This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2014, all rights reserved.
Selfishness is not usually seen as a virtue in the martial arts. After all, one of the samurai ideals was willingness to give one's life for one's lord.
But a more nuanced view of that ideal remembers that self-sacrifice existed side-by-side with a long list of other responsibilities. To behave in a way that reflected well on one's clan and one's lord. To have one's person, equipment, and vassals in battle-ready order at the lord's command. To be responsible for the consequences of one's actions. Fulfilling all of those obligations was, for the samurai, a full-time job.
Most modern martial arts students are not professional soldiers. For many people, studying martial arts at all is a selfish act, taking time away from work and family. Justifiable, perhaps, by the mental and physical benefits it offers, but selfish all the same.
When it comes to the training itself, though, many students are models of self-effacing virtue. "I don't want to waste Sensei's time by asking dumb questions." "I'm just a beginner, I can't ask a senior student to train with me." "But if I don't resist, I'm making it too easy for my partner."
Brand new beginners say all of these things, but sometimes so do more senior students who should know better.
Cut it out.
Take responsibility for your own training. Thank the people — on and off the mat — who help create the time and space that allow you to train by taking full advantage of the resources that are available.
Go ahead, ask the question. Maybe the teacher will just smile and tell you to keep training, you'll figure it out. (Taking responsibility means trying to figure things out on your own, too.) On the other hand, sometimes the whole class is clearly struggling and a question can help the teacher see where the sticking point is. Maybe the person next to you has the same question, but is too shy to ask. Sometimes the answer really is easy, but sometimes it goes to the heart of something the teacher is struggling with, too. Every academic discipline has a story of a "stupid" question that ultimately opened up a whole new approach. Give the teacher the opportunity to make new discoveries.
Go ahead, ask the senior students to practice. Please. Trust me, if they really would rather practice with their own seniors or peers, they know how to make it happen. Don't decide for them. Give them the chance to repay part of their debt to all the senior students who have helped them over the years.
Finally, once you've summoned the courage to ask the teacher or senior student for help, don't waste the opportunity. This is still your training time. What are you working on? What will help you the most?
I'm pretty sure that very few teachers ever tell their students to work on being stiff and resistant and immobile. Grounded and stable, yes, but there's nothing stable about getting yourself into a vulnerable position and then refusing to budge. Yet students do this all the time. "I don't want to make things too easy for you." "I want to know if this works."
Sure, I get it. Just following a technique seems like a waste. But remember, you are working on your aikido. What is the attack trying to accomplish? What kind of ukemi allows you to handle the result of the initial attack safely? If a reversal is possible, how do you put yourself in a position to achieve it? Don't waste the senior student's time, or your own, on things that don't improve your aikido.
Honor your responsibility to all the people who create the time and space you need to train. Honor your responsibility to your teachers and the art, to help make sure it is passed down to the students who come after you. Take those responsibilities seriously by getting as much as you can out of every minute you invest. Be selfish.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.