This past December was the 20th anniversary of the Still Point Aikido Center, the dojo I founded in 1991.
The occasion came and went without fanfare, perhaps owing in no small part to the fact that Still Point currently has no students and no physical location.
Still Point was founded in the early '90s as a Seidokan Affiliated dojo. Still Point was to be a sister dojo to The University of Texas Aikido Club, the first aikido club established in Austin, and one of the oldest in Texas. Although starting aikido in Dallas under Bill Sosa Sensei, much of my formative years were with the UT Aikido Club, and Still Point was established in cooperation with the UT group.
For many years I continued my position as assistant instructor at UT and taught the Sunday class, while developing Still Point as a professionally run dojo offsite. Still Point never grew to a truly sustainable level, but I'm extremely proud of the students I've had the pleasure of learning from. Many came and went, some stayed and achieved dan levels. Children and their families were an essential part of the community, and I feel confident that my learning was deepened by solving the problems inherent in communicating the principles of aikido to young minds.
Sadly, the Founder of Seidokan, Rod Kobayashi, died in 1995. The letter that I have from him endorsing my establishment of Still Point is among my treasured possessions. I stayed with his organization for more close to 10 years after Sensei's passing, but eventually followed the road to independence. Kobayashi Sensei always encouraged us to walk our own path, and never cease to further develop and refine the art. And always, "Share what you know."
My time with Seidokan certainly took me places. In the tremendous void left by Sensei's death, the senior students who were scattered around the globe had to carry on as best as we could. Travel and seminar duty was spread around in a fairly ad hoc, organic nature, but it worked. I was privileged to present in Tokyo, Israel, and numerous locations about the US. I found friendship and family wherever I went.
In my own heart and mind, I've never left that community, nor abandoned in any way the teachings of Seidokan. Kobayashi Sensei always taught that it was the principles that mattered, above and beyond the structure that houses them. He taught us that Seidokan means to follow the way of being "Earnest, Sincere, and Realistic." "Sei," or "Makoto," means "fundamental truth." This is the great gift of aikido, to reveal truths that can be difficult to access through other channels.
Even so, infrastructure and organizations are like the physical body which houses the spirit, and I remember telling Sensei as much. A spirit without a body cannot live in this world. After making my break with the Aikido Institute of America, the Seidokan headquarters, there were no more invitations from within that community. By leaving the house, I had left the body that was Seidokan.
Of course, aikido itself is a community, beyond formal associations and affiliations. (There's the irony -- "associate" and "affiliate" mean to join, to band together, but many of these organizations do far more to fragment the aikido community than they do to being it together.) I have found community on Aikido-L and AikiWeb. There are a number of dojo around town where I am quite welcome. I occasionally teach in Toronto, and there's even a Silat group in Dallas that seeks my company and my lessons.
The transformation of Still Point into an independent dojo was done mindfully and methodically, and with the full support of all the students. It was essential that we continue the promotion of the principles of Seidokan, but with new methodologies. Nominally, I became the head of a new system, but a very small and very local one.
Crucial to the health of an independent dojo is exposure to outside influences and inspirations. My students looked to me to show them the way, but much of what I showed was to look beyond me, ("like a finger pointing to the moon"). We brought in visiting sensei, we trained with other groups and attended seminars, we kept a well-stocked library, and I encouraged them to participate in the online fora.
Late in the first decade of this brave new century, circumstances changed at the rec center where we'd always trained, and it was time to move on. With few resources other than ourselves, we could not make the leap to renting a commercial space. We pursued some promising leads in partnering with other groups and non-profits, but none panned out.
So we moved the dojo to Katie's and my house. We trained in the living room when weather was bad, and on our second-story deck when weather was good. We'd swing sticks in the back yard, or go down to Walnut Creek to practice.
In many ways, for me it was a literal homecoming. I'd managed to unify my professional life, my love of aikido, and my living. I wasn't just making a living. I was living.
But predictably, problems set in. Increased traffic in the house and rolling and falling on the deck accelerated wear and tear on the building. Many of the students seemed to feel that it was MY house, and MY career, so they didn't really share the sense of ownership that a community requires.
Some of my senior students told me repeatedly that I was the star attraction, that I myself was Still Point. I insisted that this could not be so, that they themselves had to be the stars also, that a dojo is a community, not a personality. In the end, their view prevailed.
Those who came to the home dojo did so with the understanding that the transition was to be a temporary one. Even if we kept classes going at the house, part of our training was to continue searching for a more viable, more public, more sustainable venue. Time passed, we had good classes, but little was done as a group to find or create a more perfect dojo.
One night I asked the remaining students, mostly seniors, what they felt they were paying dues toward. There were a variety of answers, but they generally gravitated toward one idea: they were paying me for my time and my expertise.
That may sound innocent and straightforward, but I knew when I heard it that our time was done. They were there for me. They were not really there for each other, to build a community, to create a vehicle to better serve an ailing world.
Shortly thereafter I cancelled classes.
The dissolution of a dojo is a difficult thing. Some of these people were not only my students, but very close friends. We parted amicably and with great assurances that the friendships would continue. Of course I almost never hear from them.
But it would be a mistake to say that Still Point is no more. Although my own vision was never realized, aikido teaches us to understand and even join with the perspective of others.
It may not be what I wanted, but my students were right, even if it was the persistence in their view that's made it so:
I am the Still Point.
I still know what I know. All that I've learned, I still have. I still am.
You see, the word "still" is very important to me, and it figures into a number of enterprises I've undertaken in my life. The name of the experimental band that I fronted in the late '80s and early '90s was Still Life. Now I have a small design endeavor that I call Still Moving Designs.
"Still Point" is a direct reference to the famous T.S. Eliot poem "Four Quartets." The quality of stillness as calmness is obvious. But to be still is to still be. Stillness conveys the idea of persistence, even as everything else seems to have dissolved away. Like the song says, I'm still... willin'... to be movin'.
And I'm still willing to share what I know.
Of course, a still is also the athanor of the alchemists. It's the vessel of distillation and refinement. It is a cauldron that, when heated, roils and percolates and bubbles. Things break down deliberately, things are separated. Some bit goes away as steam, and some gets put aside as by-product. A still is not a place of calm and serenity, nor even unity.
Kobayashi Sensei emphatically asserted that aikido belongs to the future, not the past. His example was one of persistent refinement. He made his own break with tradition and structure, as did his teacher, as did his teacher's teacher, O Sensei. Kobayashi made sure that we knew that aikido was our very own thing to discover, to invent, and to live with our own lives. We learn from others by imitation, but only for a time. We must do the art until we are one with it and we become the art, and it become us. It's a compliment when someone says "that becomes you." Well, aikido becomes you.
So anyway, Happy Anniversary Still Point. You're not a kid anymore. No longer a teenager. It can seem like you're facing the world now for the first time, alone and on your own.
So be excited. Be terrified.
But know that you're not alone. You never were, and you never can be.
At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance. See, the dance is everywhere.
That's where I am, and that's the community to which I belong.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA