By Jody Eastman, Goldstream Aikikai
Having read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” I can assure you this will be nothing like it. Rather, this is a personal reflection of my own Aikido’s progress over time. In summary, I think introspective thinking and maximizing seminar attendance have been valuable tools for my own progress.
Before proceeding, I think it’s important to briefly define progress – or rather, not to. To many people, progress has different meanings depending on one’s training purpose, their experience and expectations and perhaps where one is at during that moment of training. We use words like becoming rounder or softer, learning or letting go, shu ha ri, beginners mind, etc. There is no end to the discussion one could have defining “progress” and this is not within this paper’s scope. Rather, the intent is what progressing has meant for me and likely, what progress could mean for others in the absence of time; regardless of one’s definition.
Like many – I’m busy. There once was a time (I can now hardly remember) when my wife and I spent much time training at the dojo, attending most seminars within driving distance and going to summer camps. Time was filled to the brim with Aikido conversation, videos and of course – practice. I can even remember going to a spa for a weekend date and learning Sansho I, Part I, on a beach. Time was plentiful and being dedicated required only a selection within choice.
In 2012 however, this all changed. In 2012, we welcomed the birth of our boy Raven. Here, like Hawking’s black hole, so too began the steady and constant demise of time. As time to eat and savor one’s food became non-existent, so too did the ability to remain entirely focussed on training. One does not appreciate time until it’s taken away, or as Shakespeare would better phrase, “O, call back yesterday, bid time return.” So then arose the struggle – how to progress in the absence of time?
During the first two years of my child’s life, my training stumbled. I attended every class at the dojo and did attend a few seminars and a summer camp. However, with a “new dad” focus and nightly sleep that amounted to less than what a rocket would take to reach the stratosphere, energy was lacking. Emerging from that for me, would require a new definition of training and hence a new way to progress.
The first change I made to my training was the intentional use of introspective thinking. This is nearly obvious as we do it all the time, especially when doing menial tasks. What was different however was not merely slipping into the thoughts but intentionally becoming determined to use my “time” more productively when off the mats. Time included watching my kid nap, completing work around the house, biking to work, walking, etc. This time would now involve intentional thoughts towards Aikido techniques.
I think introspective thinking is useful on many levels. First, can the body perform what the mind cannot create? Reinforcing what I (think I) saw is an important mental practice. I noted “think I” because as I have progressed, this too has changed. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, one could argue that this must change or one would become fixed or lost within ego or without progress. For me, the evaluation of what I “think I” saw often occurs off the mats within this type of thinking.
Further, the mental regurgitation of technique is especially important when time on the mats is limited. For example, I bike most days to and from work. This journey gives me time to mentally practice Aikido techniques. I usually give myself a goal; today I have to recall eight gyakuhanmi katatedori kokyunage techniques. This brings forward a memory bank of past classes, seminars, videos, etc., all to recall what I can. From here, I sometimes check my technique before or after class with a willing aikidoist. Naturally, from this there are lessons learned to improve my technique on the mats, in my head, or to seek advice. Introspective thinking has therefore been essential for my own progress.
My other progression tool has been maximizing the attendance of seminars. If we look at O Sensei’s quote “the purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit;” it all exists at seminars. First, seminars break the repetitive nature of time. As days blend into months and years, one’s largest progress may be their child’s weight and height. Within a regular training schedule, work and family priorities tend to creep in and steal the remaining time that has already been marginalized. Setting one’s calendar towards a seminar is like a (narcissistic) vacation. It forces one to dismiss these time pirates and refocus, even if briefly, one’s attention to training.
Seminars also enable one to train with a variety of different ukes and instruction. Frank Zappa once said “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Similarly, regular training at a dojo is important but it has limitations. Ukes may be new to the art or conversely, may anticipate through familiarly. In addition, similar bad habits may reinforce each other. Finally, despite one’s Sensei constantly repeating the same corrections, it may be at a seminar where the error is finally “seen”. It may be through a variation in teaching or (and likely) that in that moment one was focussed enough to grasp what had repeatedly been shown.
Unlike regular training, seminars also require an increased and prolonged physical requirement that leads to a decreased physical and mental ability. Musashi is often quoted as having said “you can only fight the way you train.” Training under exhaustion is vital and requires practice. Training under exhaustion enhances progress by forcing one to “let go” of all those unnecessary muscles that are used to cheat techniques. One is therefore, forced to “find” Aikido technique. As a generally physically strong person, without the exhaustion of seminars, my own progress would surely have been limited; and much more exhaustion is still required.
Finally, seminars allow one to experience and support the bigger Aikido community. This time spent together off the mats may seem irrelevant to progress, however this would discount the power of motivation. Most people are more productive when motivated. Seminars for me stimulate excitement towards the art and motivate me to want to train more; not with the intention of progressing, but to enjoy the training as it is. Progress at or following a seminar is therefore merely a side-effect of training.
So how does one progress in the absence of time? There are many different methods to be sure but for me, introspective thinking and the maximum use of seminars have been two tools that I have relied on. To finish, I’d like to end with a quote from one of my favorite guitar players Steve Vai, “passion eliminates time.” If you have the passion, you will somehow find the time.