This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2017, all rights reserved.
A lot of people quit after shodan. It's probably one of the biggest drop out points once people get through aikido's initial learning curve.
It's not hard to see why. At many dojos, shodan preparation demands a significant investment of time. For Americans, at least, a black belt is often seen as an indicator of some level of mastery. Achieving one is like graduating from college or achieving some other milestone: it's a good time to step back and take a break. Then, once the dust settles, students find that they're left with a few feet of black cloth and the recognition that "mastery" is still very far away.
While it's true that first degree black belts aren't masters, they aren't beginners, either. Rather, they fall somewhere in the broad, deep valley of the Dunning-Kruger effect, with confidence rising much more slowly than actual expertise. They know enough to realize how little they actually know.
I think, in part, that people lose focus because it's not clear what they should be studying next. In my own organization, for instance, essentially all empty hand techniques are required for shodan. Higher ranks bring a few additional requirements — weapons, multiple attackers — but also the expectation that past empty hand techniques will be demonstrated in a more advanced way. But what does that mean?
Among other things, it means that more experienced students are expected to take more and more responsibility for their own learning. Teachers provide guidance and demonstrate "correct" aikido, but more subtle movements force students to build their own mental models, their own visualizations and metaphors.
I've written about beginner's mind before, and I think the valley after a black belt test is one of many illustrations of how important it is. Attachment to expertise is a trap. One of my teachers once said that most people know about the flaws in their technique and are trying to fix them. Point out, say, that their shoulders are tense or their hand position is off, and they'll nod in agreement and try to do better. Rather, the intractable problems come from things students do right and try to do more often or apply in every situation. Attachment to the shodan-level version of a technique can impede understanding of more advanced versions.
I was helping a student prepare for her shodan test recently. She observed that previously — when she'd been preparing for an earlier test — I'd shown her a different version of a technique. I answered, "You're more advanced now." For the earlier test, I'd asked her to proceed step by step, clearly demonstrating the entry, the takedown, the hand position. Now, I was asking her to tie the pieces into a single continuous movement. At even higher levels, techniques become smaller, faster, more abbreviated.
One of my Mirror colleagues described training after shodan as like taking the time to sit on a rock in the forest and really examine things: how birds fly, how many colors of moss there are, how the branches of a tree spread from the trunk. I tend to think more in terms of the progression from block letters to cursive writing, from laboriously assembling single words to seamless development of sentences and paragraphs.
After shodan, students have more control over what they study and how to approach it. Whether that freedom is liberating or disorienting, only they can decide.
"The Mirror" is written by a roster of women who describe themselves as a disparate bunch of scientists, healers, artists, teachers, and, yes, writers. Over ten years into this collaboration we find we are a bunch of middle-aged yudansha from various parts of the world and styles of aikido. What we share is a lively curiosity about and love for both life and budo, and an inveterate tendency to write about our explorations.