Some thoughts on a silver jubilee
(Note: The following article is an expanded version of a message of congratulation that first appeared in the souvenir program commemorating Aikido Philippines federation's 25th anniversary. That publication was distributed on 2017 November 18.)
The Aikido Philippines federation has flattered me by asking me to compose a short message for its 25th anniversary. I offer my sincere congratulations and best wishes for many more constructive, life-affirming years for Aikido Philippines.
But I ask myself: how can I add more value on this occasion than by uttering the usual, expected, polite words of congratulation? And I'm thinking, perhaps it's by offering some unsolicited advice I've uttered during my classes over the years... to a wider audience who haven't had these thoughts inflicted on them yet. I therefore ask the reader to forgive my presumption.
1. To new students, aikido can be very frustrating - is very frustrating. Especially at the start. Therefore, the drop-out rate is massive. In 34 years of training, I have never seen the attrition rate go below 50%. Naturally, as an aikidoist, I would prefer to have more new students stay in the art rather than quit within the first five years.
For selfish reasons: we who have toughed it out would like to propagate the art; we'd like to have a steady supply of training partners to keep us on our toes; we'd like interesting new people to have in our lives; we'd like to brag about a healthy lifestyle that shrugs off prescription pharmaceuticals while at the same time accommodating a diet heavy on beer, sisig, and late Saturday nights.
One of the most discouraging things about aikido - I recall from my years as a beginner - is that you go from one class to the next, from one week to the next, terrified that you are forgetting more material than you are apprehending. How do I retain the five impossibly complex movements we did last Thursday? And I haven't even nailed those, and here are three more today! How will I ever catch up?
For me, a remedy came from my pre-aikido years as a sort-of-serious distance runner. A book on running had recommended keeping a running log. The serious runner was urged to record mileage, starting pulse rate, pulse rate at the end of the run, any improvement or degradation in run times, number of intervals, and subjective physical sensations perceived during the run (distress? pain? euphoria? exhaustion? impending heart attack?).
Improvement in any physical endeavor is by definition incremental, painstaking, and almost never a smooth upward journey, said the book, so keeping a sports log would be an effective way to track the runner's progress. That made a lot of sense to me at the time.
It took no great creativity to apply this journalizing habit to aikido training. So, from the beginning, I made it a point to enter detailed notes into my aikido journal before bed every day I trained. I listed down the techniques we practiced at class that day. As a memory challenge, and a conscious effort at recording data for history, I also listed the names of my classmates that day.
And most important, it turned out, I also wrote down any "brilliant" and "original" insights that the day's class had triggered in me.
Many of those "brilliant" insights proved over the years to be dead ends; but many more also proved to be right on the money. As the years unfolded, the increasing accumulation of both debunked ideas and validated insights told me two things:
a) on the debunked notions: despite the ultimate inutility of the original idea, the very effort to work your aikido questions out for yourself, to think things through, enhances your fund of personal experience, and increases your confidence in figuring out your movement problems for yourself, regardless of whether they bear fruit or not.
b) on the insights eventually validated by experience and affirmed by other practitioners: nothing can compare to figuring out something for yourself, as opposed to being given it on a silver platter. You retain this kind of learning more solidly. It enlarges your base of confidently held knowledge - knowledge that you build upon to carve out the next piece of learning, and the one after that. It becomes a part of your personal knowledge resources. It becomes part of you.
Keeping a personal aikido journal has one additional, subtle benefit: the written record gives you a comforting sense that, no matter how many years pass, none of your hard-earned learning can ever fully fade away.
The learnings - about movement, about the physics of keiko, your epiphanies about the human heart, your journey from callowness to maturity - will always be there in that pile of notebooks. And you can dip into them as often as you want.
And if you can see your own progress in ink and paper, you're much more likely to stay the course.
2. At an annual goodwill visit to Manila some years ago, the visiting master from Hombu Dojo - I don't remember exactly who - said something that has stayed with me since. I just overheard his comment as he was addressing it to one of our black belts amidst the flurry of sweaty people stacking tatami after class. His exact words: "Aikido is about ... changing your mind."
I intuit this overheard wisdom to mean that training in aikido involves constantly formulating mental models about your aikido, then spending years constantly revising, then re-formulating these mental models. Because, where the head goes, the body will follow; and as you evolve more intelligent mental models, your aikido becomes richer.
And for me, it explains why, when an old friend like Fujimaki Shihan or Kuribayashi Shihan or Ito Shihan comes to the Manila in 1998, then returns in 2003, then again in 2010, his movement is always different every visit. What awed us in his previous visit has been replaced by something totally or subtly different in subsequent visits. He has evolved in the intervening years; he never stops evolving. He has been constantly "...changing his mind."
3. At a seminar in Hong Kong some years ago, I happened to be in the changing room with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba and half a dozen other senior aikidoists. And as he was tightening the himo of his hakama, Moriteru Doshu said, in response to someone's comment, "The most important thing is the practice."
No explanation needed for this one.
I wish Aikido Philippines and its students well-earned growth and understanding, as I wish it fervently for myself. - rsreyes