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Home > Interviews > George Leonard Sensei, April 2000
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

George Leonard sensei has been studying aikido for nearly thirty years and currently holds a fifth dan. He has written numerous books relating to aikido including "The Ultimate Athlete," "Mastery," and his recently published "The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei" Leonard sensei currently shares the chief instructing responsibilities with Wendy Palmer sensei at Aikido of Tamalpais in Mill Valley, CA.

AW: Leonard sensei, how old were you when you started aikido?

GL: Well, I started on November 11th, 1970 when I was 47 years old. I'll never forget it. Actually, I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't know that I would still be doing aikido 30 years later. No way!

Anyhow, by the third class, I was totally hooked, totally fascinated. In my whole life, I never had thought about getting into martial arts. When a friend said he was starting an experimental aikido class, I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never heard the word "aikido." I didn't know what to expect.

I think that what's kept me in it all this time is its transcendent beauty. I don't mean just visual beauty, but also kinesthetic beauty. It's so elusive and so... difficult. There have been so few times when I've ever done a technique that's felt just exactly right. Sometimes I get close enough that I say, "OK, that'll do." But I tell you, when you get one of those techniques when, truly, somebody comes in with a lot of force and a lot of realism -- and I like that, I keep telling people to make the strikes real -- then you can do it better.

Somehow, you become one with that strike and with that other person and the whole body and being of that person. You become a kind of a new organism made up of the attacker and the defender, like day and night, smooth and rough, summer and winter. It's a harmony of opposites. Once that happens, you spin around a little bit, and suddenly -- everything is one. It is kinesthetically beautiful. In other words, it not only looks beautiful, but it feels beautiful.

Aikido isn't about dominance. There aren't any particular goals. There's the matter of going up in rank, but that's not the important thing. There aren't any competitions where you can win a prize. I don't know of any trophies given out in aikido. You can go to a karate school in which they give out a trophy to their kids about every three weeks! It's extrinsic reinforcement to keep them going. But here, the reward is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

And even the belt thing is de-emphasized. As it is here [gesturing towards the mat at Boulder Aikikai], I don't even know what rank each person is; everyone is wearing the same thing! Sometimes in some dojo it's considered a courtesy never to call out a person who has a higher rank than you do, and I asked Ikeda sensei [the chief instructor at Boulder Aikikai] about that and he said that at this dojo, that doesn't matter. So, I didn't know who to call up! Makes it very interesting.

What I'm trying to say is that the whole idea of rank doesn't bear as much prestige as it does in most of life. So, the extrinsic rewards are few. The intrinsic rewards are many.

AW: What makes aikido so deep?

GL: Well, it's deep because it's limitless. Things that have limits are never as deep. With aikido, you can figure out that the number of techniques, variations, kaeshiwaza, and such end up at an infinite number of possibilities.

And there's more to it than that. Aikido offers us an ideal that can never be completely brought into actuality, but it's such a wonderful ideal -- to create harmony out of conflict. What else can we ask for in aikido? That's it.

AW: You were talking during this morning's class about taking aikido "off the mat." Do you think you've learned more about aikido on the mat or off the mat?

GL: Off the mat. But first, I want to say that "on the mat" aikido is essential. That's where you learn the techniques, you hear about them, and you actually get to manifest them. You embody them. Knowledge that is disembodied is incomplete. It has to be embodied before it can be complete. That's why so many of the intellectuals lead us astray because they are working with disembodied intellectual knowledge. Aikido has to be embodied -- and it's also quite spiritual. Body, mind, spirit.

I don't want to de-emphasize the "mat part" of aikido, since it's very, very important. But, we're off the mat all the time. And if you figure out the percentage of the time you're on the mat through the week, it's interesting.

I really do try to incorporate aikido principles in my life. It's influenced my writing tremendously. I have twelve published books and I started including aikido in my fourth book; all subsequent books have included aikido.

AW: So, you would say that aikido has had a profound effect in your work, life...

GL: My work, my life, my relationships -- everything. It's changed me a lot.

I've been teaching a simple thing in class this weekend like walking. It seems kind of dumb to have all of these aikido people walking up and down the mat. It's not! The australopithecines started walking fully upright four million years ago with the same kind of pelvis and motions that we have. The walk made the brain possible, not vice versa. We have a tremendously oversized brain. It's really quite a remarkable evolutionary thing because it uses so much of our energy; over 20% of our blood sugar, oxygen, and so forth are used by the brain. And the brain is only about three and a quarter pounds! Walking is very profound.

So many times when I'm walking -- when I'm walking to my car or to the post office to pick up my mail -- I'm practicing aikido. When conflict comes up, I try to blend. I'm not always successful, and when I don't succeed, I'm not happy. But when I do succeed, I'm very happy. Because you can blend and still get your way.

Terry Dobson had a book called, "Giving in to Get Your Way." But, I don't think blending is giving in; it's something else. It's changing context. And whenever you change context, transformation is possible, perhaps even probable. So, the blend is a change of context.

AW: Would that be a transformation for the better?

GL: Yes. But, I think that a change of context could be a transformation for the worse, too. If your context suddenly becomes that everyone is out to get you, wants to kill you, and you become paranoid, that's a new context, but it wouldn't be very good!

"Context" is an interesting word. It comes from two French-Latin roots -- "con" meaning "with" or "together" and "texere" meaning "to weave" as in "textile." The context is the way you weave your experience together. It's an active thing.

AW: You're not just "placed" into an environment.

GL: Right, right! Exactly. The context is not a passive container but an active process. A blend in aikido makes a radical change in context. So many things do. For example, moving from your center, rather than from your eyes. The head has most of our sensory organs and is a kind of the "control central," yet if you move your energy and awareness up into your head in a tough situation such as a job interview and your energy is in your forehead and upper chest, the situation will come out quite differently, even if you say the same words, as it would come out were you moving from center. That's a change of context.

Aikido is full of change of contexts. In fact, most of my workshops are all about this. One example is the energy arm or the unbendable arm exercise. When I'm fighting against somebody, it hurts a lot more and my arm collapses. In fact, we've done studies on it. The energy arm (unbendable arm) has three times more the resilience and strength than the resistance arm. If you change the idea from the context of struggling against somebody and keeping them from bending your arm to that of thinking that your arm is part of a laser beam that comes from an infinite distance behind you and ahead of you through that wall to the ends of the universe, you may have someone pushing on your arm, but you don't need to worry about that -- no effort, no pain. The more they push, the brighter this laser beam is going to shine. You become a part of something larger.

If you're fighting against somebody, you're giving part of your power to the problem. You're wasting your power by concentrating on the problem rather than being one with the universe, you might say. I think aikido in life is full of possibilities to change your context.

AW: How come we don't fall into this natural state of the universe so easily? It always seems like it's such a natural state, but for us it doesn't seem so natural. Like you said this morning, our natural tendency when we get pushed is to push back. That kind of reaction seems so much more natural to us, more so than blending.

GL: We live in a rather bizarre society. We evolved as hunters and gatherers. We lived in a certain amount of harmony with nature and our universe. It's possible to overglorify that because there are problems with just being hunters and gatherers too, of course.

Our becoming a civilization basically divorced us from the natural world; it separated us from many, many things. Whenever there was a surplus of cereal crops, whether the grains of the Near East or the rices of the Orient or the maize of Meso-America, only then emerged these large organizations which we call the city-states with their impressive ceremonial centers, pyramids, and such. We could never have done this without a surplus of food that could be stored, such as grains and other cereal crops.

Then, religion became separated out into a priesthood. Legalism took the place of simple kin relationships. Castes and classes were born; yet another separating out of human beings. In many ways, we were separated out from the matrix of existence.

In Civilization, we began to have specialists. There were no specialists in the hunter and gatherer cultures, except perhaps the shaman, but those roles were only part-time. I'm not going to glorify the old days -- that's a mistake -- but we did become separated from our existence. We were made to think that we were these skin-encapsulated egos who were separate from other people. We had to fight them. They pushed us, we had to push them back. We never considered the possibility that in many ways, we were all one, that we can be one. So, I think that this is something that has been very carefully taught to us. I don't think it's necessary because the consequences of being separate from someone is not very rewarding -- we can only have win, lose, or stalemate resolutions.

We're taught to push back, to always go against it. It's really quite stupid because by simply stepping aside or becoming one with it, we can handle it so much better. Here comes this huge thing that comes at you and all you try to do it push it back. You spend all your life pushing.

AW: You've been in a lot of different fields, obviously. You've seen a lot of what other people might call "masters" in a lot of different fields. Do you see anything that runs common through them?

GL: Yes. In my book "Mastery," I make it quite clear.

I don't like to call anyone a "master," really. I'd rather call them a person on the path to mastery, but we'll use the term anyway. I think that no one can ever totally master anything, but we can all be on a path to mastery.

I think one of the things that characterizes almost all of them is that they're not only willing to stay on a plateau in between spurts upwards for a long time and are not only willing to practice, but also love to practice. And, if I can make a radical statement, they can love the plateau.

We all have these little spurts of improvement in our training, and we say to ourselves, "Now I'm learning!" But, that's not true. That's when the time you spent practicing on the plateau just "clicks in" and you have the spurt upwards. Without the time on the plateau and without the time practicing, you would never have had the spurt upwards. Even in intellectual work, the same is true.

So you have to stay and stay, work and work, and then finally you have the insight of "Now, I'm learning!" No -- it's just that all the learning that you've been doing on the plateau becomes evident.

Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers in history, was known for being cool and effective under pressure. He had just made an amazing recovery in his game to win one of the several US Opens that he won in his life. A reporter came up to him and asked, "Mr. Hogan, how is it that you can keep making these spectacular shots under such great, great pressure?" He was a man of very few words, so he scratched his head and said, "Well... I guess I'm just lucky." And then the reporter then asked him, "But, Mr. Hogan, everybody knows that you practice more than anyone else in the game of golf!" He scratched his head again and said, "Well... The more I practice, the luckier I get."

So that to me is the mark of the master. Almost always those who are at the top of their field are the ones who love to practice. For example, Larry Bird. He couldn't run as fast as many others. He couldn't jump as high. But he was certainly one of the great basketball players of all time. He just loved to practice. He once made the statement, "I wish the season would be over so I can get back to some serious practice."

You have to have good instruction at the beginning, of course, because we're practicing all the time and we don't want to be practicing the wrong way. In my book "Mastery," I offer the Five Keys to Mastery. The first is not practice, actually, although practice is the most important; it's good instruction. If we keep practicing a forehand in tennis just using our wrists rather than our whole body, we'd get pretty good at that, but we'd never get great. You have to learn from the beginning that you must use your whole body -- your legs, your hips, your shoulders, your arms, everything!

You get good at what you practice. It's like when you go to a dinner party and everyone is saying optimistic things, and one guy at the table says, "Wait a minute! That's not going to work! Can't you see?" And then he goes on to list all these negative arguments that bring the entire conversation to a screeching halt. You wonder how this person got so good at saying such things. But he's been practicing being negative for forty years!

AW: Is there such a thing as natural ability?

GL: Yes, some people are better at certain skills than other people. For example, you can measure people's reflexes, and some people have faster reflexes than others. But, you can even improve those. Still, we can't deny the role of talent.

My book, "Mastery," grew from a special section in Esquire. I did these specials, called, "Ultimate Fitness," for six years through the 80's -- thirty to forty pages and a cover. My initial idea for the Mastery special came from my aiki experience.

I'd of course seen people on the mat who were more klutzy than others. But even the klutzes, if they really hung in there, could really do well. Among people who are fairly close in ability, the ones who practice are the ones who progress and become great aikidoists. Practice is the ultimate thing.

Now, I didn't want to just write about aikido. So I sent a reporter out to do interviews with people who were known to be masters in various sports. For example, Rod Carew, the baseball player, said, "You know, there's a lot of talent that comes up in baseball. But the ones that don't want to practice aren't around very long."

All of the masters in the various fields said that talent and practice were both very important, but that practice makes the difference.

AW: Do you have any advice for people who train into their fifties?

GL: Yes -- let go your false pride. If there are things you can't do or shouldn't be doing, don't do them. Maybe you have some kind of injury or some kind of problem. But everybody else is doing it, and we do have a kind of "pack" instinct; if you see other people doing something on the mat, you want to do it.

What I say is, "Look. I'm more interested in your being here five years from now, ten years from now, not whether or not you're able to do a certain thing today. Don't let your pride get in your way." Go for the long term. If you do, you'll get there.

When I attend one of these big aikido seminars where there are a lot of aikidoka I haven't known before, the first morning when I'm at the edge of the mat, warming up, I almost always see some guy come up to me. He'll have a little gray around the edges of his hair and he's smiling. He'll say, "If I hadn't read your article about getting your black belt at age fifty-two, I wouldn't have started aikido. And look at me now! I'm shodan at fifty-five!"

I think a lot of our assumptions about aging, really, are false. I see a lot of people my age or even ten years younger and they can hardly walk! It's not that they have any kind of illness or anything, but they just... gave up. They got the false idea of, "Well, I'm a certain age, so I can't do that."

I read a newspaper article warning people fifty-five and older to never take a fall, because if they fall, they can break their hips and they'd be done for sure. And you know that I take many, many falls every week. People make assumptions of things that are based on false information. They look at older people and see that that person is old and frail and can't do this and that. But, that person hasn't been doing exercise for the last twenty years -- maybe never! I mean, there are people who are in their twenties who are in much worse shape than I am. Many people.

So, don't make these assumptions. Take it easy but don't limit yourself. You have to balance between the two.

AW: That sort of advice could apply to everyone regardless of age.

GL: Yes, it should apply to everyone. Sometimes I get a group and I say, "Everyone who is not chronologically getting a day older every day, please raise your hand."

Certain people say, "But, I'm not interested in aging." And I tell them, "Well, you better be! If you're lucky you'll get to be ancient, if you're really lucky -- and if you do things right."

Aging is interesting in aikido since you do see some gray hair in the classes. I think more mature people come to aikido that to some of the other arts because it's more challenging. And, aikido is the most difficult martial art to learn. Jearl Walker in the 1980 Scientific American did an article on the physics of various martial arts. In the course of his article, he makes this statement, "Aikido is the most difficult of the martial arts to learn. Its demands for skill, grace, and timing rival those of classical ballet." I've talked to a lot of people in different arts and they say there's no question about it. Aikido is by far the most difficult.

There are, I believe, a lot of intelligent people in aikido, thoughtful people. Some of the people in other martial arts are there for a quick self-defense fix. But, maybe not even for self-defense -- maybe a quick "fighting" fix, to go back and beat up people better before they can even push you.

Aikido is wonderful, magical, and infinite. It never ends. You can always use aikido principles, even if you become physically disabled due to aging or other reasons; even if you can't do the physical aikido, you can still do aikido. Aikido can be life.

AW: Have you ever felt like quitting aikido?

GL: No. I have been discouraged at certain stages, but I've never really thought of quitting.

I've also been very fortunate because I have trained from the early days of aikido in America. In my area there wasn't much aikido and hardly any yudansha.

When Wendy [Palmer], Richard [Heckler], and I were only brown belts, [Robert] Nadeau sensei asked us to teach the basics -- what he called the Fundamentals; he called us the Fundamentalists. So we got started into the teaching very early. When you start teaching, you realize how much you don't know. In order to teach someone else something, you have to know a little more about some of the mechanics of it and some of the feelings of it. I got into that very early.

Then, we had the immense good fortune of finding a place in Mill Valley. The gods of aikido were with us and we found this incredible space for reasonable rent, and we've had reasonable rent since then. Our landlord really believes in what we're doing.

So I got really involved not only as a student of aikido but as a co-owner of this really beautiful space and school. So, certain days when I had to teach, I had to be there, ready or not, so that kept me going.

AW: So there was the sense of responsibility?

GL: The responsibility and the pleasure of it. The great joy of seeing students come in who couldn't do any aikido at all and a few years later seeing them get their yudansha rank. The human drama among the students. The ordeal right before you take a test. It's all very dramatic and wonderful. There have been a lot of fine people I've gotten to know.

Aikido is the people. The community, communitas. It's a big aspect of aikido. Like, Monica [one of Leonard sensei's students] was talking today about how she now knows so many people and you hear her talking about it and you can see that a one of the appeals of going to all of these seminars is the social life. You get to know people, get to know the inside stories, the babies that people are having, who's staying at the house, and so on. It's the community. And it's a community that's not just in your own town but in many cities; it's nationwide, worldwide. Wherever you go, there's aikido. You can drop in, and they're glad to see you.

It's a worldwide community! People go to Australia, England, France, Germany. We have a lot of people come in from overseas. A lot of people know about out dojo because all three of us -- Wendy, Richard, and myself -- write books. That's why our dojo is well-known, because the three of us have written so many books and articles about our dojo. We've had a lot of people say that they've read our books and wanted to come to our dojo.

It's given me a lot.

AW: You've had Aikido of Tamalpais open since...

GL: October 22, 1976.

AW: From what I've seen of many other dojo in the world, a single dojo staying in a single space for close to 24 years... That's pretty incredible.

GL: It's utterly incredible! And what a place! In Mill Valley, even, where the median price which includes the worst houses in town is $707,000. That's the median! And we have that space for the dojo!

AW: And until recently, you, Wendy, and Richard were all very much teaching together as co-owners. What kept that together? What's the secret?

GL: All three of us all had a great many other interests. Therefore, none of us wanted to take over the power. In fact, in all of our meetings, it was more a "So, why don't you do this?" instead of "Here, let me do this." We were always trying to give away power rather than take power.

We always used to think that three was a nice number. It balanced off nicely. But, since Richard's left us, we're just as good. I think, in fact, that it was because we have other interests. If one of us wanted to be the Big Boss, then there could have been conflict.

I know that there have been some horrible conflicts in aikido and it's one of my big sadnesses. Even in the Aikido Association of Northern California, you know those things happened. I was elected as facilitator during one of our greatest crises to try to bring things together, and it did come back together by creating three divisions. I was very much involved in that.

But, we've never had those problems at Tam Dojo. It's amazing. Also, none of us making any money to speak of off the dojo. It's a labor of love and we try to give away our power. It's not that we're such great people, but that we have that situation.

AW: What do you think about the future of aikido?

GL: I would like to say that it will become the major martial art in America and in the world, but it'll have to be a better world for that to happen. I would like to see that happen.

In my book "The Way of Aikido," I point out that aikido is the fastest growing martial art, but that's percentage wise, not in numbers. Percentage wise, it's huge. In Northern California alone, there were about five yudansha when I first started, and now, there are probably about a thousand. That's a pretty big percentage growth.

In our dojo, now we have more yudansha than mudansha. That's not so good. In fact, we need more beginners, and Wendy and I are working hard now on attracting and keeping more new students. But, aikido is so difficult. If we talk about ballet, would you ever say that ballet would become the major form of dance in America?

It's hard to interest people in aikido. One of my son-in-laws is a good, good athlete -- tennis player, golf, runs up and down Squaw Peak in Phoenix, follows football closely, and knows a lot about the body. He and my daughter came to visit me at the dojo and he said, "This time I'm going to be here at the beginning of class and stay until the end." So I said, "Great!" He came, and I told him that if he had any questions that I'd be happy to explain it to him. The class started and after about half an hour, he had this worried look on his face. I went to him and asked, "What is it?" He said, "I just cannot figure out how it works." He was determined to figure it out. Most people just sit there and then go blank with their eyes glazing over. It doesn't make any sense since you can't see how it's happening. This guy knows the body, he understands the body. He could see the people getting honestly thrown but he couldn't see what was happening. So, after about another fifteen minutes I looked over, and he's now looking sick! You know how you can get nauseated sometimes from being disoriented? Afterwards, the next day, several people asked me what was wrong with my son-in-law. He said, " I'm having a hard time here. I swore to myself that I would understand this, but I just can not understand it." By the end of class, he was red under his eyes -- the poor guy was literally sick!

Then there's what I call the "47 second glaze factor." I go to a dinner party and someone says, "Oh, I hear you do aikido, George! You have to tell me all about it!" And I say, "Well, it's a martial art. But let's talk about something else." And this person says, "But it's so fascinating! I'm just so fascinated!" So I say, "Well, no, it's hard to explain. Not at a dinner party." "Oh! You must! I've been looking forward to hearing about it!" So I say okay and start. About 47 seconds later, I begin to see their eyes start to glaze over. "Well then, who wins?"

That's just one of the factors that might to keep aikido from becoming one of the most popular martial arts in America.

What I hope for is a continuing growth, because its principles are so wonderful. What I hope for is more use of the aikido principles by non-aikidoists -- and this is happening. When I give workshops to business groups, I present many of these principles. I guess a lot of my readers are non-aikidoists. The philosophy has significance for the world. For a better life, maybe even world peace. I just hope for continuing growth on the mat and more and more growth of aikido off the mat.

People have asked if we should develop a more simplified form of aikido. And my answer to that is no. It is too beautiful. It is too heavenly, really, to compromise it in the least. We should have aikido extensions like Don Levine's idea [ed. Aiki Extensions is at www.aiki-extensions.org]. It's okay for people who are non-aikidoists to use the principles. Something about centering, extension and not being rigid and so forth. To compromise aikido and to make it into a more simple martial art, an easier-to-learn martial art, "Aikido in Ten Easy Lessons" -- no, no, no, no, no!

I've taught people, and this helps them stay, that "this is not going to be fast. And you will feel klutzy for quite a while. I feel klutzy at times. It never ends. If you try to make too much progress, you'll probably drop out within a month. This is from past experience, of course. I can't say this about you in particular, but the odds are that. Just promise me one thing -- that you won't try to make any progress! Get on the mat and do what you can. There are a lot of nice people out there. Eventually, it's going to be wonderful. Just enjoy the experience of whatever it's going to be. Be the klutz! Don't try to get the techniques exactly right. Just work with these nice people who are willing to help. But don't try to make any progress!" That usually blows their mind! I don't think I ever lose anybody by saying that, but you do lose people by making promises.

There's the guy who wants to take the general class after taking three of the beginner classes. I said, "You know, I'm really kind of worried about you. Just keep coming to the beginner classes, and we'll get your aikido up a little bit more." And he wouldn't accept that. He had this "I've got to get this technique right" kind of sense around him. Well, he's gone now...

Again and again, it happens. I think the only way we can get people to stay is to give them the idea of long-term practice.

I don't know if aikido will become the majority martial art in America, but let us dare dream! It will take some changes in our national consciousness and our idea of practice, progress, and goal orientation. That could happen. That's why I like to keep writing books about it and trying to get it out to the general public. It could happen.

AW: I've heard from a lot of people who very much appreciate that you're taking aikido into the public. A lot of people on the Internet have asked me to convey their thanks to you for all of your writings.

GL: Great! That's nice.

AW: Thank you very much for the interview, Leonard sensei. I very much appreciate your contribution.

GL: Thank you!

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