This month's The Mirror column was written by Al Garcia © 2010.
Well, it's July, and I do live in the USA, so this seemed an appropriate title for the piece, although this isn't about America, per se, nor anything to do with government. It is, however, about how Aikido can be a microscopic laboratory for tackling the concerns of everyday life.
So, that being said, I'd like to ask all of you how independent you are?
And, what, really, IS independence in an Aikido sense?
Student A joins a traditional style (Aikikai, Ki Society, Yoshinkan) and carefully follows all the rules...the angle of the leg, the non-resistance of the throw, the veneration of the head Sensei's knowledge, folding seniors' hakama, etc. (insert specific traditions here). Student A may also develop a mindset that says his style is better than all other styles; or that someone coming over from Japan within his style knows more than his local sensei, or teaches a "purer" form of the art.
Student B joins an independent dojo, one that may, at one time, have been affiliated with (or whose sensei may have been affiliated with) a particular style; or the sensei may have studied in several styles and put the best elements, as s/he saw it, together to create a new one. This student may develop a mindset that there is nothing to be gained from studying traditional Aikido, as he doesn't consider it innovative enough; or he may become fiercely protective of his sensei's status/teachings (as many more traditional lines can question if s/he has the "right" credentials).
Student C is on a search for the ideal dojo...and hasn't found it yet. He's tried traditional and independent styles, but whatever he's studying never is "just right", so he moves on...and on, always searching for perfection.
Then there's Student D, who studies Aikido (any form) and also one or two other martial arts. He brings thinking from these other forms to Aikido, sometimes with a positive spirit, sometimes with a negative one.
Reading this, you may pick out one or more students who you feel can't be independent, and one or more you feel can. Guess what? They all can and they all have the potential to not be. This isn't about the style you're in or how many dojos/arts you try...it's about how you think. One devout traditional style aikidoka can still be very curious about other's styles and accepting of them, while another one may find anyone else's ways threatening.
When someone from another style shows you a different way of executing a move, do you automatically dismiss it because it is from a different style ("That's not how OUR Headquarters says it's to be done!"), or do you pay attention and notice how it's done, and what works? Do you then attempt to incorporate those parts that work into your own technique, whenever desirable?
Do you feel it's okay to explore other Aikido styles' philosophies, to understand where they're coming from, even though you're dedicated to the one you're studying?
If your personal dojo formally (or informally) restricts membership to basically only the male, young and healthy, are you judgmental when you encounter a dojo that admits women and works with less able students? Will YOU work with them?
Do you see parallels between certain parts of all martial arts, or do you feel no one in Aikido can learn anything from a teacher of Iaido or Karate, for example? Do you feel that only the (name your traditional art) way of doing this bokken/sword move or body move is correct, or can you see that Aikido is an art of its own with its own techniques?
Are you willing to go "play" (at seminars and by visiting other dojos) with other styles, or do you feel this somehow would be a bad influence on you mastering your own style?
Are you willing to (horrors!) accept that a teacher who comes from Japan may just be different, not better, than your sensei? That his reserve may just be a language barrier, not a model of how a "perfect sensei" should behave?
Are you discerning enough to see that another sensei's encouragement to you to do things differently from what you've been taught, in rare instances, may not arise from the purest motives? (Yes, Aikido, like all martial arts--and just about everything else in the world--is full of politics and jockeying for power, and sometimes students are used as pawns to achieve others' ambitions.)
If your Headquarters (or sensei) has recently changed one of your katas, are you resistant to the change or accepting? If you liked the kata the old way, will you still do it that way occasionally in private practice, or do you banish it from your mind?
Are you willing to maybe linger at a "not quite perfect" dojo long enough to acquire some knowledge, and perhaps admit that, in fact, the "perfect" dojo that you carry in your mind does not exist? Can you release your expectations about the art? What is in a sensei's heart about Aikido is far more important than the number of Dan certificates he holds or how outwardly beautiful the dojo environment is.
The dojo should be, wherever possible, a blank canvas, a safe space for every student to learn technique, acceptance, tolerance and courtesy. The world is full of different people and different opinions. If you cannot embrace the differences, try at least to understand them somehow. There is no one style of Aikido that is perfect for everyone, but we can choose wisely, using our own intelligence, the style that will most closely fit our needs, and learn from the others in a spirit of tolerance. That's independence.
"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.