Ah, little Fräulein, if only the rest of the world could see through your eyes.
Andrews, the Butler
The instructor scanned the lineup of students.
The majority of people present had never set foot on a mat prior to attending the seminar. This was the second of the two-day event. A few of the arrivals had only come for the second day.
Very early in the session, the instructor called for a volunteer. He asked specifically for someone with no prior aikido experience. Unexpectedly, out of the whole crowd, a little girl (what was she... five years old? Seven?) called out "I'll come!"
The instructor's eyebrows elevated imperceptibly. He sized her up. She was one of the newcomers, having arrived just that morning with her family. After a moment of scrutiny, buying enough time to evaluate the implications of the choice, the instructor said, "Okay!" He gave instructions to the rest of the room to keep them busy, and then took the little girl aside to near where her family sat watching. For about five minutes, the instructor taught her aikido.
Having obtained her (and her parents') permission, the instructor then called up an experienced uke, and directed that the child be repeatedly attacked, jiyu waza style.
She did fine. She did a number of aikido techniques, though she had no way of knowing that's what she was doing. Of course the uke played fair, but the girl was doing quite passable aikido, improvising, with only a few minutes of teaching. And though this was a standard trick the instructor liked to deploy, though he had done it on other occasions before (Tokyo, Duluth, Toronto..), and seen it work every time, he nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief to see it work once again.
The instructor was, of course, myself. The event took place early in 2009, and was of a dual nature. First, the dojo and I were celebrating my 30th anniversary in aikido. We decided to invite our aikido friends from around the area, but also to focus on reaching out to the non-aikido community. Second, we were hosting a benefit for Aiki Extensions, of which we are an affiliate dojo.
Bill Leight, then Interim President of Aiki Extensions, travelled all the way from New York for the event. Bill is also the founder of Urban Visions, and heads a group called Peace Dojos International. He came to join the festivities and to help us promote the work of Aiki Extensions.
In addition, I'm honored to report that he also arrived with a certificate in hand to recognize our dojo, the Still Point Aikido Center, as Texas' first formally designated Peace Dojo.
I'm conveying all of this, because I've been asked to write a few words about what this past year has meant to me with respect to aikido, and where I am heading as we all enter the new decade. If the year began auspiciously, it unfolded with considerable challenge. I won't go into great detail, but after more than 17 years in our old facility, we decided to close our public operation. Conditions there had always been in the nature of compromise -- sustainable, but far from optimal. Having no place else lined up, we decided to scale drastically down and move the dojo to a private setting, and, for the first time in our dojo's history, establish a restrictive admissions policy.
We now train at Katie's and my house. When weather is favorable (a seriously relative concept, as we were to learn), we train on our second story open-air deck. We have an 18 X 24 foot (~ 6 X 8 meters) mat area, room enough for maybe twelve students, by rather optimistic reckoning. At present, we have six students, not counting myself.
This past summer was one of the hottest on record... and this is Texas we're talking about. We trained in temperatures in excess of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.8C). Despite the drought, it sometimes rained, and we'd blend, and find a way to continue training.
When the weather is too wet for safety or for mat integrity, we train indoors in our living room. Sometimes it's just too cold (as I write this it's below freezing outside). Occasionally, when the weather allows, we forego the mat setup and swing weapons in the back yard near the edge of the woods. Sometimes training is going upstairs to watch videos and archival footage of other instructors. Other times training is long discussion, doing the hard work of investigating the dimensions of emotional aikido, of helping one another, and of how a small group of people can have meaningful impact on building a better world.
By some definitions, conditions are harsh. Our training options are often dictated by the elements. It's cramped. We cannot possibly admit everyone into the dojo who thinks they might like to join. If a single student quits, our numbers are more than decimated. We have fewer material resources than ever to consider opening our own public facility.
Yet this is exactly how martial training has had to carry on from time to time, through centuries of transmission... very small groups sustaining a unique tradition. My students are not uchi deshi
in the traditional sense, but they are certainly "house students" in the literal sense.
As for me, well... I love it. This is one of the most intimate and rewarding dojo experiences I've ever had. We can afford to be less formal, and generally we train in street clothes. Lessons are often configured by the students themselves, and each has an opportunity to ask for and get attention on areas they believe they most need to work on. Despite the wide disparity of experience among the six students, our lessons are very much in the spirit of a "master class."
For the time being, we are an underground dojo. Not secret, not exclusive by design or desire, but nevertheless private. I still cherish dreams of a bright and spacious, well-furnished, dedicated public dojo with scores of students. But for now, I am literally at home.
Beyond home, in the larger world of aikido, I continue in my role as agent provocateur
, though the actions I seek to incite are generally harmless. My aim is mainly to foster greater introspection and self-examination among aikido students and organizations everywhere. I seek to dissolve barriers, even as I affirm the nature of affiliations. I like to break idols and icons, even as I adore our traditions and our benefactors. I like to think that I occasionally foment assent and stir up accord, and for that I am rightly called a revolutionary.
I wage my gentle war on several fronts. I write monthly columns for AikiWeb. I serve on the committee of Peace Dojos International. I chair the Aikido Pedagogy focus group of Aiki Extensions. I moderate for several AE forums, including the Arts of Peace discussion group. And of course, I maintain regular correspondence with individuals in the martial arts communities and other peace-building groups.
Aikido remains my profession. With just six students, the pay is lousy. But aside from that, I have the greatest job in the world.
On a personal level, I am more at peace with my place in the art than I have ever been. Thanks to the monumental signposts of my various teachers, thanks to my fellow students, and most especially thanks to my many many direct students throughout the years, I have arrived at the destination of my long desire.
I finally believe that I truly understand aikido. I have researched its root and branch, and have cultivated a methodology which makes it teachable, learnable, reproducible, and logically consistent. And if the horizon is infinite, if there is an endless field of discovery that yet awaits, the ground on which I now stand is solid enough, its fruit within easy reach.
My passion for sharing aikido is as strong as ever, but gone is my need to convince. Those who go to aikido practice but never really pay deep attention will not be convinced, no matter what gifts of persuasion I could possess. Those who do pay deep attention will see what I see, and they don't really need me for that. And if I continue in my own modest way to work for peace, rationality, beauty, joy, and sensuality, I know the world will overflow with these things as soon as enough people want them. For this to happen, I need not lift so much as a finger.
Going forward, I can do no better than follow the example of the little girl whose name I can't remember, but who will guide me for the rest of my life. The little girl who answered "I'll come!" when called. She answered the call without knowing the caller. She answered the call in a room full of strangers. She came forward with a trust not founded on external evidence, but perhaps on the instinct that going forward is the only way to experience life. She volunteered, because it's better to participate than to be a detached observer.
She was able to do aikido without knowing it, because she could see the obvious inevitability of doing what is simple and sensible. And yes, that is the lesson that I wanted to impart to the crowd that day, and I do think they were impressed.
But for anyone who had eyes to see, they would have known that the little girl was the teacher, and we, her pupils. The essential lesson took place in the instant of her open readiness.
I would live the rest of my life as she was in that moment. We can't know what to expect when we answer the calling, so what good are expectations anyway? I only know that the pupil sees when open.
The zen people say that attentiveness is what matters. O Sensei said that embracing the void is what matters. I say that what this really means is that we must be in love with what we are experiencing, to come forward into the arms of the only beloved we can know, which is the reality of the moment.
This coming year, and beyond... I grow younger, and aikido is yet to be invented.
Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.
Sir Arthur Wing Pinero
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA