When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you hold and guide with a firm but unobtrusive hand. The child knows you are there, and is glad. Only you will know when it is time to let go, and if your judgement is good, the child may not realize right away that they are on their own. When the revelation occurs, the child may crash. But now you and the child both know that you are no longer needed, at least for this particular lesson. You've let go, yet the relationship is ongoing.
Our experience of aikido is similar. Our teachers, if they are good, guide us firmly, unobtrusively, and offer steadfast support. They know when NOT to let go. Our teachers, if they are good, will let go when it is time, even if we risk a crash. When they have let go, we should be wise enough to realize it, and wise enough to know they'll still be there for us.
An artist does not make balance, cannot create it or invent it. It comes inevitably by holding to right posture, and right posture comes from letting go.
If you teach aikido (or as I prefer to think of it, teach people how to discover aikido), you may wonder what to do with those who show up and go through the motions, but never seem to get close to actually doing anything real. It can seem like they'll never be able to hold themselves upright. Some of these people are simply dabblers, and this is harmless enough as long as they are not the majority of your dojo.
Others may be true believers, but this can be worse than having a room full of dabblers. The aiki zealots are the ones who are at risk of being overly infatuated with form, with formality, with ritual and dress and that insidious type of unity known as uniformity.
Regardless, let students come with whatever they have to offer. Some may be dabblers in aikido, but masters in other domains. If we can identify their mastery, we will be enriched by it, and may be able to coax it out in moments of aikido.
As for the true believers, they must not be allowed to perpetuate a forgery of aikido. We would do well to remember that they themselves are usually unaware of the counterfeit. We should seek to guide them toward a more authentic truth.
What about the idea that everyone must discover their own aikido? No one can possibly do the same aikido as another. We all have different bodies, perceptions, emotional constructs, personal histories, and so on. No one will ever do O Sensei's aikido, no one will ever be able to do their own teacher's aikido. No one can ever do my aikido, no matter how gifted a teacher I could be, or how much of a prodigy you may be. That leaves only the possibility that we may discover our own aikido, and spend a lifetime developing it.
Imagine the parent who tries to teach a child to ride a bike this way: the parent sits on the seat and does all the peddling and steering, while the child is pulled behind in a cart. The parent can do much explanation, and if the child listens, can learn a great deal, but it will be theoretical and full of meta-information. At some point, the child has to get in the seat and try to do it all themselves, even while there is an assistive hand and a loving spotter.
In the end, it is the bicycle, the road, and gravity that teaches. In the end, it is the child who teaches the self.
Does this mean that everyone's idea of aikido is equally valid? Categorically not.
Children are prone to unrealistic fantasies, and though this is wonderful for creativity and imaginative play, it has to be part the lessons of balance. A bicycle cannot fly. Rules of the road and of safety must be learned. The exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with your first bike ride has to be balanced with an understanding of conformity. Even if you grow up to become a trick-rider or a stunt cyclist, look closely and you will see how the masters have learned to conform.
To con-form means to "form with." Is this not aikido?
Remember that we teach aikido the same as we do aikido. Sometimes as uke, sometimes as tori, but always in the spirit of aiki.
Uke brings their own form to the equation, and tries via some tactic or other to impose a re-formation upon their target. However, uke must identify the form of tori, and adjust stance and posture and trajectory accordingly. As teachers it is the same. We bring our own understanding of aikido and try to re-form our students. If we do not, we have abdicated all responsibility as mentors or guides or resources. But not all reformations are equal, not all are aiki, not all are effective, and certainly not all are ethical.
Tori also brings their own form to the equation. Tori must recognize the immediate structure of uke and find a way to match the unfolding pattern. It's tori's job to find out how these patterns can fit together and form a larger coherent structure. Tori conforms, and in so doing, uke is con-formed despite all their efforts.
In this way, students must also expect to conform. While we have every right to expect our teachers to respect us and understand the forms that we bring with us, we are here to be challenged and reformed. We've come to the dojo to grow and change, and we've given our money and our trust to someone who we think can help us. If we are to become other than we are, then we should expect to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, and occasionally perhaps even offended.
Regardless, we expect to be made better. We're here to make ourselves better, not just with some increased set of trained-poodle skills, but better as human beings. Is it arrogant to speak of superior human beings? Perhaps, but all the truly better people I've had the privilege to meet are remarkably humble.
In any case, it's about how conformity and freedom work together and for each other.
Conformity without freedom is imprisonment. Freedom without conformity is a hazard to one and all.
A bicycle is made to fit the human form. There are different bikes for different people and purposes. They are made to be adjustable to better accommodate the individual. The rider, in turn, must fit the frame of the cycle. There are better and worse ways to sit on the seat, to grip the handlebars, to peddle, and time the shifting of the gears.
When rider and bicycle and road are one, then true conformity is realized. Freedom feels limitless, and the trails pull you forward.
I remember the first time I let go of the bike and watched my oldest son wobble a few yards down the street, really on his own. There was a terrific ache inside, as if a part of myself was breaking away and going someplace I could not follow.
Of course, when he stopped, he turned around and smiled, and we were connected by a deeply shared secret that everybody knows. Watching him ride, I could feel the layers of all my own experiences. I could feel the wind, hear the drone of the wheels through my bones, and know the weightlessness of machine and man when leaving a jump. I could remember that with a bicycle, sometimes a human can fly, and safely.
I knew that even as he was about to go off and have adventures of his own and follow paths I never could, it still felt as if all my own experiences somehow surrounded him, and would encompass all his future journeys.
I hope he knows it too.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA