I'm not really sure what led to it, but a few weeks ago some students and I got into a discussion about the relationship between deshi and their sensei.
That got me to reminiscing about my early experiences training under Bill Sosa Sensei. Bill was a very charismatic man with a self-contained but forceful personality. There was a glamour about him, and it was easy to fall in love with his power and presence. It's not too far a stretch to say that he was a father figure and something of an idol to many of his students. I was not immune.
Bill could be genuinely self-effacing, and did not openly encourage such hero worship. At the same time, I think he recognized the current of power that he attracted, and was not afraid to direct it according to what he found useful in our training. I adored him and was eager to please and to show him my commitment and progress. Usually he would assess this as an egoic need for attention and approval, and would find a way to deflate such solicitations.
Nonetheless, I could also recognize that he was only human, and had normal flaws. Nothing serious that I knew of, but I understood the hazards of cults of personality, and strove to keep everything in perspective.
That's why I found it odd one night when I was paired with a woman who quietly whispered "So… are you one of the ones who just sees Sensei through rose-colored lenses?" I knew what she was talking about, but I also understood there was no good answer for such an obviously leading question. I ignored it and focused on the technique.
It was clear to me that she thought she was cleverer than the rest of us, refusing to be duped. I knew she was missing the point, and that she wouldn't last. I wasn't wrong.
Yet my own durability in the art depended on finding a right balance. I truly felt that teachers like this man were worthy of reverence. I also knew that blind faith and unquestioning obedience were inimical to the human spirit and to healthy community. I saw no future in either hero-worship or in being iconoclast. So I just trained on, paying attention as best I could to both the good and the bad.
Ultimately I came up with a system that worked rather well for me. I constructed an artifice where I consciously chose to view him as both my most benign benefactor and simultaneously a crafty villain who was there to destroy me.
In reality, there was truth to both perspectives. There is no doubt whatsoever that he had a gift to give to those who could open and receive it, and that it could be transformative. Yet the very nature of transformation involves undoing what has gone before, and letting go of what is. Becoming is as much a destructive process as it is a generative one. So there is some deep irony in the fact that we cannot study self-defense if we are not willing to let go of the self we think we are.
Of course I was being deliberately melodramatic in my approach, and it made a true human being into a caricature and an archetype… which is exactly what I wanted.
Over time I got to know the man a little better, as just a normal human being. Eventually he made me become comfortable just calling him "Bill" off the mat. I found this marvelously gracious, and in a lot of ways it helped me grow up.
But during training, I needed him to be something mythical -- a keeper of the Grail and a Lurker on the Threshold. Moreover, I didn't really even need him to play the part as much as I needed to project it onto him. He was there as someone who happened to be excellent raw material for my artifice. I became aware of my own need and ability to cast these archetypes onto him, so I used this to enhance my attentiveness while in the dojo. Strange as it may seem, I feel that it worked well and allowed me to have a healthy relationship with both the man and the Sensei.
Once I realized that "Sensei" is an archetype, I was able to transfer the practice over to other teachers. They may be good or bad teachers, good or bad human beings, or just milquetoast in-betweens, but the responsibility for learning was entirely my own. The quality of the experience was entirely my own. If we are inattentive, very good teachers and benevolent human beings can be just as dangerous to us if they were sinister and malicious. Yet if we are deeply paying attention, even charlatans and hustlers can work in our favor.
This does not mean that we throw away our power of discrimination. If we assume that even our most benevolent benefactors can sometimes be tricksters, it may be that the lesson that is called for is knowing when to walk away, when to say no, and when to call bullshit.
In any case, Sensei is a projection screen whether you intend it or not. He or she will accrue layers of the mass hallucination that is a dojo, and the only sane response is to manage this mindfully.
I continue such practice to this day. Of course, I myself have for many years now been the reflective surface as well as the projector. I have been and continue to be a wise and beneficent mentor, as well as a villain and a tyrant. I always know I have to find a way to take responsibility for all the ways I appear to others, while also understanding that the exaggerations of good and bad are often just the doings of someone else. To various students, I have also been father, friend, lover, or regular guy. To most, I am just a piece of furniture -- an aikido appliance or faucet that gets turned on every so often, after which little thought is given. (I once heard a senior student complain that most other students treated Bill Sosa like an old shoe. If that seems odd given what else I've said, consider that we often take for granted those we adore.)
If any of us have true greatness within us, it is because we find greatness wherever we can, and consume it. We immerse ourselves in environments of greatness, and do what we can to absorb it. The origin of true greatness -- and by this I only ever mean the capacity to do good for others, for the world, and in accordance with these, for ourselves -- is in our desire for it and in our humility in the face of it. We may seek things greater than we are, but we should also understand that in the seeking we must have within us an idea of what greatness is.
It is this particle of light that can be focused and projected outward onto any suitable surface. It comes out of us, and if we are persistent and particularly if we do it in concert with others, the homunculus that we call "Sensei" can be elevated. When this is so, it is reflected back to us and refracted in many directions. A virtuous cycle can be created, and the world is illuminated.
The nature of art is artifice. All of it is smoke and mirrors. But the aim of art is to make something real, and to bring us closer to that which is real -- even if it is as yet unborn. Psychologists rightly caution us about our projections, but there is power for good as well. We become not just stewards of creation, but creators ourselves.
When it comes to your particular path, what Sensei does cannot be done without you. Place the apparition on the road in front of you, and follow!
And never turn your back on the bastard.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA