"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die...a time to weep...a time to get, and a time to lose..." --Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 4,6.
The old year, 2010, the end of the first decade of this new 21st century, is now past; we're starting the second decade now. This first decade has been a tough one: wars, bad economics, losses, and the deaths of friends and mentors.
How many dojo have had to close, because of the economy? How many sensei have been displaced, some having to move to other regions in order to stay gainfully employed? How many students have struggled to pay their fees? How many folks have abandoned their "hobby" of aikido due to financial necessity?
And then there is death. What sensei do you know who have had health problems and succumbed, finally? A fine sensei I knew from Colorado battled prostate cancer, overcame it, was fine for a while...and then lost his life to cancer the second time around. I treasure the memories I have of the first seminar I met him at, of seminars we trained at together, of what I learned from him and applied to my aikido afterwards: especially how to work in very limited spaces and still be effective. And there is a hole in my life, knowing I will never have a chance to train with him again, to be exposed to his unconventional thought processes, practicality, and wild sense of humor.
In a way, I was prepared when he died, though, having been on tenterhooks before as to whether he would survive the first time. So, while his passing was unexpected, it wasn't as unexpected as it could have been. But what if death is sudden, with no warning or clues? One day you're training with your sensei, and the next day your sensei is gone. How do you deal with that?
They say, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." What about when the teacher vanishes?
Maybe yours is the dojo you'd always looked for, the place you feel at home, the sensei just right: supportive, encouraging, challenging. Your "perfect fit." You settle in, training happily, thinking that it will last, forever or for a long while at least. Then comes the sudden emergency: unexpected illness, a car crash, a plane accident, a disaster...and your sensei is gone, forever. You expected to see him/her Monday night, but Saturday was when he/she ceased to be. Boom! Everything changed instantly. Now (unless there are others able to coordinate it) there may no longer even be a dojo to study at.
But, ironically, the physical/financial aspects are somehow easier to resolve than the emotional ones. Student A, a nidan, will take over instruction, assisted by Student B, a shodan. The lease is good for three years and we have enough paying students to support the dojo staying open, even if we have to cancel one class because of schedule conflicts. Soke C is coming from headquarters in Japan in March, the travel arrangements are already made and paid for, etc., etc. Or, well, that was the only teacher for this dojo. We don't have anyone else high-enough ranked to teach. We don't have enough students to maintain it financially, or it was on sensei's property, which now will be sold. It must close, and we will have to find a new place to practice. But how do you reconcile, accept how you feel about, the loss of your teacher?
There is a part of us that thinks things will always continue to be the way they are right now: "Sensei's 74, but I'm 29, and he will be around until I'm old, so I have plenty of time to learn"--except he will have an injury that prevents him from further teaching. "We'll always have this dojo"--even if the lease will not be renewed in two years, or the city plans to build a freeway over it in the future. "We'll always be in this style"--except there will be future splits, disagreements, and we'll be in a new style, but we don't know that yet. There's an old saying: the only constant is change. Embrace that, be ready for it, and live your aikido lives accordingly.
When we are in class with our sensei, we must realize that this may always be the last class we will have with them. Ideally, the samurai was always prepared to die, and kept his affairs in such order that if he did die, everything was ready to be passed on; no loose ends. While many may not have achieved this, it is an admirable goal for all of us: to realize that any moment may be our last, or that of those we care about and interact with. The mentality we should have is that of always being prepared, conscious, that things may change suddenly. This day, training with your sensei, may be all you ever will have--only this one chance to learn what you will be taught today. One opportunity to learn it with Beginner's Mind; to see the moves with Beginner's Eyes. Possibly only this one time to sincerely thank your sensei for what he/she has taught you; to fully appreciate your sensei, both as a giver of knowledge and as a person--because tomorrow may
bring his/her presence here to an end.
"I wish we'd had more time to train." But...you only had what you had. "I wish s/he'd been able to show me that new variation of Kote Gaeshi." But...s/he didn't. You must go on now, without this sensei to practice with, to get feedback from, to ask questions of. You can only remember now, and thank them posthumously, because the world has changed, forever.
How many of us truly appreciate all our sensei is to us?
How many are prepared for when they're gone?
"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.