I had this thing… still have this thing where I feel like I’ve come to have experiences so much later in life than many others who found those things much earlier than I. And this causes me to want to reap all of the fruits of those experiences all at once or as fast as possible, in an effort to make up for lost time, or at least what I perceive as lost time.
Aikido is one of those experiences for me. And it is difficult to simultaneously try to soak in and soak up all of the knowledge you can find on something – and at the same time realize that you don’t know that much, or perhaps even what you’re doing….
So probably about two years ago I went to Sensei and asked that since I already know all of the techniques necessary to pass my next kyu test, if I could test in the next round. He said no. Well he didn’t exactly say no. With Sensei it is never a yes or a no, or even a simple straight answer really. I think I’ve come to learn that Sensei wants to give you just enough information to set you on a path that ultimately allows you to arrive at the “correct” answer. And I suppose in large part, albeit two years later, this is exactly what this essay is about. This is me saying “I get it now”.
Why do we practice? Why do we study? What is the goal, the point of it all? Those questions are much too deep and pensive in themselves for our time here, but to just fast forward a bit – we do practice, we do study, and eventually a rank test comes up to test our knowledge. With any test there is preparation. Someone who has come before us has said – at this particular time in your training you should know these particular things. So based on those lists of things that we should know at this level, we set out to prepare for our test and train on those particular aspects or areas of the test on which we need the most work – drilling it, memorizing it, making it part of our body.
I hate to use the colloquial phrase – teaching to the test – but none of us want to happen up a rank test and not be prepared for it, and as such I’m sure we’ve all ignored our usual course of study at one time or another, pulled out our little sheets with the list of what is on our next rank test and then drilled those techniques. For those in the lower kyu ranks this may happen a couple of times a year, and so thus this process can take up much of your training.
Thereafter, we take the test, pass, and move on. But what are we moving on to? What is the training that comes after our rank test, that is… if it is not to prepare for your next rank test?
It’s the space between.
I don’t mean to be trite when I say that Aikido, much like life, is not about the destination. It’s about the journey.
Are we walking billboards of our accomplishments? Do we open a conversation saying, “Hey, I’m a college grad,” “I’m on Broadway,” “I’m a Dad,” “Hey, I just made manager.” Probably not. We’re not products of our accomplishments. We are all the byproducts of the time, passion and effort it took to reach and attain those accomplishments. The viscera of life, the part that makes us who we are, it’s the space between…. the itty bitty pieces of existence, those moments, those minutiae we sometimes tend to forget…those moments as a whole are what amounts to us becoming a Mom, or a Doctor, or a Football Player, or a….
So I have this sense that I’m ready for my next kyu test ahead of schedule. Sensei explains to me that despite my having the knowledge to perform the technique to pass the test, doesn’t necessarily mean that I pass the test – in essence stating that Aikido is not simply a set of techniques listed on a sheet of paper, where once able to perform those techniques entitles you to a rank. He says, “the point of the structure is not for the sake of structure, because the structure by itself does not mean anything. The point of the entire system is to teach principle.” When you think about this it makes total sense – even the technique that you’ve learned, perfected, know cold, doesn’t mean anything if you can’t or don’t know how or when to apply it.
Sensei goes on to explain that something else to consider is that practice is not just going to class. Our practice is also reflected in how it affects us off the mats, and that in particular sometimes simply needs time to settle into our character.
I imagined Sensei was telling me to slow down and smell the roses, slow down and enjoy the journey, slow down and explore the space between. This is not a canned process or one that exists in a vacuum, or as Sensei put it – this is not a process that can be arbitraged Wall Street style.
And so, having taken the advice that I didn’t quite fully understand at the time, allowing the journey to go on and the process to macerate, I have come to the suggestion I offer you here. Oft times we are immune to our own progressions and advancements, but I can tell you that even I realize a marked difference and improvement in my practice from two years ago. Stepping away from drilling the basics is important and necessary for a good and well rounded practice.
So much goes on in the space between in Aikido. Timing, blending and connecting with uke, posture, stance, kokyu, breathing, making sure you are perfecting each of those, and then you have all of that knowledge that you have attained that you use to help your kohais in class, help them to get better and become more fulfilled.
There are so many things in Aikido that you can miss if you’re not ready to accept them. This is surely one of them. It eluded me for two years, but through time, practice, remaining open and naturally through Sensei’s guidance, I have finally come to understand. I’ve always known that Aikido is an internal martial art, that is… it is not “simply learn these moves and you too will be able to defend yourself when attacked.” It is and offers so much more. And realizing this will help you grow and deepen the level and understanding along your journey. So, always be open to fully exploring the space between.