of disconnection and distraction. The "browsing" attitude is one such common postmodern tendency. It is that sense of lacking commitment, or at least lacking a real understanding of one's own level of commitment that Sensei Ledyard addresses. The related but opposite pathology is also present in morbid overindulgences -- an image of a boy in front of a XBox, GameBoy, [insert electronic time-expending device here] for the sixth straight hour pops to mind. Both of these attitudes negatively affect aikido training
"Process" is the philosophical rubric of our age. It underlies our understanding of physical reality (quantum mechanics), economic reality (market principles) and of moral reality (process theology, or for those who criticize its excesses, situational ethics).
Aikido is process philosophy in a combat setting. Combat by its nature does not observe predefined boundary conditions. Thus the ancient budo prefigures an understanding that is now commonly held, although in equal parts both adored and severely disliked by many people. O-Sensei clearly understood the art in this sense, even without any obvious or direct participation in the intellectual currents around the world that underlie process philosophy.
What is this process in Aikido? Simple, really: when attacking, attack; when not attacking, seek to attack. It is what we do when our last effort is either successful or fails that defines Aikido.
Commitment in this sense underlies the sensibility of budo: techniques do not end in any set-piece pattern: they simply evolve into other techniques/counters.
Zanshin -- translated as the "unrelenting mind" -- is the attitude described.
With it, I am convinced there is nothing that will not become ever more clear with time and practice to any student, regardless of their quality of "instruction." Without it, even the most simple things will seem deeply mysterious and frustrating, no matter the quality of instructor.
Techniques limit, and intentionally so. Limitation cuts the lesson into small enough bites to digest. My considered opinion is that truly gifted teachers learn how to shift the limits between "techniques" to help students start to see the process dynamic.
Reaching the level to be able to see this and having instructors that are capable of imparting more of it is what I perceive this discussion to be about. That is invaluable.
We need not sit and weep in lament for our misfortune for their immediate lack, however. Given the arc of my own peripatetic aikido training, I have not always been able to rely on the external components of learning to move forward. Even bad teachers (and mine have not been, I hasten to add) have good things to teach if one is prepared to learn.
Learning aiki means following where uke/nage leads. The process leads directly where it must go if it is followed, even if the destination is not initially known. It is indispensable to have an honest, commited, observant uke -- an honest, committed, observant nage. With a solid grounding in body movement, they are their own best instructors. The key is following uke/nage to find the next attack/counter attack, noting what happened, and remembering it.
Uke/Nage should be there to whack me when he or she can. A good sharp atemi is the best tonic or corrective I have yet found. The best remedy against a tendency of distraction is an imminent impact.
For post-modern minds, the personal is also the political, or as someone once told me, "Every aikido technique is implied in tenchinage." Exploring the unnumbered expressions of what that implies is what I train to do.