Our lives are measured and there's a world so rich around us that we have no chance of exploring it all. Still, we're frequently overcome by boredom. Maybe this emotion is like the others in demanding some portion of our attention, no matter how we live our lives. Or maybe the world in all its splendor eventually reveals its patterns, and to the extent that we learn to read them we cease to be surprised.
Anyway, I know that I'm an artist because I have no patience with routine things. As soon as I see the patterns I can't help but see them repeated, and then I want out. In my experience, only the arts are able to continue to surprise me -- far from always, but enough to keep my curiosity alive.
When we cease to be curious, that's when we really start aging.
So, what am I doing in aikido? Like every martial art, it is based on fixed patterns and the constant repetition of the well known. The whole idea of aikido practice is to tirelessly polish the precision of doing the same old techniques in one exact way.
But that exact way changes over time, although minutely from one keiko to the next -- and it takes a trained eye to see the changes even over a decade. Still, there are changes. Mainly: through time and tireless repetition, the techniques feel very different.
In that way, aikido contains revelations, one after the other, and I see no end to those. In that way aikido is an art.
Now, when I write a novel, which usually takes years, I am frequently struggling with boredom, although it's a piece of art. Some passages that need to be written are already at the outset of little surprise to me, so my curiosity just turns away from it. I have to roll up my sleeves and work in sweat to get such chapters written.
And somewhere about two-thirds into a story, I usually lose all inspiration to complete it. Everything seems meaningless, and I wonder why I write books at all. I have a few unfinished scripts in my drawers and on my disk drive that succumbed to this fate.
But I've kept practicing aikido for 36 years, with no longer breaks than occasional weeks -- and I always come back to it. Although I must confess that I regard writing as more essential in my life than aikido, the latter doesn't wrestle with the same existential questioning that sometimes plagues and even interrupts my writing.
Actually, sometimes I have a feeling that the two compete. Without doing aikido, I would surely write more books and plunge deeper into each of them. Also, I would surely throw myself at countless other artistic projects.
If art is therapy of some kind, then aikido proves to satisfy my restless soul to the extent that my other artistic ventures are not as acute as they need to be, in order for me to commit to them.
This actually worries me, sometimes very much so.
On the other hand I am sure that aikido could never play this role in my life if it were not an art, or if it did not give room for me to make it an art. And honestly, I can never become a better aikidoka than I am able to be an artist.
Again, aikido is an art, and a resourceful and utterly stimulating one at that.
Still, aikido, too, can be boring at times. Sometimes in a class I am struck by boredom, and I wonder why I keep practicing it after all these years. I've done enough ikkyo and iriminage. I should move on.
And trust me, I could leave in an instant, if I were not seduced to it anew, if my curiosity didn't return at the very next moment. Maybe I do, suddenly.
But so far, my curiosity and inspiration have always reemerged in the same class where they disappeared for a while. I have yet to train one full class I didn't find meaningful.
My first Japanese teacher, Ichimura sensei, taught me the trick to make that happen. It's very simple: Back to basics.
He said that when you practice things that attract your fancy, take you higher, and make you delight in your own performance -- then you certainly feel good at the moment, maybe even for weeks or months. But there will be a day when you feel lost, when your mind as well as your body wonders what to do, and why.
Then you just need to return to the very basics, for new inspiration to emerge. Kokyuho, katatedori ikkyo, mae ukemi, suwariwaza iriminage -- the very, very basics. And do them in an equally basic fashion, as if you were a complete beginner.
Strangely, these basics will reveal new secrets and attractions, and they will make you see new paths to explore in these and other techniques. They will bring back meaning to your aikido practice.
Only the basics can do that, and they do it every time.
So, here I am, after all these years, struggling with my books but rarely and then only shortly with the aikido practice.
Sometimes I wish it were the other way around.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido