We cannot live in a world that is not our own. In a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a HOME. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.
-- Hildegard of Bingen
The use of a quotation in a work is an appropriation, not an invention. To quote Hildegard, as I have done, is to celebrate her thought while violating its spirit. I am borrowing her interpretation of the world because I believe in it -- but also to show that in so doing, I run the risk of silencing my own voice and dimming my own light.
At the same time, we may find that someone else has spoken our own true voice. We look to those who have gone before, and we judge if we like where they have gone, what they report, and if we should follow. How then, to best live, if we follow the dicta of those who trumpet originality, authenticity, and independence? Can we be followers of the Way and still chart our own course? If so, can we rightfully ask anyone else to follow in our footsteps, if bold exploration is what made our journey special?
I believe the answer is yes. Moreover, I believe in the necessity of living in this constant state of paradox. You, student (or teacher) of aikido, are in the same position as I am in writing this article. You began by finding something worthy of emulation. Perhaps your first encounter with aikido was an epiphany. Perhaps you merely recognized an expression of something you'd always known, but never found. Either way, you made a choice to embark on a path carved by others, with navigational aid by guides far more experienced than you. But beware... as I have said before, and others have said before me: You cannot get there unless you follow. You cannot get there by following.
We learn aikido by quoting the movements of our sensei with our own bodies. During an infantile stage, a significant percentage of learning is imitative. Yet given half a chance, infants will happily explore on their own, much of the time. With aikido, it's essential that we be given safe environments in which to explore and go beyond the imitative. As we progress, the balance shifts, and maturity brings increasing originality. Although learning is endless, and though even the most brilliant look to others for inspiration, failure to find and cultivate originality is a retardation of our potential. We must never be so careless, so irresponsible of the gifts we have been given that we fail to find and share new methods and insights.
There is an argument to which I subscribe that says that you are not following O-Sensei unless, like him, you invent aikido. There is the counter-argument that says no one can invent aikido, since aikido now exists and can only be copied -- possibly modified, but not created as an original act. There are also those who will say that O-Sensei did not really invent aikido, but merely repackaged a centuries-old transmission. It should not strain the imagination to understand that all of these statements are true, even where they disagree.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no.
No, because you should be too busy doing aikido, practising aikido, sweating and breathing hard, to become crippled by cerebral prevarications and dancing on pinheads.
Yes, because no matter how hard you sweat, no matter how often you train, no matter how perfect your form, your posture, your sincerity and diligence -- you are not doing aikido if you are imitating others.
For while imitation is appropriate for learning, it is not doing.
My first instructor, Bill Sosa, was ruthless in driving this point home. Although he was the consummate gentleman and a charismatic, likeable benefactor, he could be brutal when it came to people looking to him for validation. Given a chance, he would guide, nurture, critique, and encourage. But as soon as you asked him what he thought of how you were performing, he would spare none of your feelings in finding every single fault. I soon learned that it wasn't that my practice was abysmal, it was my lack of confidence in ascertaining for myself what is good and bad. Sosa Sensei would offer all that he could to make my progress possible... the one need he refused was external validation.
What Bill Sosa never said, but made me understand, was that if I were ever to do aikido, it could only be by finding my own voice and traveling by my own light.
Art is a deliberate recreation of a new and special reality that grows from your response to life. It cannot be copied; it must be created.
Art is what brings us to a fuller encounter with what is real. Mindless adherence to the formulaic is neither art nor good survival strategy. To live, to prevail, we must be creative. To be a creative human being means we must not only discern and reflect what is true... we must author reality.
Causation is not the same as creation. We experience the effects of a causal world as it attacks and embraces us. The confluence of forces are then ours to fashion. The script is ours to write.
At every level of our practice, and regardless of the extent of our experience, we must be the creators of our own aikido. Again, it's fine to learn by imitating, but the actualization of aikido happens in the interstices of memory and habit. Freedom also lives in the spaces between confinement, restriction, and structure.
When we are free, we live life artfully. There is no human being who is not an artist, but there are many who have forgotten what it means to be human. Humans build structures, many of which confine, but the best structures are those that promote a healthy, sustainable, dynamism.
Humans create. Creation is not so much a conjuration of something from nothing, but a simple rearrangement of parts into a better design, a greater synthesis and synergy.
With that in mind, I end as I began, with yet another quote. This time, though, it's one of my own. Keep in mind that it is declarative rather than descriptive. That is to say, its truth is intended to be generative rather than representative. And should you find that you'd like to use the quote in a work of your own, may you do so artfully. After all:
All that is not artifice is delusion.