Say you want to come train with me.
After a preliminary discussion about compatibility and so on, we agree that a training relationship might be possible. So I give you directions to the dojo.
My directions are likely to take a general form. From this highway, take this exit, go west on such and such street. Go to that intersection, turn left, find the entrance, park. Come inside.
After I get to know a bit more about you, I may refine my directions. So, you're coming from there? Well, skip the highway and come up the back road. My directions to you might be different than my directions to other students. But if you want to know the right way, I'll do my best to give good directions.
So now you set out to come train with us. You bring your map, or your written directions, or you've already got the navigation memorized. You find your way there, and training happens. Day after day, you make this trip until you can do it without worrying about it. Perhaps you'll even find a slightly different route that you like better.
But if you pay close attention, you'll start to realize that every single journey to the dojo is different. The weather changes. Road hazards appear that weren't there the day before. You find that there are potholes and bumps that weren't detailed in my directions. Eventually you may see that one lane is predictably better than the others... though not always! Some days the traffic feels full of resistance, while on others it just flows. Some days the lights are against you, and some days it's all green. Occasionally you have to make a complete detour. You get cut off in traffic. Someone tries to kill you. How come I never told you about all that?
In fact, the particular details of your commute will be very different from the directions I gave you. Every trip, every day, every moment is different than the last time you came this way.
If you don't follow my directions, you'll get lost.
If you only follow my directions, you're not paying attention.
We all follow paths established by others. This is an efficient way to make progress, whether navigating city streets or hiring a wilderness guide to climb a mountain or paddle a river. But even when we scrupulously obey directions, our journey is an intensely individual one. No one is carrying us. No one can tell us every minute adjustment around each new obstacle.
Back to the dojo -- if we could see your tire tracks and footprints that you make from your cumulative trips, we'd see just how different each time is. Yes, they probably don't drift too far from general parameters, and after a while we see a pretty clear zone that you're likely to stay within. No matter, for all your experience now, this trip is different from any other.
Every trip involves two paths -- the one taken, and the one travelled. The path you take is the one made or directed by others. The other path is the one you leave behind. The act of traveling leaves a trail, visible or otherwise, but a trajectory uniquely your own.
I suppose now that you may be thinking that I'm telling a parable about Life's Great Journey. And I suppose that the lesson applies on that large scale as well. But really, I'm just trying to instruct you in the way of Ikkyo.
If you attempt to do ikkyo -- or any other technical form, for that matter -- you would do well to listen very closely to what your instructor says and observe keenly what is demonstrated. After a while, you will be able to visualize the path that leads to successful completion of the specified art. So you diligently do your best to follow this path. And you'd be foolish not to.
But you find something strange and frustrating. You've done this long enough now to believe you're really following the directions meticulously, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Suspicions arise in your mind: your instructor is holding out on you, there's some essential detail they want you to find on your own; or else you're just too stupid or clumsy to get it right even when you're doing exactly what you're told.
You're following the path, but the path isn't working.
At this point, it'd be a good idea to negotiate your path through ikkyo the same way you got to the dojo: by following the instructions you've been given, AND by assuming that you have to navigate the various bumps and hazards on your own. You have to pay attention. This uke, this engagement, is different, and no rule of thumb is going to be perfectly universal.
You will go slowly enough that you have time to respond appropriately to sudden changes. You feel the road conditions and the status of your own vehicle. You will stop at the red lights and wait for openings in traffic to proceed. You may have to wait a long time if a train crosses your path. Don't be surprised by necessary detours. Read carefully the traffic conditions and move into the openings. Do not create or amplify the restrictions. Don't push.
By doing these things, you will find your own way through ikkyo. Very likely it will not be too different from what your instructor showed, but the richness of the experience is something no one in the world could possibly detail. No map could, or should, show every pebble and every shredded piece of tire tread lying in the road. These things are here and real, for you and for everyone -- but unique in each case. They may be gone by next time, and new features in their place, or elsewhere.
The Way of Infinite Variation is the only Way through ikkyo. All waza is henka waza.
The path that you see before you is a guideline. The open road is full of potential. The road behind you is the actual one, realized by your movements. But that path too is ephemeral, and must be erased with each new crossing.
Ignorance of these two paths will make your progress erratic and dangerous. Adherence to either of these paths will distract your mind from the reality at hand.
So, follow the road in front of you. Benefit from the road you've left behind. But understand that aikido is what's happening now. Your experience stretches forward in time and backward in time like the endless stripes on a highway, but the Way converges eternally where you are at this moment, and nowhere else.
I can point this out to you, but I can't show it to you.
Eventually you may want to become an explorer, and blaze a new trail for others. You may find a new Way to Ikkyo, or even a new Ikkyo. At this point the road taken and the road travelled become one. But they were always one.
The lesson of Ikkyo is that there is only One Way. The One is infinitely diverse, and never the same. To travel in the footsteps of the great masters, you must follow the same trail they've indicated.
And then you have to discover it's different for you.
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.