This month's column was written by Al Garcia © 2010.
The first real dojo I was associated with had strong ties to Japan. Sensei, and often some students, would fly out to Japan every year and bring back "new" stuff for us, subtle changes in the way a kata was done, how to hold the bokken, etc. After I'd been there a while, I noticed that often in a year or two, the "new" changes would be replaced by other "new" changes...which were simply reverting to the original way we had done the move. In publications from Japan, this was always hailed as something new and innovative; other members grumbled about this, and I wondered why this kept happening. Did it really "improve" our moves? Or was it changed to "prove" our loyalty, by the way we'd change to comply, even if it didn't seem an improvement at all? Was it just a way to sell us a new CD of katas, to support Japan financially? Was it Japan trying to find a way to appear to innovate?
Americans are attached to change, to moving forward (we always move forward in Aikido!), but most of all to finding a "better" way. Our cars, computers, iPods, and cell phones are constantly being upgraded to a newer, better model. The "new" sells, and Americans, in particular, are consummate consumers. So one should not be surprised to find this attitude in the dojo, also.
But what, really, is the "better" way?
If a move has certain inherant dangers in how it's executed, and those can be mitigated somewhat by adjusting the movement, then yes, the new movement would likely be preferable, and "better." If a movement seems overly-flowery, with wasted motion, than making it more spare and direct might be "better," unless those flowery movements were meant to confuse the attacker. Beginners are especially prone to pass judgement on the way things are done, instead of quieting down, paying attention, and doing their best to master the moves. Unfortunatly, sometimes senior students also fall into this attitude. We are impatient for achievement, for mastery. Being told that when you reach shodan you realize you are a beginner isn't really what we want to hear.
If you call a plumber, he has several years of training as an apprentice, under the guidance of a journeyman. The day he starts as a trainee, he doesn't just walk onsite with a wrench and work on your sink. He has to train to learn his trade, and when you hire him, you should be able to be confident that he knows his stuff. Isn't this a good metaphor for Aikido, or any martial art? It takes time to master it, and time to work through our impatience, our preconceptions, about how long it actually will take us to master it. Or will we ever master it, really?
Our teacher is there. Maybe he's once again, just like he has done _five times_ this month, going over a basic move...the same basic move. Bore-ing. I know this one hands down, and so does everybody else. Why does he have to constantly repeat this? Why does he tell us the same exact story, as he's demonstrating it? Is he getting senile? Why do I have to do this over and over again? Can't we move on to something new? Something more exciting?
The truth is, there is no easy way. No shortcut. Have you ever seen Picasso's painting "Guernica?" I went on a school tour years ago to see it, among other modern paintings. It dominated the room, overpowering your senses. Wow! It was so abstract. And yet...it wasn't, really. Picasso didn't just start painting abstract art--nor did most artists. They began painting reality, carefully recording the outlines of objects and people, striving for accuracy, life. Picasso did that, too. It was only when he had mastered (as much as any of us master anything) that realism, that he slowly began reducing it to the essence of realism and his paintings became more abstract. "Guernica" packs such a punch because there is no wasted brushstroke: everything is in motion, everything records emotion and the horror of the moment. How was he able to do that? Practice. Years of practice.
Aikido is a fairly young martial art, but it draws from older ones, such as Iaido. In Iaido there are traditions that have been handed down, intact, for hundreds of years. There is a reason for this--they work. Oh, yes, you could innovate, but that innovation might not be well thought out, or so rigorously tested. I can name a few versions of computer operating systems that fit this category. So, the next time you are bored with Sensei teaching you something once again, stop to ask yourself, "What if this is perfect the way it is?"
And what is wrong with learning it well, not cutting corners, being attentive? Perhaps the newest versions, the subtle changes, are only variations on a theme; a decorative detail that neither adds nor subtracts from the structure of the kata itself. No, Sensei isn't senile or an old bore, he's trying to get something through your head: learn this thoroughly, learn this well, incorporate it into your being at the deepest level. Then you can begin your journey towards becoming a master at this art, with humility.
"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.