Beginners Wanted

There are many teachers in the United States and worldwide teaching martial arts. Training with Izawa Sensei has provided me with opportunity to train in Japan, Romania, and even teach in Hungary. I am very blessed to have had these opportunities and impressed with all those Aikido teachers and students from around the world. It is beautiful that people from different cultures with different languages can come together and exchange in a language of Aikido.

People seem to come to train in Aikido and Iaido for many reasons. Some students want to increase their health and approach the class with an exercise mentality. Some students want to learn about the tradition and culture, while others want to recreate a fantasy that they saw in some form of entertainment. Some are doing it because their parents make them and others because they are compelled to do it. All those reasons are discarded once training begins; they must be discarded and left behind so that we may stay safe. When someone is attacking, there is no time for reasoning. We must get out of the way, or blend, or get hit. As beginners, we get hit a lot, but the physical confrontation is not lasting, instead it is the confrontation of the mind that lingers. It is the ego that gets hit the hardest and the chain of the ego’s mechanisms of preservation begin, if we let it. Someone with a beginner’s mind will accept the failure and work to succeed. This is a healthy, growth mindset and usually results in quicker learning, but many beginners do not accept the failure. I see this most in adults. Children seem to be much more flexible with learning. They expect to struggle and fail, because they accept that they don’t know. Adults tend to expect to know how to do things, and forget that they are beginners. A child has only had a few years of life, but an adult…they’re supposed to be experts, right?

The adult “expert” then goes into trying to make himself look like “an expert” and mask his vulnerability exposed by failure with speed, or power, or both. This usually has really bad results. He either hurts himself, or, worse, someone else. He tries to force the technique by muscling through the movement. If he is using a sword, this results in cutting the saya, straining a muscle, being off balance, or damaging the sword. If he is using another person’s body, then his partner experiences pain in some way: being overstretched, being thrown down in a rough way, or having the person fall down on top of him. This is bad, and it all leads to more ego confrontation resulting in embarrassment or injury.

The “expert” is interested in results, and only focuses on results. The “beginner” focuses on learning and the process of learning.

In my training, I try to be a beginner. For many years after I became Shodan, I still wore a white belt. Even after Nidan, I still wore a white belt. I only wear a black belt because Izawa Sensei requested me to do so, he believed it would confuse people who didn’t understand or were new to the dojo. New people always want to know what rank we are, and when they can wear a hakama. I usually try to discourage these people from training because they aren’t usually interested in learning the art. Their thinking is focused on the superficial body, but not the internal mind.

I remember Furuya Sensei telling me I should wear a hakama to assist with the teaching of the Children’s class so that the kids to tell me apart from the other students, and Gary Myers Sensei was standing there and said, “You mean the beard won’t be enough?” I can’t remember what Furuya Sensei said in response, but he wanted the children to be able to tell between teachers and students. There were adults in the class who were students, but it goes to the core of my philosophy on teaching and learning. All our teachers are still learners, they are just more experienced learners. They are not “experts.” They may have already walked the section of path that we find ourselves treading, but they are still discovering what is in front of them. The moment is the master, and we are all its students.

As you walk your path, do it with a beginner’s mind. Be kind to yourself when you fail. Shed your expectations and discover. O’negai shimasu!

The Stable Center

In the beginning of Iaido training, the focus for most is on the sword. A beginner often wants to “cut” and hear the “whoosh” of the sword or bokken. At the very least, the beginner wants to hold a sword and swing it. It’s probably what brought the person into the dojo in the first place. The beginner receives instruction from the teacher about grip, stance, arc, timing, visualization, and relaxation, but the beginner wants to see and hear the results of training hard by swinging the sword and creating movement and playing samurai. After a while, the fantasy fades and real training begins, or the person quits because real training is not what he thought it would be.

Posture is paramount. The head and hip should be vertical and form a stable axis around which everything can move. Stability of that axis, once established, remains the focus as movement is added. Extending one’s arms shouldn’t pull the body one direction or another. The added weight of the sword shouldn’t alter the axis as the cutting motion begins, ends, or meets an obstacle/target. The stance in its varied width and breadth should support the stability of the axis so that all movement is connected to the cutting motion and the cutting portion of the sword. A stationary axis is easier to control because it’s easier to identify the different forces acting on the center.

Then, movement of the axis is added. First, up and down, then forward, then …let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The center must remain stable. If the center is not stable, any movement will pull the center off its course. As dynamic beings, we are in constant change and motion. As we travel through our lives, there will always be forces that try to pull or push us in one direction or another. If we are to continue, we must be able to resist those forces and maintain our paths.

To move our center up from a seated, seiza position, there is a force that builds in the center and finds vertical movement as the place of least resistance. This force pushes our center up and we find ourselves on our knees with our toes curled. The center expands as one foot steps out creating a triangle with the ground as its base and our center as its apex. Tension continues to build from the connection that our feet have created and our center is propelled further until we are standing. The expansion is complete. One foot is forward, the other is behind on parallel lines shoulder-width apart. The back leg is straight. We are stable. We then bend the back leg and begin contraction, lowering our center to the ground until our knee from our back knee comes to rest on the ground creating a straight line from the tip of our heads to our knee. Then the front foot slides back so that both knees are on the ground, toes lie flat, and we lower the center back to seiza. The whole time the head and the hip are in a straight, vertical line.

A stable center is necessary for the transfer the maximum power to the tip of a sword, or any tool. Only from a stable position can we act in any way that can have impact.

Dojo-A Place of the Way

Looking up the definition of “dojo” in a translation dictionary, one may find “place for practice or tournament (martial arts).”  The literal translation has been “do”=”way or path” and “jo”=”place”.  “Place of the Way/Path”  In all the arts that have “do” at the end: Aikido, Kyudo, Jodo, Kendo, Iaido, Judo,…. there is a differentiation between the “technical” or “justu” and the elevated, transcendent, lifelong, “do”.  One could be proficient in Iaijutsu, but miss the higher, unexplainable Iaido.  This differentiation is the essential component of a dojo.

The path is a solo journey.  There may be others near by, but the path is an individual’s to take.  There will be times when there are many people around and going in the same direction, but there will also be those times when there is no one to be found, except ourselves.  It is ourselves that we must confront. It is ourselves that we must accept. It is ourselves that we must inspire and love.  And it is ourselves that we must transcend.  This is the “way”, “path”, or “do”.

A dojo is a place for the practice of that journey so that when we confront the world we can accept the problems, inspire solutions, love the work, and transcend.

The teacher’s role in a dojo is not to just teach the jutsu, it is also to create an experience that invites the student to walk the path.  It is not idle, friendly chit-chat.  Creating the experience can be direct instruction, observation, and/or modeling.  It is never empty.

The student’s role in a dojo is to steal as much as possible.  Squeeze as much knowledge out of every moment.  Analyze every movement, word, and intent; then do it again to interpret it from another perspective, then another, and another.  To be a student is to never stop thinking about the lessons so that learning is infinite.  Then, the world is the dojo.  O’ negai shimasu?