This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Al Garcia © 2014, all rights reserved.
Why do we study aikido, and what are our implied responsibilities as we do? What is our intent?
This thought/question came to me in an odd place: at an iconography workshop I took recently. When in college, I took several art courses, and quite a lot of art history, and that's how I encountered icons (religious images from Russia/Eastern Europe/Greece/Byzantium). I was fascinated by them, but had no way of learning how to create them (nothing was offered at school on this specialized area of study). So I shelved away my desire to explore this, and figured that in the future I might have another opportunity.
Well, I did. A noted iconographer was coming into town in this last October and offering a workshop, and I got a chance to go: three grueling 10-hour days of intensive education and nonstop work "writing" with a paintbrush. I paid very close attention, following everything carefully, because the creative process was different from painting as I'd been taught: one usually paints light-to-dark (for example, adding shadows to the face as we create it). Color is added to a white gesso surface. In iconography, you first apply a dark tone over the light gesso surface, and then you use lighter colors, laid down in layers, to highlight ("bring out") the prominent features of the face (and other parts of the icon) from the dark base. The visual effect is very "alive"--lit-from-within. The reason for this is liturgical--symbolizing man moving from spiritual darkness into light--and contains the teaching that one makes a spiritual journey in this fashion. The whole intent of an icon is to teach. Icons originated back before most people were literate, so they had to "read" a picture (like "reading" a stained glass window) to get the meaning. This is why icons are "written" with a paintbrush, rather than "painted"--they are not considered pretty paintings, but educational documents. The colors used in clothing the figures are symbolic (red for divinity, blue for humanity), the gestures and positions of the hands (one is an ancient Grecian gesture "to speak"), the position of the face (either facing you directly or in 3/4 view, but eyes always directed at you)...all these "teach".
Our instructor stressed the importance of having the correct "focus" (intent) in our work from the first step we took (sanding the gessoed board) in making our icons--and in every step we took until they were done. It was not just any old picture--but a visual representation of light-from-darkness, alive and vibrant.
This made me think of when I first studied at the dojo. Why had I initially come? It was not, at first, for any great social insight. Aikido was an art, and also, in a practical sense, a method for neutralizing an attacker. It was also enjoyable. Sensei used to say that we needed to learn not only the art, but also accept responsibility to learn it well, with hopefully the intent of eventually passing it on by teaching others; but I felt incapable of teaching aikido, so that didn't sink in at first. What could I teach anyone about shihonage? Nikkyo? (Half the time my nikkyo wasn't effective!) A shodan was expected to know enough to teach, but then, shodans had trained all those years and had the experience. And as I sadly found, with time, some could still not teach effectively.
As I progressed, I watched people study aikido for all sorts of reasons. There were the "get another certificate of achievement" junkies--who usually got their shodan rank and then disappeared. There were those who came to learn a practical self-defense strategy to feel more secure out in the big, bad world. There were those who, sad to say, came to kick butt (they usually left after finding aggressive behavior was unpopular and ineffective). There were those who came on a spiritual/mystical experience quest, looking for enlightenment or a new Buddha. There were those who came to support a friend, or as part of a family, in studying a healthy martial arts routine that would teach character. All sorts of reasons--but how many actually understood the teaching aspect? How many actually had the intent to become formal instructors--sensei--of aikido? It took me a long time to come to a realization about this, about what intent truly meant.
In aikido your intent is everything. Your kiai has the intent to discombobulate your opponent. Your response to his atemi has the intent to direct him to the mat in such a way that his attack will not harm you, himself, or anyone else. I found that, as time went on, that intent became not just an abstract concept, but the basis for every action I took in and out of the dojo. I experienced a growth in responsible behavior, focusing on the true impact of every action I took on not just myself but others. Like when making the icon, I came to find that the methods I learned in aikido taught me, without using words. The dojo was a lab for experiencing, in a mostly-safe environment, all sorts of conflicts and situations one experienced in the outside world, and learning how to deal with them in a responsible manner. That was not my real intent when I began at the dojo, but became what my intent evolved into.
I found that we are all teachers, really. Most do not have teaching degrees or professional positions where we have a formal curricula to teach. Some are not parents. But we all teach--far more by actions than by words. There's the phrase "walk the talk"--don't just SAY something, DO it! Who we are in reality, what we actually do (not just talk about doing) teaches everyone we come in contact with. It is our intent that teaches, ultimately.
My intent, in the iconography workshop, was to produce the best icon I could. I found that although, since my stroke, I have learned to print, write longhand, and type again, that handling a paintbrush to apply paint in even, fine lines now was much more of a challenge than it had been for me previously.. I really struggled to make the paint "flow" evenly and uniformly. Close details, at times, required tremendous effort and concentration. But I did "write" a good icon--a good beginner's effort--and I was pleased with the result. I had captured the intent I had set out to produce. I will now practice more "writing" with a paintbrush, to improve my skill and work at regaining my former fine detail dexterity at painting. Like practicing one-hundred cuts with a bokken, this is the only way to get better: practice, repeat. Focus your intent on doing the best you are capable of doing at the time, in everything you do. Accept the responsibility, not for the outside praise and recognition of your efforts, but for yourself; have a clear intent. And remember, not everyone accepts the responsibility teaching on an official level--but we all teach others, in positive or negative ways. Aikido, like iconography, teaches us mostly without words--and what it teaches us is to draw the light out of the darkness in our character: to learn a better way of dealing with everything in the world, to grow more clear in our intents, to really accept responsibility for everything we do.
As this year closes and the next begins, let's focus on refining our intent to be an accurate reflection of who we actually are.
"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.